I know little about art. I have plebeian tastes…preferring representational art, impressionism, or surrealism to abstract or formless art. I respect artists who can produce things which I cannot, which is why I am enthralled by the impressionists but have less interest in Pollack or Rothko.
But when art is used to manipulate children or abuse , I draw the line.
I remember being in a public restaurant where every space was filled with black and white photographs of strippers from the 20’s and 30’s. I was with an open-mouthed, 8-year old boy who was not viewing these pictures as art. When I asked the owner of the restaurant to allow us to move to a seat without nude breasts, butts, and genitalia, he looked at me disdainfully and replied “this is art.” I countered if this was just art, where were the pictures of nude men and their genitalia? He scoffed and told me that I didn’t respect “art.” His restaurant closed within a year, so now he gets to be alone with his “art.”
Similarly, ABC news produced a documentary on Brooke Shields, who was sexualized in the name of “art” in the mid-80s. Convinced by her alcoholic mother (who used Shields as her meal ticket) and famous directors that she was making “art,” Shields posed nude at 10, 12, and 15 in photographs and movies. Her mother was castigated for encouraging her to pose in those photographs and those movies. Yet, Louis Malle, who directed Pretty Baby, was heralded for his “art.” He claimed that he wanted to do a film about New Orleans, of course, there were more relevant and less salacious topics about New Orleans.
Shields said Zeffirelli, the director of Endless Love, was equally exploitive. “The physicality and the exploration of sexuality felt really dangerous to me,” she said. “I didn’t trust the director to create a safe environment.” Indeed, he bragged about twisting her toe to elicit a pain response to simulate “sexual ecstasy.”
Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting recently filed a lawsuit against Paramount. The same director, Franco Zeffirelli, promised the actors that no nudity would be required and that they would be wearing flesh-colored undergarments during the bedroom scene. Yet, on the morning of the shoot, he informed the 16 and 17 year olds that they must act in the nude.
Or how about Nastassja Kinski? When she was 13, German artist Wim Wenders cast her in a film where she appears topless in a sexualized situation. At 14, she was depicted fully nude in another film and was featured in a sex comedy at 17, playing the lover of a 50-year-old man. Kinski later said: “If I had had somebody to protect me or if I had felt more secure about myself, I would not have accepted nudity. And inside it was just tearing me apart.” All in the name of “art.”
Bernardo Bertolucci confessed that the rape scene in his widely acclaimed movie, The Last Tango in Paris, was an actual sexual assault of 19 year old actor, Maria Schneider. He intentionally staged it, without her knowledge, to capture the full impact of a rape. “I didn’t tell her what was going on, because I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress,” Bertolucci said. “I didn’t want Maria to act her humiliation, her rage, I wanted her to feel her humiliation.” All in the name of “art.”
Is this art? Or is it pornography? Or is it exploitation?
I believe that it can be all three, they are not mutually exclusive. But we don’t get to excuse exploitive behavior just because it is “art.” Picasso was a renown misogynist who famously put out a lit cigarette against a model’s cheek.
My friend attended an art exhibit at a large gallery in New York City. At the exhibit a performance artist had nude actors and artists milling throughout the gallery, conversing with the attendees. An artist friend explained that the purpose of this installation was to show how uncomfortable we are with the human body. We don’t need to converse with nude strangers to know that.
Is this pornography? Is it art?
In this case, I believe that it came down to consent. By attending an exhibition at a gallery, the adult woman “consented” to be challenged by what someone perceived as art…namely conversing with strange naked people.
On the other hand, the young actors were victimized because they did not have the ability to consent. They were manipulated by adults who may have had other motives besides “art.” Art cannot be used to excuse abuse. In the age of “Me Too” and the revelation that children do not have mature brains, we are now allowed to “call out” this abuse. Art can no longer be the enabler for manipulation and exploitation.
Because sadly, this “art” will follow these children for the rest of their lives.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.
Letters to Editor
Leslie A Steen says
Thank you Angela. I don’t know what prompted you to write this piece. Many will say this is in the past, but it is not. We all need to hear what you are saying, know what exploitation is, and make sure it is not done anymore.
ANGELA RIECK says
What a great question. It actually stemmed from a debate with an artist friend. A newly released documentary about Brooke Shields talks about her life as a sexualized child…she is a very intelligent woman who was convinced that she was making art. Our debate centered around whether the movie Pretty Baby was art; I argued that anything that took advantage of minors or oppressed people could not be art; she argued that the purpose of art is to push boundaries…we realize that we were both wrong and both right. It can be art; but art cannot be given a free pass to abuse and manipulate its subjects.