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.

''Unholy!'' the Middle Tennessee Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families calls this work. Of course, the law presumes to operate on a less consecrated plane. Barnes & Noble is charged with violating Tennessee Statute 39-17-1004, otherwise known as ''aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor.'' No doubt this would astonish Sturges and Hamilton, who say they are scrupulous about obtaining parental consent. Sturges even asks his subject's permission whenever he exhibits an image.

Of course, jurors may conclude that these subjects are incapable of giving consent. Yet if mere nudity in a child is equated with sexual exploitation, every mom or pop who ever snapped their kid in the bathtub or with diapers down is a pornographer. The new laws have already led to a number of arrests of parents who sent film of their children to photo labs. Bruce Taylor, president of the National Law Center for Children and Families, warns parents to ''be careful so that they avoid creating child porn.'' If you must take pictures of your naked child, stick to ''the face, arms, legs, buttocks. I would not take a picture of the kid's genitals.''

Federal law makes it a serious felony to sell or possess ''lascivious'' images of the genitals of anyone under 18. The ambiguity of this verbot is even more troubling than its sweeping nature. Just what the word lascivious means when it comes to children is all but impossible to say, since most people would deny having any sexual response to immature genitals--yet we're supposed to know it when we see it.

This morass of meaning threatens to criminalize an entire tradition in photography, from the 19th-century studies of bare boys at the swimming hole by Thomas Eakins, to the elegaic portraits of naked wraiths in laurel wreaths by Baron Von Gloden, to the Jazz Age images of frolicking lads by Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston (who photographed the genitals of his own young son). Collectors of these works are now potentially guilty of possessing child pornography. Lest you think the threat is academic, consider the reaction of police in Oklahoma City who decided that the film The Tin Drum is contraband because it shows the sexual initiation of a 14-year-old boy. Cops knocked on doors to confiscate copies of the film, after obtaining the names of people who had rented it from Blockbuster.

What a delicious irony that this issue should come to trial in a state like Tennessee, where the age of consent is only 13. But then, the South is the birthplace of the child pageant, and even in the age of JonBenet, that spectacle remains a rite of passage for many little girls. In this crinoline hothouse, it's not childhood sexuality that rouses the righteous, but art that forces adults to confront the nature of their own desire.

''It's erotic, there's no question about it,'' says David Hamilton. ''That's my job.'' His oeuvre includes everything from Venice to flowers, but as he freely admits, ''My theme is young girls.''

Hamilton's Web site (www.hamilton-archives.com) offers ruminations on the difference between erotica and pornography. It all comes down to ''good taste''--that and a gauzy lens, a penchant for posing models with flowers in their hair, and a Bartlett's worth of poetic epigrams. His sensitivity to context--or perhaps an instinct for self-preservation--inspired Hamilton to demand that the Voice crop the picture from his book that appears on the cover of this issue. ''It's obviously erotic,'' he explained, ''so let's not push it.''

Knowing precisely how to push a certain button is the essence of Hamilton's art. Everything about his work evokes the arcadian world of pre-Playboy stroke books, from the pastel settings to a text that speaks of ''the essence of virginity; the locked door behind which the young girl keeps the very best of herself: her wonderful daydreams and her eternal search for the perfect male.'' With such pretensions, no wonder Hamilton has little modesty about his place in nymphet history. ''There's only three of us in this business,'' he proclaims. ''Nabokov penned it, Balthus painted it, and I photographed it.''

To understand how far Hamilton's aesthetic is from Mann's, consider what she has written about her children in her book Immediate Family: ''Their strength and confidence, there to be seen in their eyes, are compelling--for nothing is so seductive as a gift casually possessed.'' That Terry can tar these utterly different artists with the same black bar suggests that something more fundamental than a desire to protect children is at work.

What these photographs produce is a complex of emotions that well up from below the surface of arousal. Is it empathy, memory, shame, or lust? The closer these images come to the brink of puberty, the more difficult the question becomes, for what they reveal is the distinction between a moral concept like the age of consent and the boundless contours of desire. Art has the power to rip away the veil of denial, baring the full, forbidden face of what we feel.

Not that these photographers share a common strategy. Hamilton soothes as he arouses, marshaling the cliches of innocence to shield the psyche from any guilt, not to mention awareness. Sturges opts for a starker texture and a more intimate regard, skirting what one critic rightly calls a ''vapid prettiness.'' As for Mann, the power of her pictures lies in their radical tangibility. Her children are flesh, blood, and will; if that seems sexual, the artist dares you to accept responsibility.

As the novelist Kathryn Harrison, no stranger to child abuse, put it in a review of one Mann collection, ''The viewer's distress is central to the power of the work.'' Indeed, the viewer's distress is proof that what keeps many adults from molesting children is not repression but morality. Any picture that produces this sort of insight has redeeming social value.

Research: Nita Rao and Sonja Ryst

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