In a typical display of moral confusion, the Mail Online has accompanied its piece on Tate Modern’s recent Brooke Shields controversy with a semi-nude image of the actress — not aged ten, as in Richard Prince’s rephotograph Spiritual America, but aged 14 in a still from the 1980 film The Blue Lagoon. A caption in an alternative report proudly states: “Mail Online chose not to show the portrait of naked ten-year-old Shields before it was removed”. If the representation of unclothed, underage girls is the problematic issue, surely the website’s use of the Blue Lagoon still is equally unacceptable.
Not that I think Richard Prince’s work should have been labelled “soft kiddy porn” at all (as Michele Elliott, the founder of the children’s charity Kidscape, put it). Prince is a major artist who has investigated the “photographic unconscious” for over 30 years. His process of rephotography — in which he photographs found images, taken by others — frames the pictures he appropriates in highly energised and critical contexts, often inviting distance from what they depict.
In Prince’s own words, Spiritual America shows “a body with two different sexes, maybe more, and a head that looks like it’s got a different birthday”. Its function is not to titillate. The original photograph, taken by Gary Gross for a Playboy-owned publication, perhaps better deserves the scorn of those like Simon Calvert of the Christian Institute (who, rather comically, dismissed the Tate’s “Pop Life” exhibition as “pornography”). Spiritual America‘s removal from the show is yet another dispiriting symptom of Britain’s paranoia over paedophilia. Citation is a tool of debate, and in tackling the darker aspects of culture, it is necessary to make use of uncomfortable examples.