Tate Modern, London, UK
Title : 512530
Title : 5429 05 gross
The lights are dimmed in a relatively small room, empty except for an illuminated photograph. The shiny body of a young girl, who cannot yet have reached her teens, rises from a dense mist. She turns her face towards us with a sultry pout, her eyes obscured by shadow as she seductively lowers her head of thick curls. Warm golden light filters through her kitsch space, glinting off the sinuous naked bodies of two bronze sculptures as well as her own.
This awkward tableau is the crux of a grand press furore surrounding the removal of Richard Prince’s Spiritual America (1983) from Pop Life, Art in a Material World at the Tate Modern, as enforced by the Metropolitan Police. Is it a depraved image bordering on child pornography as the anti-Prince camp claim, or can artistic status be affirmed by reviewers, spluttering with rage against censorship’ Little comprehensive conclusions have been drawn from the ethics and issues surrounding this unresolved muddle. The only solid outcome is the installation of Spiritual America 4 (2005) as an inoffensive equivalent in place of the original work. The profound implications of the earlier image are abandoned in view of the adult Shields, exacting a similar pose, although this time bikini-clad and in control, knowingly showing off her toned, developed body.
It seems that clear parameters have long been in existence to guide this debate. The grandfather of modern art, Marcel Duchamp, determined such criteria when he presented one of his first readymade sculptures for exhibition in 1917. Fountain is an upside down urinal signed and dated R. Mutt. The radical gesture proved the autonomy of all artists’ subject or choice of material, to much protestation from the establishment. When an object or concept is incorporated into the artistic process, so it becomes art at the artist’s behest. Accordingly, context is a vital component of an artwork. The circumstances of Spiritual America are all-important here. The photograph was not originally taken by Prince, but Gary Gross, for publication in the soft porn magazine Sugar n Spice in 1976. Re-photographed by Prince seven years later, Spiritual America was absorbed into the artist’s oeuvre and has often been exhibited since. Prince is conspicuous for appropriating popular imagery, most prominently the Marlboro men of American billboard fame.
The original intention behind the photograph hangs heavily over Spiritual America. Agreed, it is a highly questionable and inappropriate image if served from the highest reaches of magazine shelving. However, this function is divorced from Prince’s approach, which specifically critiques these original circumstances. Prince’s work is motivated by comment on his contemporary moment. Here is a provocative artwork that presents a depressing yet frank portrayal of the realities of the American Dream.
With rising investment in idealised beauty, celebrity and heightened desire for exposure in the modern age, Brooke Shields is presented as an unknowing victim. Her youthful innocence and airbrushed appearance renders her a static aesthetic object, as unnatural poses of the flanking statues. The pawn of a pushy mother who kick-started her daughter’s modelling career at 11 months and agreed the terms of this particular shoot, the child star strikes a tragic figure in capitalism’s destructive scale of achievement. Other details further entrench this seedy story, including Shields’ defeat in a court case to buy back the negatives. And so Prince reveals the destruction lurking beneath the sheen through another borrowing. The title, Spiritual America, refers to a photograph by Alfred Stieglitz of 1923 of a gelded horse, originally employed as a symbol of cultural absence in America.
Beyond the context of Prince’s own output, which in itself puts a stop to challenges of intentional corruption or depravity as defined by the outdated Obscene Publications Act (1959) and invoked by the police in discussion with Tate, is that of the wider Pop Life exhibition. An uncomfortable experience in its brash ostentation, Pop Life substantially documents Pop’s influence and participants from Warhol to Murakami. Implied social awareness and more sombre undercurrents such as race and sexuality are latent beneath the flashing lights, blaring music and loud wallpaper, however. Despite Warhol’s disturbing insistence to the contrary, Pop was not a singularly superficial game. Tate selected Prince as one of the standard bearers of Pop and Spiritual America for its interaction with the dialogue surrounding the exhibition. Presumably they hoped to hint at this particular facet of Pop beneath the external shimmer of the artworks.
The high profile debacle that ensued over the nature of the photograph should not eclipse the role of state intervention in this instance. The Tate Modern is considered to be one of the top ten museums in the world. As a publicly funded institution and a charity, Tate is a highly conscientious body committed to exhibiting the best international art. The nature of including Spiritual America as a potentially controversial image was carefully considered before the exhibition opened, hence the warning at the entrance to its room. Rumour has it that it was not even visitors that tipped off police, but the press. Considering the relish with which tabloid newspapers (the broadsheets have all spoken out against the decision) slander contemporary art, this reaction is unsurprising. However, it shows a remarkable lack of judgement and understanding that led the police to intervene.
Notions of censorship of art on the grounds that it is subversive or threatening to the moral fabric of a society are associated with destructive and extinct fascist orders. Contemporary examples of this sort of behaviour still surface occasionally in repressive regimes. This was seen in the closure of the Venezuelan pavilion in Venice in 2003 by its government and more recently, the Chinese authorities’ restriction and investigation into leading artist Ai Weiwei’s activism. However much we grumble about the tedium of European red tape, developments indicate a sinister slide into yet more over-bearing British paternalism.
Prince’s Spiritual America is recognised internationally and has been exhibited many times in New York and also Brussels, Paris and published in Brazil. Its treatment in England is baffling and damaging. Protest from the public and art critics should be directed against the government rather than the police, as this is the ruling body that insists on defining right from wrong for us. Introducing artworks to an umbrella policy such as the Obscene Publications Act is insensitive and should justify the necessity of caveats in such situations. At its essence, art is expressive and historically controversial. Creativity should not be curtailed within a democracy, but instead debated and contextualised, to work towards a greater understanding of difficult subjects that arise.
Monograph on Richard Prince