The Eye of the Beholder

About a dozen protesters paraded past the New York Stock Exchange last Friday morning urging brokers to ''sell Barnes & Noble stock.'' They were following up on indictments against the nation's largest bookseller handed down last week in Alabama and Tennessee. The charges involve stocking and improperly displaying two explicit photo books: Radiant Identities by Jock Sturges and The Age of Innocence by David Hamilton.

It might be possible to indict the antichrist in Alabama and Tennessee. But here on Wall Street, the protest against Barnes & Noble fell mostly on deaf ears, though several jaded traders asked for copies of the posters the demonstrators were carrying, perhaps for their private use. These collectables featured three ''examples of child pornography'' that can be found at your local bookstore. One shot, by Sturges, showed two nude boys on a beach holding hands; another, by Sally Mann, featured a naked little girl cradled by a man; the third, by Hamilton, showed a young couple who looked to be well over the age of consent, the man hovering over the recumbent woman.

Explicit as these images might be, it was hard to think of them as obscene but for the thick black bars covering the boys' hairless crotches, the girl's baby breasts and pudendum, and the couple's quite mature genitals. These dark swaths were meant to direct the imagination toward what it might not otherwise detect: danger and depravity.

Leading this protest was Randall Terry, the antichoice activist who recently agreed--after years of litigation--to stop his minions from blocking the entrances of abortion clinics. Eager to demonstrate that he cares about children even after they are born, Terry now vows to ''obliterate child pornography.'' He is targeting Barnes & Noble because, as Terry told The New York Times, ''if Goliath falls, the whole earth trembles.'' So far, Goliath refuses to cave. The only problem is keeping the contested books in stock, given the sudden demand.

Still, Terry must be consoled by the fact that bookstores are a more inviting target than abortion clincs. For one thing, they're much easier to find; for another, you can often cop a latte prior to burning down the place. And now that Terry has a syndicated radio talk show, he can summon his army of God to storm Barnes & Noble branches all across America. In some places, the faithful are so appalled by what they see that they're tearing the offending pages out of books. But they've been unable to get local prosecutors to join their jihad--until last week.

Now Terry is taking his crusade to the temple of the moneychangers. But just as he's spieling to a Bloomberg reporter, some troublemaker interrupts. ''Do you find these pictures arousing?'' the skeptic asks.

''No,'' Terry replies. ''They make me angry.''

''So what's the problem?'' the cynic snaps. ''If they're not arousing, how can they be pornography?''

Terry mutters something about his interrogator being ''morally bankrupt'' before informing the Bloomberg reporter that his group has ''a little plan involving the board of directors'' at Barnes & Noble. But the troublemaker keeps butting in. ''You better ban the Coppertone ad,'' he taunts.

By now, the market is open and humming. Barnes & Noble's stock will rise about a point today.

As for the three photographers accused by Terry of making child pornography, all have profited from the controversy. But only David Hamilton--who depends largely on the European market--seems unperturbed by his notoriety. ''It's an Anglo-Saxon problem,'' Hamilton told the Voice from his home in Paris. ''I suppose Barnes & Noble are crying all the way to the bank, but I have no idea. There's not a word about it in the press over here.''

Sturges and Mann are far less insulated from the faithful's wrath, and both chose not to stoke it further by commenting for this piece. Mann, whose portraits of her three children--often involving casual nudity--have been widely praised for their primal power, is working under the kind of inchoate threat few artists in this country have ever experienced. As veteran civil libertarian Edward de Grazia explained to one reporter, ''Any federal prosecutor anywhere in the country could bring a case against her in Virginia [where Mann lives], and not only seize her photos, her equipment, her Rolodexes, but also seize her children for psychiatric and physical examination.''

Sturges, who specializes in photographing the children of his ''naturist'' friends, may be the most persecuted artist in America. After the FBI raided his San Francisco studio in 1990, confiscating photographs and equipment, Sturges spent $100,000 defending himself. A grand jury refused to indict him on child porn charges, but not before he had lost 40 pounds and reached the point of contemplating a leap from the Golden Gate Bridge.

To find his work obscene, Sturges told a reporter last week, ''you'd have to find Homo sapiens between one and 17 obscene, and I find that obscene.'' Mann, too, maintains that sexuality--in the coital sense adults understand it--is not what her children project in their portraits. But such assurances don't determine what the eye of beholder sees.

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