Friday, May 24, 2013

On Becoming an Offence to Public Morals

Graham Ovenden A Little Sea MaidIn the wake of Graham Ovenden's conviction on two false charges related to one former "model" -- a woman who is both registrar and administrative/ technical contact for the website of Mr. Ovenden's estranged wife -- and five charges related to three "indecent" photographs depicting only nudity, Mr. Ovenden and his art have been heaped with scorn in the press and the blogosphere. Commentaries have ranged from crass derision and sneering (e.g., The Daily Mail and Jonathan Jones in The Guardian) to an almost neo-Nazi-like zeal and fervid hatred (e.g., Chris Spivey, Dave Knight and others of the ilk of Icke). (For those who don't know, David Icke is a conspiracy theorist who believes that Britain, and possibly the entire world, is ruled by reptilian paedophile satanists.) Naturally none of the writers or bloggers have any of their facts straight about Mr. Ovenden's case and know next to nothing about his art -- or much about any art, for that matter. That also goes for Mr. Jones, whose article about Mr. Ovenden's work and "1970s self-conscious decadence" revealed a breathtaking dearth of knowledge about both art and art history.1

In response to Graham Ovenden's conviction, the Tate Gallery removed 34 of his (mostly early) works from public view, because the convictions, the Tate said, "shone a new light" on his art.2 Perhaps they will be restored once the Tate realises that the work shown did not depict any of the witnesses at trial (including the ones who recanted the sex charges that the police prepared for them) and was not made while Mr. Ovenden was molesting anyone. On the other hand, the Tate may decide, as Jonathan Jones believes, that the work is no longer art (or that it never was).

Rachel Cooke had a good point when she wrote in the The Guardian on Sunday,' 7 April, 2013, that "[w]hat was art in March must surely be art in April."3 Never mind that she was misinformed about how Mr. Ovenden's trial actually turned out. "You can't un-art art," she wrote, "though Hitler had a go, when he decided that what was modern was also degenerate and set about destroying it and, far worse, those who made it."4

Of course, when it comes to photographic work, you can "un-art art." According to the courts, the 1978 Protection of Children Act was intended to follow the dictates of public opinion and requires that, in any prosecution under the Act, the artist's intent, the context within which the images were created, and what the subjects of the images said about those images as young adults (and close in time to the images' creation) must not be considered. Thus it is hardly a surprise that, in 2013, images which the Crown Prosecution Service declined to prosecute during the 1990s should become the cause of a criminal conviction. That wasn't the only injustice: the application of "specimen" counts made it possible for the jury also to convict Graham Ovenden for photographs (depicting only nudity) that they never saw.

Critics like Jones and other moralists who are smug about their "un-arting" of Mr. Ovenden's work and advocate, expressly or impliedly, its destruction, will surely miss the irony that their politically correct ideas land them at the same point as some of the worst ideologues and ideologies in history (and not just national socialism). To put an even finer point on it, one may cite the words of Thomas Mann in Mario and the Magician, a novella written in 1929 about the rise of fascism in Italy:
In a word, we became an offence to the public morals. Our small daughter -- eight years old, but in physical development a good year younger and thin as a chicken -- had had a good long bathe and gone playing in the warm sun in her wet costume. We told her that she might take off her bathing-suit, which was stiff with sand, rinse it in the sea, and put it on again, after which she must take care to keep it cleaner. Off goes the costume and she runs down naked to the sea, rinses her little jersey, and comes back. Ought we to have foreseen the outburst of anger and resentment which her conduct, and thus our conduct, called forth? Without delivering a homily on the subject, I may say that in the last decade our attitude towards the nude body and our feelings regarding it have undergone, all over the world, a fundamental change.
                                                               - Thomas Mann, Mario & the Magician
The reader should not think that anyone is being accused of fascism here. Rather, the lesson lies in the fact that what Stephen Pinker refers to as the "Rights Revolution," a positive historical development that includes "a century long movement to prevent the abuse and neglect of children," has left, as an utterly unnecessary legacy, a code of etiquette with its own "puzzling customs, peccadilloes and taboos."5 That this code includes a dangerous streak aimed at dictating what people may represent and view in art is not in doubt.


1Jones, Jonathan, "Graham Ovenden: artist thrived among 1970s self-conscious decadence." The Guardian, 2 April 2013;

2Bowie-Sell, Daisy, "Graham Ovenden prints removed from Tate." The Telegraph, 04 April 2013.

Most of the works that are now hidden away at the Tate, including the Aspects of Lolita series of aquatints from 1975, can be seen online, most notably at the website for the Art Museum at the State University of New York at Albany and the website called Not the Tate, which was created the last time that the Gallery removed Graham Ovenden's work from public view.

3Cooke, Rachel, "The idea of 'ethical art' is nonsense. We have to separate art from life.' The Guardian, Sunday, 07 April 2013;


5Pinker, Stephen. The Better Angels of Our Nature. Viking, 2011. (Kindle Edition, Location 8450-51.)

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