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The culture of “broken Britain”

What’s the connection between child abuse and artistic censorship? Judith White assesses the British experience.

In the surreal atmosphere of what most people believe are the last months of Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s New Labour government, something strange is happening in Britain’s art world.

The obscene publications unit of the Metropolitan Police has recently visited Tate Modern, London’s premier museum of modern and contemporary art, and insisted on closure of an installation featuring a photograph of a naked 10-year-old Brooke Shields.

The event was widely reported, but less has been said about the ensuing row – because it hasn’t happened. Having been at home in Australia when work by Bill Henson was similarly closed down at Roslyn Oxley’s Sydney gallery, I was expecting a serious debate. Once the police action hit the headlines there was a furious row when Henson, an internationally recognised artist whose work often features fine, sensitive images of vulnerable adolescents, was denounced by both Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and then Premier of New South Wales, Morris Iemma. Support for the artist came in the form of vigorous statements from dealers and curators, letters to the press from fellow artists, columns by sympathetic journalists and signed petitions.

Here, there’s been not a dickybird. No dignified statements from Tate Modern director Vicente Todoli or Tate overlord Sir Nicholas Serota. Not a peep from the ageing doyen of Young British Artists, Damien Hirst, who netted £112m from his auction at Sotheby’s last year. No defence of artistic freedom by Lord Saatchi, whose vast wealth from advertising and PR has made him Britain’s foremost collector of contemporary art. Tracy Emin, the country’s best-known female contemporary artist, did speak to the press two days ago – about the 50% tax on the super-rich and how it might force her to emigrate. No one asked her about the incident at Tate Modern, and so far as anyone has recorded she didn’t venture an opinion.

Garry Gross, the photographer who took the original picture of Shields – with permission from her and her mother – was never in the same class as Henson as a photographer and can scarcely be classed as an artist. But his image of the young starlet wearing nothing but make-up, originally published by Playboy Press, is reproduced in the Tate exhibit in an installation by respected artist Richard Prince. Entitled Spiritual America, it’s generally been taken as a critical comment on the values of that society. It’s been shown in the United States without incident or interference and perfectly fits the theme of the Tate’s lively new show, Pop Life: Art in a Material World.

The exhibition has been hailed by critics. Laura Cumming in The Guardian lauded it as distilling “a whole chapter of modern times in which a particular kind of art turned itself into pure commodity” and urged anyone who wants to understand the phenomenon to buy the catalogue. One problem: on the orders of New Scotland Yard, sales of the catalogue are now banned.

I’d thought the battle against censorship in Britain had been won almost 50 years ago when the ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover was lifted. Apparently not. So what has happened to artistic freedom?

As in the Henson case, the issue of artistic freedom has become horribly muddled with the fraught and emotive issue of child abuse. No reasonable person believes that molestation of children is brought about by viewing images of naked bodies in an art gallery. But reason doesn’t have the upper hand at the moment. The very same week that the London Metropolitan Police moved on the Tate saw three childcare workers plead guilty to multiple instances of child abuse in the horrendous Plymouth case. More recently, a 16-year-old who had been sentenced to community service after raping a seven-year-old was rearrested charged with re-offending.

Reported cases of sexual abuse of children have risen in the UK as throughout the Western world – in part because of increasing public awareness. In Britain, they are part of a spiral of violent events involving children which have shocked everybody. There was the appalling case last year of Baby P in the London borough of Haringey, where social services were unable to prevent the toddler being battered to death by his stepfather, with the complicity of the mother. Now a report on Birmingham, which has seen the killing in the past four years of eight children, among them Khyra Ishaq who died from starvation, concludes that social services in the city leave the young seriously at risk.

Case after case emerges from the heartlands of what the media have dubbed “broken Britain”. But how well informed is the debate? Politicians and professional experts alike are running scared from the tabloids, led by Murdoch’s Sun and News of the World, which lay the blame for Baby P and similar tragedies exclusively at the door of hard-pressed public servants and characterise the families involved as “monsters”.

Government responds to the coverage by banging the law-and-order drum. When the Labour Party conference opened in Brighton last week, the case in the headlines was that of the single mother and her disabled daughter who burned to death in their car after years of abuse and harassment from backward kids on their housing estate. In his conference speech Gordon Brown felt obliged to promise a crackdown on “anti-social behaviour”.

His government has also brought in a raft of legislation which has left jurists, administrators and social workers alike tied up in reams of red tape. The latest measures to “combat” child abuse involve obliging anyone in contact with children to register and undergo criminal checks – be they authors visiting schools to give readings, or parents taking other people’s kids to a soccer match. An estimated 11 million people are expected to be involved. Two young policewomen went public with their anger at the outcome for them. Under the new restrictions they’ve had to abandon their practice of minding each other’s toddlers while they take alternate shifts at work, and seek expensive child care, at great inconvenience and with no small disruption for the infants.

Behind its barrier of legislation, endless inquiries and plain spin, the Brown government is in denial about the social breakdown which produces violent behaviour – and here there are real lessons for Australia. Walled up in Whitehall (read: Canberra), Cabinet ministers and staffers try to ignore the fact that removing jobs, the very basis of stable communities, produces the conditions for violence against the helpless. In the 30 years since Margaret Thatcher came to power, productive industry has been closed down, sold off and shipped out. The financial services “boom”, encouraged by Tony Blair and Brown, was based overwhelmingly on speculation in the City of London, with the disastrous results now in evidence. There are officially 2.4 million unemployed, one million of them under the age of 25, and the real figures are probably far higher.

In 1993 the first horror case hit the headlines when little James Bulger was abducted and killed by two older boys in the northern town of Kirkby. I remember being appalled but, dreadful to relate, not all that surprised. The North of England I grew up in during the 1950s was a place of full employment, of productive factories, working mines and busy ports. “All well and father working?” was a familiar greeting. The welfare state provided health care, housing and an education. Take away the industry and you leave people for one, two, three generations without jobs or hope for their children. The results are there for all to see in demoralisation, addiction and social disintegration.

What has all this to do with the arts? Well, the arts are a soft target once governments sanction knee-jerk policing responses to social crisis. Send in the Met – that way, we’ll at least be seen to be doing something. And so Mary Whitehouse, the moralising laughing-stock of my generation, creeps in through the back door, and Scotland Yard decides what museums can show or not show.

The harder thing to understand is the lack of protest about the intervention at Tate Modern. Of those few who have done well for themselves from art during the boom, it could be said that money corrupts. Yet most people in the arts are hard-working, decent people with strong values, who make bigger sacrifices than in most professions in order to do what they believe in. The fact is that the economic and social conditions which produce violence on housing estates are also putting a terrible squeeze on the middle class, artists and curators among them. Their jobs, their pensions and the future of their kids are all under threat. The last thing they need is The Sun on their case.

At this month’s Conservative Party conference George Osborne, widely expected to be the next Chancellor of the Exchequer, promised cuts, cuts and more cuts to rein in Britain’s massive deficit. And everyone knows that, should Labour survive next year’s general election, they will have to do the same. Britain’s great artistic and cultural institutions will be among the first to go under the knife. On present showing, they’ll need to raise their game if they are to put up any serious resistance.

8 October 2009

This is an edited version of an article first appearing on the Australian website New Matilda. Judith White is a freelance writer and editor, and former executive director of the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales.

Ray says:

Fine piece Judith. What's the difference between the Taliban and Metropolitan Police making social/moral judgements on how the viewer should look upon the world around them? Irrespective of the historical and cultural traditions, the British aesthetes find they are in the thrall to the moralising thought police, who, take their unquestioned actions (except yours) on the values of Rupert Murdoch and 'original sinners'. Where to next? - Scotland Yard censors decide that the image of a young denuded Vietnamese girl, screaming from Napalm burns, is deemed too risque for public eyes. Then to book burning fuelled by artistic indifference.

Cissie says:

On a visit to Tate Modern's Pop Art show over the weekend, there was simply a sign saying the space (where the offending image had hung) "was temporarily closed". Nothing to say that the police had taken it or inviting anyone to register their opposition.

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