It is a popular cliché that artists should not be held to the same moral standards as the rest of us. Frequently, this idea is used to justify misbehavior with extremely young girls. Hollywood celebrities from Harrison Ford to Tilda Swinton to Michael Mann have defended filmmaker and statutory rapist, Roman Polanski. After all, he made some good movies. So what if he also fed quaaludes to a drunk thirteen-year old, ignored her repeated “no’s” and sodomized her? Mr. Polanski was just getting his creative juices flowing. The great Pablo Picasso began his notorious affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter when she was seventeen. Who cares if his young mistress was ruined in the eyes of society and left as an unmarriable single mother? Picasso got some great paintings out of her.
One could argue that while we may disapprove of Picasso and Polanski’s behavior, we should separate our opinion of these men from our view of their art. Picasso and Polanski’s questionable morality never filters into their work. (In both cases, this is debatable. Films like Rosemary’s Baby depict the horrendous abuse of a physically young-looking woman. Picasso’s frequently depicted himself as a minotaur – a sexually aggressive creature ready to conquer a sleeping beauty.) If an artist’s personal behavior does not affect his work, it should not affect how we view his oeuvre. How should we respond, however, when sexual abuse is the subject of a piece and a means by which it is created? A recent scandal involving the archives of the late pop artist, Larry Rivers is forcing us to engage with this issue.
Larry Rivers was a notorious hedonist. In his 1992 autobiography, What Did I do?, he recounts his numerous conquests, including a sexual encounter he had with a 15-year-old girl when he was in his forties. New York University recently purchased a large portion of the artist’s archive from the Larry Rivers Foundation. The collection includes tapes of Rivers’ adolescent daughters naked or topless, discussing their young physique and developing breasts with their pervy dad. Rivers edited the footage into a 45 minute film that he planned to publicly exhibit until his wife put her foot down. The New York Times has reported that when Emma Tamburlini, the younger of the two girls objected to the filming, her father called her a ‘bad daughter,’ and said that her intellectual development had been arrested. Ms. Tamburlini has stated that the taping led to her teenaged bout of anorexia and wrecked a large portion of her life.
Two years ago, Emma asked the Larry Rivers Foundation to destroy the tapes. They declined. NYU has agreed to keep them sealed during Emma and her sister, Gwynne’s lifetime, but has not yet agreed to turn them over to the girls or destroy them.
It is easy to say that destroying a tape labeled ‘art’ is akin to book burning or censorship. We tend to view art as something sacred upon which no restrictions should be imposed. Art is a form of speech, which is protected by the first Amendment. While our ability to speak our mind is a right that we hold dear, The Supreme Court has occasionally imposed limits on this right. The Court has stated that the government has a compelling interest in protecting minors from exploitation and abuse. U.S. law defines child pornography as “the visual depiction of minor children under the age of 18 engaging in sex acts such as sexual intercourse, masturbation or oral sex; the definition also covers photographs or depictions of children’s genitalia.” While Rivers did not show his girls engaging is sex acts, his films can arguably be placed in this category. Rivers compelled his daughters through verbal abuse and an exploitation of the father/child relationship to strip naked against their will and discuss their bodies. Because sexuality was the topic of his films, the footage differs fundamentally from more innocent artwork that happens to show naked children or that celebrates the youthful body in a platonic way. Furthermore, Rivers’ footage includes close ups of his daughters private parts, situating the films within the category of child pornography.
Rivers films might contain artistic merit. Their aesthetic beauty; however, is not what makes them objectionable. There is no way to separate any artistic achievement that the films may contain from their inherently exploitative, prurient nature. Moreover, not only do the films depict the sexualization of children, actual minors were harmed in the process of making them.
Beyond the legally and morally ambivalent nature of the films themselves lies the question of New York University’s obligation. Even if the footage is sealed until the death of Rivers children, Ms. Tamburlini, the victim, still knows that nasty images of her abuse exists in the world and could one day be viewed by strangers. It is possible that the tapes contain artistic value or that they could someday be used for legitimate scholarly purposes. The act of viewing a piece of child pornography for sexual gratification is, of course, fundamentally different than the act of viewing racy art for the purpose of scholarship. At the same time, there is something unseemly about the thought that our artistic edification or acquisition of knowledge could be predicated on the mistreatment of a young girl and a record of events that still haunt the woman whom she has become. In this situation, relinquishing the tapes into Ms. Tamburlini’s custody would be the only moral thing for the University to do.