A display due to go on show to the public at Tate Modern has been withdrawn after a warning from Scotland Yard that the naked image of actor Brooke Shields aged 10 and heavily made up could break obscenity laws.
The work, by American artist Richard Prince and entitled Spiritual America, was due to be part of the London gallery's new Pop Life exhibition . It has been removed from display after a visit to Tate Modern by officers from the obscene
publications unit of the Metropolitan police.
The exhibition had been open to members of the Tate today before opening to the public tomorrow. A Tate spokeswoman confirmed that the display had been temporarily closed down and the catalogue for the exhibition withdrawn from sale. The
work had been accompanied by a warning, and the Tate had sought legal advice before displaying it.
The decision by officers to visit Tate Modern is understood to have been made after police chiefs saw coverage of the exhibition in newspapers, rather than as a result of complaints.
Officers met gallery bosses and are also understood to have consulted the Crown Prosecution Service as to whether the image broke obscenity laws.
A Scotland Yard source said the actions of its officers were common sense and were taken to pre-empt any breach of the law. The source said the image of Shields was of potential concern because it was of a 10-year-old, and could be viewed
as sexually provocative.
The work has been shown recently in New York, without attracting major controversy, where it gave the title to the 2007 retrospective of Prince's work at the Guggenheim Museum. Prince has described the image as resembling a body with two
different sexes, maybe more, and a head that looks like it's got a different birthday.
As the law stands, the Met almost certainly have a point. The Protection of Children Act 1978 makes it illegal to possess or distribute indecent images of children. Indecency is not defined precisely in law, that is for a jury to determine, but
over the years the courts have evolved a categorisation of imagery that ranges from level 1 (least serious) to level 5 (most serious).
For an image to be deemed illegal at level one, Crown Prosecution Service Guidelines require only that it include elements of erotic posing.
Level one is problematic. First, because it is at the lower end of what society considers wrong: in fact, it includes images that significant sections of society do not consider to be wrong at all. So it is the place where police and authorities
are most likely to be accused of over-reacting.
The Tate Modern is displaying dozens of hardcore pornographic images in an exhibition already dogged by controversy over a naked picture of Brooke Shields.
However, visitors to the opening day of the Pop Life exhibition were confronted with other, far more explicit imagery, including a video installation of a female artist, Andrea Fraser, who paid a stranger $20,000 to have sexual intercourse with
her on camera.
A room devoted to the artist Jeff Koons features giant canvases of hardcore sexual acts, while another room is lined with images taken from pornographic magazines. They are the work of Cosey Fanni Tutti, a one-time porn actress formerly known as
The installations carried an over-18s warning but gallery staff made no attempt to verify visitors' ages, and many of those viewing the exhibition on its first day were teenagers.
Hugh McKinney, chairman of the National Family Campaign, said the works had no place in a gallery visited by families. You have to ask if this is appropriate material for a gallery as prestigious as the Tate. There is a fine line between art
and pornography in some cases. Families visit the Tate, and there is a real possibility that under-age and impressionable young people could see these works.
The room which was to have displayed the Brooke Shields picture by artist Richard Prince stood empty yesterday. The Tate temporarily withdrew the image following a visit by officers from the Metropolitan Police obscene publications unit, but is
debating whether to reinstate it with a more detailed warning about its content displayed on the wall outside.
Spiritual America has been displayed in public before, including in a 2007 retrospective of Prince's work at the Guggenheim Museum in New York where it did not cause major controversy. And even though the Pop Life catalogue containing
Prince's photograph has been withdrawn from the Tate Modern bookshop, a simple Google search allows anyone to view the image and print it out.
Which is exactly what I did. I decided that the postmodern thing to do in this situation was to show gallery visitors a colour printout of Prince's photograph of Gross's photograph in order to give people a chance to judge for themselves what to
make of the picture of Brooke Shields.
From a Tate Modern press release regarding the Richard Prince work Spiritual America:
In consultation with the artist, Richard Prince, Tate has replaced Spiritual America 1983 with a later version of the work made by him in collaboration with Brooke Shields, Spiritual America IV 2005 . The room
reopens to the public on Tuesday 13 October 2009. Tate is in ongoing discussions with legal advisors about the catalogue.
Well, if the work is deemed to be indecent, the Tate will have no option but to destroy all copies of the catalogue. Maybe they could call in the Met to do the burning...