“What is art?” is guaranteed to whip up a good discussion, as I found out this past weekend when some art lovers took serious issue with my 4th of July post praising Mary Jackson, in which I committed the unforgivable error of suggesting that perhaps the sun didn’t shine out of Norman Rockwell’s asshole. (Check out the comments thread. Lauding a less-famous African-American female artist instead of a famous white one really infuriates some folks).
Then yesterday I read a piece in the New York Times Arts section about the work of the late proto-Pop artist Larry Rivers, whose collection will shortly be given to New York University as part of their permanent archives. Unfortunately:
…one part of the archive, which was purchased from the Larry Rivers Foundation for an undisclosed price, includes films and videos of his two adolescent daughters, naked or topless, being interviewed by their father about their developing breasts.
One daughter, who said she was pressured to participate, beginning when she was 11, is demanding that the material be removed from the archive and returned to her and her sister.
“I kind of think that a lot of people would be very uptight, or at least a little bit concerned, wondering whether they have in their archives child pornography,” said the daughter, Emma Tamburlini, now 43.
So…is it art? Details of the “art” after the jump. Warning: they are potentially triggering.
Ms. Tamburlini said her father filmed his daughters every six months over at least five years for a body of work he titled “Growing.” If she objected, she said, she was called uptight and a bad daughter. When she confronted her father as a teenager about the films, she said he told her “my intellectual development had been arrested.”
In 1981 Rivers edited the footage into a 45-minute film that he planned to show as part of an exhibition. The girls’ mother, Clarice Rivers, who also appears in parts of the film, intervened and stopped him.
In the film Rivers tells the girls to take off their clothes and then zooms in on their breasts from various angles. He interviews them about how they feel about their breasts and whether boys have started noticing them. In some scenes Clarice Rivers appears with her daughters, displaying her own breasts and talking about them.
In a voice-over Rivers says that he made the film over several years in spite of “the raised eyebrows of society in general and specific friends and even my daughters — they kept sort of complaining.” On screen both girls appear self-conscious as they grow older, and Emma in particular hardly speaks.
…the material seems more overtly sexual, including close-up shots of one daughter’s genitals and detailed commentary by Mr. Rivers on the girls’ changing bodies.
Apparently a grand jury in San Diego declined to prosecute Rivers for child pornography, which strikes me as utterly ridiculous. If a stranger did this to minors, or this kind of work was found on someone’s hard drive, the police would intervene. When Rivers says that the girls “kept sort of complaining?” That means what he was doing was not consensual, and from Tamburlini’s account, he coerced them into doing it. Of course, the girls were below the age of consent for this kind of sexually-charged activity anyway, but their parents were able to get away with it because they were the parents.
The fact that this is “art” and that the artist was the girl’s father does not change the sick, exploitative nature of the videotape, or the damage it did:
Ms. Tamburlini said the filming contributed to her becoming anorexic at 16. “It wrecked a lot of my life actually,” she said.
Ms. Tamburlini said she has spent several years in therapy trying to deal with the effect of her father’s behavior.
“I don’t want [the tape] out there in the world,” she said. “It just makes it worse.”
Of course it does. No one wants a visual record of their own sexual exploitation preserved as a piece of “art.” Unfortunately, NYU and the Rivers Foundation seem to value the “art” of the tapes more than the feelings of the Rivers daughters:
N.Y.U. has agreed to discuss the matter and has already, at the urging of the foundation, pledged to keep the material off limits during the daughters’ lifetimes. Two years ago Ms. Tamburlini asked the foundation to destroy the tapes, but it declined.
The Rivers Foundation’s director, David Joel, said that he sympathized with Ms. Tamburlini but that he could not agree to destroy the tapes.
“I can’t be the person who says this stays and this goes,” he said. “My job is to protect the material.”
Sealing them until after the daughters’ death is an insufficient response. The tapes are still a permanent, visual record of what I believe is straight-up child abuse and child pornography. The passing of time and the deaths of the Rivers daughters will not change that.
The dean of the N.Y.U. Libraries, Carol Mandel, said in a statement that the university believes the “reasonable privacy wishes” of a child should be considered.
“If the extent of the restriction currently planned should be greater, we can have conversations with all the interested parties about the handling of this material going forward,” she said.
The only ethical thing to do is turn the tapes over to the daughters. Denying their request by valuing the tapes as “art” only furthers the exploitation and harm that created them.