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Ritorno sulla scena del crimine – an anniversary retrospective

By frances goold

In light of recent conversations about ‘art monsters, ‘fallen idols’, and nasty geniuses, and the recent release of Brooke Shields’ two-part memoir of her sexually objectified life, it seems germane to mark the fifteenth anniversary of our own town’s moment of spurious glory, when the art trade in soft child porn was officially pronounced de rigeur. And perhaps timely because, despite the plethora of criminal offenders and rockstar libertines retrofitted into in this new pop chic category, our own art monster (AM) never made the cut and remains magisterially and nostalgically at large.

Perhaps the kangaroo court-style exoneration back in the day explains the omission; certainly recent writerly self-flagellation for the complicity of fandom suggests that much remains to be understood (by women too) about the ravages of sexual offending against children – certainly the angst of an intellectual pales in comparison to the agonies of a sexual abuse survivor. So this small post-#MeToo buzz is an opportunity to contribute to the conversation, if only to shed light on why our own art monster overwhelmed intellects, caused liberals to abandon ethics, and stymied the department of justice.

 

1 The genius artist

Despite the historical record, Western visual art has never claimed to be a special source of truth about the world; the individual artist has eternally mediated between subject and object – ritualising, creating idealised versions, grovelling to patronage, interpreting, obeying, or avoiding the rules of the Academy. The greatest of the Renaissance artists achieved fame long before the modern idea of genius emerged in the eighteenth century, when it was reduced to psychometry (albeit scoring high) before finding refuge in eugenics.

Certainly, matters regarding his or her genius would not have occurred to struggling artists focussed on acquiring tools and materials, supporting a family, and surviving from one day to the next – the concept more likely gained traction during early twentieth century European conversations between cashed-up collectors competing to acquire the best of the new Moderns, and popping up among auction house provenances during the early art booms.

After the turmoil of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, ‘art for art’s sake’ became emblematic, challenging the viewer to refrain from looking at a work of art as if it were a faithful mirror of the world, emphasising the significance of an artwork’s intrinsic qualities and expressive dimensions. Cubism, Dada’s “anything goes”, the concept of aesthetic ‘transgression’, the philosophical elevation of the ‘found object’, Surrealism, abstract and conceptual art, and Modernism generally, assisted in the liberalising of traditional forms of representation towards the autonomy of the artwork and new ways of seeing.

Postmodernism (springing from mid-twentieth century French philosophy via ‘appropriation’ and the relativist rejection of absolute truths) restored representation to contemporary art. The movement has embraced a vast array of industrial materials, techniques and media in the creation of novel forms of visual expression, and has sought to blur distinctions between what is perceived as fine, or high art and what is generally seen as low, or kitsch art. Photography in turn, has not merely capitalised on the digital revolution and its final liberation from veridicality, but has gained inspiration from the relativism of post-modernism and its philosophical rejection of empirical truth and objective reality. Transgression has become the new catch cry, whilst at the same time, postmodernism’s epistemological relativism has undermined the philosophical foundations of an art aesthetics once capable of discerning the aesthetically ‘good’ from the ‘bad’.

Primitive notions of genius permeate our museum culture and our ways of looking but are also a function of our primitive tendency to idealise, resulting partly from an aspect of our psyches that leave us perpetually awed and moved by the sight of a new or dazzling bit of nature or the beauty of another, or a unique artistic vision that can depict the world and ourselves in novel and marvellous ways. Yet as human beings living in the world we depend for our very survival on the truth of what we see – its veridicality: we instinctively trust what we see.

For some visual artists and photographers, a knowledge of our human dependence on the perceptual apparatus inspires visual trickery of a positive, sometimes playful character. For others, image creation and manipulation may be given over to non-aesthetic purposes. In this way, the shibboleths of postmodernism and the tricks of contemporary photography may be yoked to work in various artful combinations in order to deceive.

 

2 The artful dodger

AM began his career in Melbourne in the mid-‘seventies when the Australian art photography market, along with the cult of celebrity, was taking off internationally. His student-year art bookshop job and small literary magazine publishing connections introduced him to Melbourne/Sydney literary networks. Hailed as something of a prodigy (or even genius), he was quickly taken up by the state gallery’s inaugural curator of photography, and shortly afterwards his Hamiltonian, furtively voyeuristic, exquisitely rendered images of ballet students and schoolgirls became sought after by investor/collectors and others with more prurient tastes in soft-focus child erotica and – progressively – more patently violent child themes.

AM’s child-oriented oeuvre continued unhampered during the decades prior to the internet and digital photography. His regular shows at his dealer galleries and acquisitions by state museums not only ensured a steady market and increased bankability over the decades but sequestered his oeuvre from the sensibilities of the broader community until eventually trundled out of the closet for a museum retrospective to broaden and consolidate his market. Few blinked at his increasingly borderline tableaux depicting clandestine teen sex of various degrees of explicitness, scenes of child abduction, rape, abuse and orgiastic degradation, framed within a farrago of postmodernist high (Baroque) and low (pornography) references, with their aesthetic qualities inoculating content from deeper scrutiny.

 

3 RISK and panic

In mid-May, 2008 AM and his gallerists sent an email invitation to a vernissage (‘Private View’) to a mailing list that featured a full-frontal child nude. The private/public reaction was instant and politically unified (there is surely nothing like a child abuse image of a child to bring left and right together, if only for a moment), but the irony of subsequent artworld claims for the integrity of the artist and his oeuvre had an ultimately divisive impact on public opinion and debate.

While not a new direction for AM – being merely a more blatant, less knocked-up series from his signature profferings over the decadesand despite the furtive creep of the work towards greater (non-aesthetic) ‘transgression’ – its risqué confidence was new this time, as if a kaleidoscope of preternatural conditions had been shifting into place for decades merely to grant him such a deliciously perilous occasion. Alas for all concerned, AM miscalculated his destiny and overestimated his industry-guaranteed immunities; he had crossed one last taboo where community tolerance was at its limits. And ultimately, his meticulously planned arrogant misfire not only shed unflattering light on the elite networks and market-oriented sleaze of the artworld, but also on the overreach of libertarians who sought to justify setting aside just about every legal and ethical constraint to save him from prosecution.

At the crisis meeting at AM’s dealer’s harbourside mansion, the legal team hammered out damage control strategies, influential friends networked, and AM was advised to flee the jurisdiction to the safety of his Melbourne studio. Here was secure and ample space for his extensive archives (now needing attention), the scene of his legendary ‘movie sets’, his mythical isolation, of his autocratic control over the selection and hanging of his shows, his ‘private collector viewings’, and his child photography. Back in his grand crypt, he could lie low and get his zombies in a row. Meanwhile in Sydney, the arts and letters establishment would spearhead their own brand of ‘moral panic’ over the imminent return of the bad old censorship days when great books were banned as obscene in Australia. Libertarians and ethicists weighed in on the side of free speech and the agency of the child, and psychologists, psychiatrists, and child advocates weighed in on the side of child protection. The arts sector railed against censorship, child protectionists, and a ‘reactionary’ conservative media, deriding all and sundry as narrow-minded philistines ignorant of the high art status of the artist’s child photography and the international esteem in which he was held. AM was now hyped in absentia as contemporary art’s freedom poster-boy by fellow-travellers eager to sacrifice their ethics – or just tweak them a little – for the greater good. Considerable effort was expended by well-connected libertarians to secure control of the narrative, with one assurance in the form of a semi-biographical vindication of the artist commissioned by a publisher friend of the artist.

In the meantime, the community was excoriated for its wowserism, a strategy that extended to the then PM’s response to a ‘gotcha’ moment when suddenly shown some exhibition photos by a journalist. His shocked response was interpreted as prudery and more importantly – scorned as a demonstration of his political conservativism. The disingenuousness of the attempt to invalidate a PM’s authentic response to the sexualised photograph of a naked child – however unstatesmanlike the PM’s response may have been – closed off a real and fair question as to the actual nature of the photograph and how it got to be made. Its blatant politicisation was also a casus bello, if indeed there was a single cause for the raft of influence-peddling that saw off the prosecution.

Similarly, artist/survivors, child protection activists, and allied health professionals were derided – some publicly (such as at an Open forum on censorship at the, MCA on June 12) – for questioning the legitimacy of the enterprise and raising issues of sexual abuse, exploitation, and the issue of parental consent. Meanwhile various highly conflicted behaviours engaged in by libertarians, exemplified by the dubious, conspiratorial ethics of the 2020 Summit’s Creative Stream’s ‘Open Letter’ to the PM drafted under the direct supervision of the artist (who approved the final draft submitted under 2020 Summit letterhead while his own investigation was pending), were never questioned or publicly challenged.

Ultimately, the urgency of restoring the artist’s reputation and market value meant consolidating his status as an icon of free speech, an exigency which found common purpose in the collaboration between various art world stakeholders and organised libertarian elements. The campaign took on proving aesthetic merit, the international stature of the artist and his status as Australia’s greatest photographer, the transcendent values of artistic freedom, the philistinism of the community, the genius of the photographer. In the meantime the AM camp took care of the legalities, political networks, captive journalists, and literary scribes; repackaging the child porn vs art issue into a libertarian issue of free speech vs art censorship was a strategic masterstroke, to which a libertarian groundswell of support would provide imprimatur. Eventually various legal sleights of hand ensured that the prosecution was dropped within a matter of weeks.*

(* Crown prosecutors did not believe a case could be made out under Section 91G of the NSW Crimes Act (which prohibits the use of children for pornographic purposes), and further, that charges against the artist and/or the gallery for the “production, dissemination or possession of child pornography” under Section 91H would be too difficult to prove.)

Still, no one was exonerated and nothing was resolved. Community debate raged throughout the last half of 2008 and into 2009. The published ‘vindication,’ qua whitewash, scored a few klutzy own goals, throwing up some clearly unintended profile-confirming facts and incriminating details of the artist’s modus operandi (such as the artist’s long-term relationship with the family of the child subject, his school playground trawls, his studio methods, the direct collaboration between the artist and the 2020 Summit ‘creatives’ to influence the outcome of the investigation, and so on). Despite rekindling brushfires requiring considerable art world efforts to douse, institutional support for AM continued as if he were a cause celebre.

 

4 Blindsided

In hindsight it seems perversely naïve for the literati to fail to consider an alternative hypothesis around the making of the photographs, that is, that somehow ‘freedom from’ exploitation and abuse did not apply in the creative ‘freedom to’ context of a twelve-year-old being photographed nude, and that this artistic instance somehow constituted a moral and ideological exception.

How was it possible to miss the obvious fact that the exhibition subseries under investigation were truthful documents per se? Surely it could be inferred from the photograph itself that it was a veridical record? A middle-aged man is photographing a twelve-year-old girl he has posed naked under industrial-strength studio lights. Any amateur photographer would have twigged that to calibrate the particular photograph destined for the show many photographs may have been needed, probably requiring the child to be subjected to dazzling rapid-fire photography over many photoshoots – a fact later confirmed by the Text Publishing “vindication” published in October.

Whether money changed hands on that occasion remains an open question; the commercial realities of the show were unambiguous with a single photograph from an edition of five going for $25K. Its stretched credulity that so many observers seemed untroubled by the likelihood of commercial arrangements between AM’s dealer galleries, museum networks, models’ families, and the publisher of the ‘vindication’. Nor was the possibility raised that the exhibited photographs might be a small selection from a much larger batch – a drop in the ocean at it were – or even that the commercial/industrial nature of the various processes surrounding the production of the child nudes might be morally questionable or even constitute a crime.

These oversights were likely not solely a function of blind ideology, but would have been assisted by the ambiguity of the ’transgressive’ status of the photograph, its alluring aesthetic qualities, the distracting beauty of the child model, the brash, intimidating scale of the photograph, and the moral certainties surrounding a photograph which had received the imprimatur of an entire artworld – a photo that was designed to discombobulate the adult viewer, just as the years of grooming and the photography process itself were designed to discombobulate a child.

Because that is how it works.

AM had groomed a community.

 

5 Appropriations and transgressions

And so, fifteen years ago almost to the day, a celebrity art photographer with decades of form in flying under the radar received plaudits for grooming a pretty artworld kid from seven years of age until she was twelve; for scheduling several unchaperoned photoshoots to capture the precise moment of pubescence for the child collectors’ market; for affixing the pick of the crop onto a wall (as butterfly specimens might be arranged in a trophy cabinet), and for shooting the pleasing results into cyberspace.

This was a truly Nabokovian triumph for AM after a warm-up of four decades of photographing pre-teens and adolescents, and several years of grooming a little Brooke Shields look-alike especially for the occasion: now up there with the legendary US transgressors, AM is having his very own trophy moment, his expropriation of the Richard Prince expropriation of the Gary Gross ‘nymphet’.

As a young aspiring photographer already warming to paedophilic themes in the ‘seventies, the artist would have been familiar with the work of photographer Gary Gross from time working in an art bookshop. He may have even experienced a sense of identification with his older American counterpart, whose father was also a furrier (this being one of the few available biographical details of AM’s early life). A more sinister commonality between the two photographers, however, is AM’s penchant for (caution image) sexually sadistic and degrading representations of child/teen subjects, occasionally extemporising on virgin rape as instantiated in the Gary Gross images of Brooke Shields and appropriated by him in 2008, and who extended and concealed the theme of violation by splitting the narrative sequences across time and space (discussed below).

 

6 The child as seducer

A superordinate dimension of violation infrequently alluded to – and yet articulated movingly by Brook Shields in her Pretty Baby documentary – is the sexually exploitative, deceptive artistic process that visually infuses sexual themes into a portrait of an unwitting child, then attributes these characteristics as intrinsic to the child and sexually emergent rather than a simple function of the photographer’s choreographed and manipulative projections. The groupthink that follows reveals its degree of enculturation:

 

 

Image from High Times

 

An admirer of Nabokov, AM characterises his mutely violent child pornography as a sensitive insider-artist’s ‘ethnographic’ observations of the secret lives of children and teens. This is, of course, the purest drivel along with the various critical literatures and popular culture views that depict ‘Lolita’ as seductress. Sex between equals it is not. The inversion of adult and child, of projecting predator into prey and perpetrator into victim, is precisely the signification inherent in many of AM’s narrative themes (Bernard Levin suggests that in Lolita, “the narrator, by the most brilliant stroke in the book, is made the innocent, his nymphet the seducer”). AM’s generic studio portraits of girls depicted in sultry, seductive poses belie his depictions of himself as a ‘disinterested’ observer, and have as much credibility as Nabokov’s self-quarantining ‘autonomous aesthetics’ has had for the philosophy of art.

 

7 Ritorno sulla scena del crimine

In 2010, after a respectable hiatus, AM returned unscathed to what he does best. His ‘nympet’ also reappeared, evidently still underage, in a contemptuous, staged continuation of a subseries embedded in two successive shows in 2010 (Sydney) and 2011 (Melbourne), across which her demure, bare-shouldered depictions will – like the Gary Gross paedophile project – morph into images suggestive of less innocent, more violent themes.

By my reckoning (i.e. a difference of approximatey three years between 2007/2008 and 2010/2010), his 2008 model would not have been much older than fifteen (and not yet sixteen) at her last photoshoot, which yielded the photographs exhibited in Melbourne in 2011 – a flagrant display of sexualised children and teens in which AM’s goddaughter also duets in her new role as nude model for calisthenic departures on symbolic violation themes achieved through image distortion post-production (see also below).

Perhaps in homage to Gary Gross’s bathtub sequence for Playboy AM completes and ‘bookends’ the 2008 subseries by transmogrifying his demure virginal ‘nympet’ into a ‘sluttish’, degraded version of her young self:

 

 

To ensure there is no misapprehension of AM’s symbolic intentions (by the child fandom with eyes to see), the artist has – per a ‘Richard Prince expropriation’ – incorporated into the show a photograph of Rembrandt’s ‘Danae’:

 

 

Photograph of Rembrand’s (rape of) ‘danae’ – 2011

 

This photographic appropriation of a Rembrandt painting of Danae (referring to the mythological Rape of Danae by Zeus, a popular subject for High Renaissance painters), serves a non-aesthetic purpose for the 2011 show; its inclusion by the artist among his child ‘erotica’ exhibited alongside images of a virginal and violated 2008 ‘nymphet’ is as a rape signifier, and as such blatantly reveals the paedophilic character of this project, with implications for his entire art photographic enterprise. It may therefore be validly argued that the 2008-2012 virgin/violation subseries as extended across those exhibitions is apprehensible only by the connoisseur/collector in pursuit of a specific interest; so shrouded are these images in aesthetic subterfuge that they are indiscernible to most anyone else.

This violation ‘narrative’ (instantiated above and elsewhere in his oeuvre) is a grossly objectifying trope pertaining to the ‘defilement’ or ‘ruination’ of children, having many literary precursors such as Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Lolita, which tell of a virgin groomed and ultimately ‘possessed’ by a sociopathic libertine assured of the entitlements and impunity afforded by his power over a helpless and dependent child. It probably unsurprising that Richard Prince’s collegial appropriation of commercial photographer, Gary Gross’s temporary appropriation of a real child drew comment from one of AM’s biggest US fans, critic Richard Schjeldahl, that Prince’s show “made him wish he were dead. It is a shame that the eminent critic failed to identify similar morbid qualities in AM’s oeuvre before he too passed on.

 

8 Power

As reiterated by Brooke Shields in her recent documentary, the abuse of power is not just enacted in the real world, but is narrativized in her photographs. Pornographic themes of ripe pubescence and virgin rape abound in AM’s oeuvre, and irrespective of so-called ‘limited editions’, his child/adolescent images from previous exhibitions are endlessly recycled for the child market. To reach this stage, however, the subjects of those images must be first appropriated/possessed by AM – in reality and symbolically – in the studio, or en plein air, where he selects from his noir repertoire various violation narratives for star-struck models to play at, bedazzled by his power and fame. These choreographed tableaux are scattered throughout a photographic oeuvre characterized by depictions of teen sex in mute, occasionally orgiastic couplings replete with despoliation symbols of ravishment, mutilation and defilement. Even Man/Boy Love gets a guernsey.

AM’s final photographs of his 2008 ‘nymphet’ exhibited in Melbourne in 2011 were a thumbs-up for ‘business as usual’ after successfully dodging prosecution. Although the 2010 and 2011 photographs do not reveal the child’s genitalia (as in the 2008 series), there is a compensatory sufficiency of legal-age genitalia elsewhere on display. AM’s MO was clearly demonstrated by these new shows, which included ‘nymphet’ images from 2008 not previously exhibited, in accordance with his modus operandi of extending his child narratives across exhibitions. In light of this praxis, one might reasonably conclude that other photographs exist yet to see the light of day, and that the connoisseurship could gain comfort in the thought that somewhere there exists a veritable treasure trove of child art awaiting slow release.

 

9 Archives de cyberspace

And so it transpired. Recent online evidence indicates that the artist retained more explicit images from his 2008 ‘nymphet’ series, which are now being recycled in various formats online. Had these photos been exhibited in 2008, they’d have crossed the Hamilton line (Clive, that is), oddly arbitrary though it may be. In these online merchandise the image of the then twelve year-old is subjected to traditional violation themes in the kind of post-production brutal tortures as might be inflicted on the rack or under the knife. One can only guess at the prices being asked for these editions, but the world being what it is, one can only surmise that the success de scandale has significantly enhanced AM’s market cachet.

Again, a recent online auction turned up a photograph from an exhibition mounted over a decade ago. The nude female model was of legal age at the time she posed nude for the artist; she is also the daughter of the publisher who commissioned his ‘vindication’ while the investigation into his (and his gallerists) activities was pending. Aside from the abundance of ghoulishly distorted flesh, its provenance reveals some scarily cosy and conflicted relationships. Extreme child themes are an intermittent, usually embedded exhibition element, and when scheduled at AM’s dealer galleries, are alternated between various regional outings of anodyne landscapes and recycled early works as a balancing corrective.

Despite changes to the laws regarding child abuse material, the removal of the defence of artistic merit, and the provision of new working protocols for artists in Australia – positive outcomes of the scandal – the artist presses on with exhibiting, publishing and distributing his boundary-riding child oeuvre online and offshore in expensive limited editions – some with signed inserts that appropriate salacious Victorian postcards of yore.

 

10 Beyond censorship

Secular temples of art can be as cult-like and conspiratorial as the churches. In assuming the role of freedom watchdog back in the day, arts and letters libertarians campaigned on a single issue in collective denial of its responsibilities to the community and of its own moral susceptibilities and weaknesses. Righteous intentions and ideological polemic without pause for reflection usually leads to hypocrisy, manifesting the same arrogant politics and double standards for which conservatives and the right are lampooned. This was a display of group think and deference to bullies in the playground. Anyone who assumes special knowledge, pleads ethical exemptions, and assumes the right to play judge and jury over complex, shifting issues of relative liberties leaves him- or herself open to manipulation by powerful stakeholders with a great deal to lose.

Plus ça change.

The 2008 art debacle occurred because nobody held themselves back – not AM or the family, not the gallerists or the publisher, and certainly not the libertarians who thought little of setting aside their ethics to engage in a righteous anti-censorship campaign to save a fellow-traveller from the due processes of the law.

Not much to celebrate, really.

 

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