Walking Amongst Thorns

Posted: December 2, 2010 in Freedom of Speech, Porn, Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

Lou, from Porfolio X By Robert Mapplethorpe 1978 http://phomul.canalblog.com/archives/mapplethorpe__robert/index.html

World AIDS Day came and went like any other for me. But it drew my attention to how screwed up we all are about talking about sex, even more than most days do.

I saw someone post this article, about how a gallery in America has taken down an AIDS related exhibit,  due to pressure from Christian campaigners. The exhibit is a video, featuring images of Christ, naked, being eaten by giant ants. I guess it is an allegory?


The person who posted the link works for The Guardian newspaper. I told him I thought the Guardian is forever featuring articles, especially by feminists, arguing for the restriction / censorship of images of women in various objectified poses, as they are ‘offensive’. I pointed this out with a view to suggesting he was advocating we apply one set of values for one image, and another for others.  I thought he might see my point, and distance himself from the feminists. But no, he took the harder road of arguing that pornography is different from this video, and censorship is valid in some cases. Oh. And who decides when it is valid and when it isn’t? Probably Guardian journalists and their feminist friends I expect.

I reminded this person, who I used to think was pretty sound and maybe even, huh, radical on matters of sex and culture, that Kathryn Flett had written a particularly cloying article about how she didn’t approve of people taking their kids to a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition. She needed us to know how cultured and ‘risque’ she is by liking Mapplethorpe, but also that she is a good mother and an upstanding member of the middle classes, who would not expose her children to such outrageous material.


My correspondent said he agreed with Kathryn.  ‘Portfolio X is not for toddlers’ he told me, authoritatively.

I don’t understand. Deep down in my perverted heart I don’t understand. Why is it not offensive to show an image of Christ being eaten by ants, but it is offensive to show images of men with their fingers up their urethra? Or rather why is it NOT offensive to show an image of a man with his finger up his urethra in an art gallery, unless there are children in the art gallery? And why are feminists allowed to be offended by ‘offensive’ images of women, but Christians aren’t allowed to be offended by ‘offensive’ images of Christ? And why can’t Mapplethorpe, as well as Christ, be used to educate people, including children, about sex and AIDS?

This is a thorny topic and I keep pricking my fingers.

Everything seems like pornography to me anyway. And I don’t have children. But if I did, I would be happy for them to look at Robert Mapplethorpe pictures, and I’d be happy for them to read the Bible, and watch videos of Christ getting eaten by ants. I might draw the line at Harry Potter books and films though. A mother has to have some standards.

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Dr. Matt Lodder, Elly . Elly said: https://quietgirlriot.wordpress.com/2010/12/02/walking-amongst-thorns/ New Post Walking Among Thorns NSFW Not safe for Guardian Journalists […]

  2. hmm says:

    But would you want to be there with your kids as they looked at the imagery? More to the point, as a kid, would you have wanted your mother to be there, looking over your shoulder, as you look at mapplethorpe for the first time?

    We all need our own spaces away from family and status neighbors. Yet few seem to take the privilege.

    The real problem is that kids don’t know enough to have initiative to explore culture on their own. Which is atrocious, given how accessible culture is now. History students are unlikely to visit the museum. Art students rarely go to the gallery. Film students never visit the art house kino-theque. science students only do their work in the lab. And primary level students don’t do anything.

    Christian activists seem to like it that way, because it keeps their message free of competition. Same thing for academic feminists: who needs to interact with other ideas when it’s easier to be an ideologue in a vacuum?

  3. hmm says:

    God, on looking at the mapplethorpe penis finger fuck again, it strikes me how unsalacious and unprovocative it really is. There’s no social interaction in it and maybe social interaction really is the only thing most people respond to. If everyone could go to see it alone and we all expected as much, there would be no controversy. But because people are such huddled lemmings, who always need a companion or group in everything (church hen trip, family trip, colleague trip, class trip, girlfriends clucking trip, boys chillin’ trip, mosque trip/discussion), the social pressure of “community” never quits and we all accept “community standards” as if they were real.
    As if the fear were not the image or that guys might start shoving fingers up their dingles but that your neighbor, seated next to you in church, might do it to you on a Sunday morning while your wife or daughter does it to his brother.

  4. arctic_jay says:

    Just a couple notes: the video entitled “A Fire in my Belly” not only shows ants crawling over a crucifix, but explicitly shows a faceless man masturbating; the Smithsonian Institute receives 80% of its funding from public sources, which gives the public the right to influence the exhibits.

    Feminists try to censor pornographic images of women because pornography reduces women’s sexual power by demystifying the female body and putting the power of representation in men’s hands.

    It’d be nice to think it was more complicated than that, but it really isn’t.

  5. hmm says:

    Porno images of women do reduce sexual power or the images just seem to do so to feminists?

    If it does it to the women depicted, it certainly does just the opposite to the puritanical feminist women whom it doesn’t depict (because they don’t participate).
    You’d expect them to be pro pornography, for other women not them. But of course, they’re just neurotically jealous and it has nothing to do with improving women’s status.

  6. fennerpearson says:

    I don’t feel qualified to comment on a lot of this: QRG is better informed than me and has thought these issues through at greater length over a far longer period and with more original interpretation. But I will comment on the bit that I do know about (*think I know about).
    Puberty is not just physical; it’s a mental change, too. I am not a huge Mapplethorpe fan although there is stuff I do appreciate but, like Kate Flett, I wouldn’t expose my pre-pubescent children to this work; to them it would be disturbing and confusing with, I believe, very little chance of them making any artistic interpretation of the images.
    I don’t for a second deny that there is material that is routinely presented to children that is arguably worse but I really wouldn’t want them to see an image of Christ being devoured by ants, either.
    I’m sure the Harry Potter gibe was tongue in cheek but those stories present a moral framework that is meaningful to children. As with learning music, you need to learn the rules before you can question them and, indeed, decide to break them. There are great novels that I love sharing with my older children that I wouldn’t share with the younger ones, although I’ve no doubt they could read and understand the words.

    • Hi fennerpearson
      It is nice to see you here!

      I know that puberty is a mental change: I have been through it myself! That’s the thing about childhood and adolescene- we all go through it.

      Parents differ across the globe in terms of what they ‘allow’ their children to be exposed to. And it has to be said they don’t have total control over this no matter how young their kids. You should see the things me and my friends did and talked about and looked at, when parents were nowhere to be seen…

      I think the Christ image is interesting and your mention of the ‘moral framework’ of Harry Potter. Many parents use the Bible as a moral framework for teaching their kids and that is full of imagery I’d say was as disturbing as Christ being eaten by ants.

      If I was a parent I would not make Mapplethorpe a compulsory viewing trip for my kids. My hunch is they might find anything ‘Mom’ suggested boring and would rather go and see a Harry Potter film, especially if I made that a more exciting prospect by disapproving of it!

      I think the human body is the human body and we should see images of it in all its glory from a young age. we all have one after all.

      • fennerpearson says:

        Ah, yes. Fair point re puberty. I think I was just trying to highlight that you can’t treat children as little people; they are different. Obviously.
        Not speaking as a Christian but as someone brought up in the church, I think the gospels represent a moral framework but the rest is a mélange of history, hallucination and allegory. Most children are limited in the parts of the bible to which they are exposed and I think that is a good thing.
        You are right, of course, that children get up to all sorts of things their parents would be horrified by but parents can provide an anchor point for that youthful exploration.
        Finally, I totally agree about not making the human body an object of mystery. Incidental. natural exposure is, I think, the healthiest way.

  7. hmm says:

    Do you mean that a moral framework is necessary to view these images and that adults have a moral framework to do that while young children have not yet learned such a framework?

    This makes me curious as ever.
    1. is any framework sufficient (for example hedonism) so long as it provides some way to understand an image?
    2. is there a specific framework that’s better than others (and of course, if you say yes, at least in certain company, you’ll be branded a cultural imperialist or a xenophile, depending on your answer and the company)
    3. if the children have no moral framework to process such an image, why might it be frightening
    -because they would be confused (so is all confusion frightening or just meaningless)
    -because they would not be confused but would see it as a scary image of an excessively muscular man in an aggressive pose (he does kind of “point” at the viewer, from between those tank legs, you know what i mean)
    -because children find sex frightening (due to a moral framework or absence of a moral framework: is sex scary without interpretation or with? I find it scary all over, in ways)

    okay, that’s a lot, but I just wanted to pile it all on…

    oh, and I wonder if I should consider my experience impossible today, but I never saw a work / photo that was even LIKE this one until I was 15 in a library.
    although I had seen ancient nude statues which are like this.
    and i had seen pornographic imagery (video and magazine) by the usual leads, here and there, now and again, occasionally, since I was about 7/8 ish .
    I have to admit the porno never scared or confused me. But this MIGHT. although, now that it’s been described as dangerous (in a way, even if the word wasn’t used exactly), I kind of feel it is.
    But I’d heard critique of this photo before as being absolutely provocative, transgressive and aggressively sexual/erotic/perverse. And then I saw it here now again and felt nothing of the kind. and then someone describes it as dangerous and it becomes so. I don’t know WHAT i think !!

  8. I think it is dangerous because it is taboo. But what is taboo about a man and his penis? children touch their penises and are fascinated by them. I do not see a problem.

    sometimes I am glad I dont have children as I think I might be considered ‘dangerous’ by other parents. And sometimes I wish I did have children (not just for all the usual reasons) because I think I’d be a challenging/progressive parent.

  9. hmm says:

    But a man’s penis, unless he be unfortunate, when squeezed and a little inflated, is never as cute and irrelevant as what americans mock as a “baby dick”. Children are fascinated by their penises but their penises pose no consequential threat. no pregnancy. no penetration. It’s THERE and it isn’t at the same time.
    They don’t look like an adult’s, with its hair and size, on top of big limbs.
    The social aspect of this image is a man who you MIGHT have to interact with. You can’t fully tell, but the framing makes him look rather strong. If you had to fight him, he might win?

    I understand that, anatomically, a man and his penis are not threatening, in a still photo. Yet, for all the progressive egalitarianism you might like, many men (I don’t know majority or minority) if given the choice between between being seen as safe or as dangerous, would choose dangerous. To say “it’s just his penis, it’s just nature” is to accept the male but also to dismiss it as weak (which it is, in this big ol’ uncaring world).
    Either children pick up on that desire in the male to be aggressive (even little boys tend to be pushier and rowdier than girls, the extent to which it’s construction or nature I don’t know). Or children themselves project that desire.
    If this is right, should we be teaching children to be more conscious of it in order to deal with it?
    I don’t think I’d be comfortable talking about “male urges” and sexual aggression and the need to be loved as dominant with little kids (and I don’t know how much I would’ve wanted to hear such lectures at that age – at least not from parents).
    Neither am I certain that I would have wanted to be told or to believe that males are all just kind and nice like us. If such an idea isn’t harmfully ignorant, it’s at least boring.

    And yet

    Published March, 2010
    (Page 3 of 7)

    What were you like as a child?
    KL I was very much like a grown-up. I have photos of me as a child wearing a tie, and it’s the same as I am today. And of course I was very successful with pedophilia. I knew about it when I was ten.

    So you used it consciously?
    KL Well, I wouldn’t go that far. It was impossible to touch me. I would run away and I would tell my mother about people she knew, like the brother of one of my sister’s husbands. Nothing happened, but my mother said, “You know, darling, it’s your fault. You see how you behave.”

    Did you ever actually have sex with somebody older?
    KL No. It never went that far.

    The comedian Chris Rock once said that whenever he was at a family picnic or something and one of his cousins or uncles would try to diddle him, he would go to his mother and his mother would say, “Walk it off.”
    KL This is a less sophisticated version of my mother. That’s why in a modern world these things shouldn’t be subjects. Children should be informed.

  10. hmm says:

    To illustrate perfectly:

    the fun starts at 7:00 but the mapplethorpe “light” is at 7:42

  11. haha. very funny but I dont know what it has to do with Mapplethorpe.

    This discussion has gone a bit beyond my level of knowledge in some ways.

    I wonder if Mr Simpson has an opinion?

    I liked the Karl Lagerfeld quotes. That is a massively complex issue. I dont know what to add really except blaming kids for being abused is common.

  12. hmm says:

    Well maybe that’s why you can’t see mapplethorpe as offensive. You really just see his photo sculpturally.

    But most people wouldn’t differentiate between the mapplethorpe portrait of phallus fingering and just any photo of a cock. The only difference they’d see is the size of the model. One is good/dangerous/big and the other would be sad/safe/small.

  13. I love his work maybe that’s why I cant see it as offensive. I can’t be offended by beautiful art…

    I know it offends some people. I don’t know exactly why. I need more views than just yours to convince me!


  14. hmm says:

    And many people wouldn’t differentiate between discussing nude photography and discussing sex and discussing sex crimes, with children. With children any discussion on one of those is like having them all at once.

    It’s easy to say “we’re just hysterical” to explain that. But maybe children see it that way, not just puritanical adults. Apparently Lagerfeld didn’t.

  15. hmm says:

    Roland can’t help you, now.

  16. i enjoy your critique. Obviously people can argue that something is potentially ‘offensive’. I don’t deny that. I am not a fan of perpetuating that way of looking at art/images of the body is all. My point is very simple, really. It is the world that is complex.

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