Two recent incidents, both involving children and their putative sexual exploitation, highlight changes in the prevailing conception of the “artist” and his/her sensibility.
The first, and more internationally notorious, was the arrest of Roman Polanski in Switzerland on a charge of drugging and raping a thirteen-year-old girl in California in 1977. The judicial move, which occurred when Polanski had travelled to a film festival to pick up a lifetime achievement award, was instantly and roundly condemned by the French government: Frédéric Mitterrand, the Minister for Culture, described the arrest as “absolutely appalling”; Polanski had for thirty years been protected by the French state, and had been granted French citizenship. It was tempting at first to interpret this indignation as an expression of the fondly and widely held belief by which France, the “beacon of civilization and art” resists America, the “philistine and puritanical bully”; Polanski, then, would supposedly become the cultured and Gallicized martyr of the brutishly Yankee Satan. However, the French response was quickly echoed by an international battalion of filmmakers, many of them American, who signed petitions of protest calling for Polanski’s release. Polanski had, it is worth noting, already pleaded guilty to the crime, and had fled America before he could be sentenced and punished. Juridically, the nature of the offence and the extent of his guilt have never been disputed, least of all by the director himself.
It seems likely that this defence of Polanski – and indeed his protection since 1977 – is generated by the vestiges of a Romantic conception of the author or artist. The expressions of outrage repeatedly referred, for instance, to Polanski being a “great director”, even a “genius”; his “originality” and “daring” were evoked (Agnès Poirier even accused the US of never forgiving Polanski for his maverick tendencies when in Hollywood, as though the arrest were some bizarre form of long delayed film criticism). And yet these epithets do not stack up. The longevity of Polanski’s career is indeed remarkable: this is a man who made exceptional films both in the early 1960s and in the early 2000s; and so is its geographical scope, since he made enduring films in Poland, Britain, America and France. However, his forty-odd-year career does include about a quarter of a century during which he made nothing of artistic value and his continuing fame depended on his newsworthiness as a fugitive; and thematically his work, which returns endlessly to sexual torture and rape, is hardly separable from his queasy private life. And even his best films pale by comparison with those of his contemporaries and peers: Repulsion or Rosemary’s Baby or Chinatown are both conventional and second-rate when placed alongside the work of Losey, Coppola or Altman. In short, Polanski’s “greatness” appears to have been invented as a necessary element of the martyr narrative into which, under the aegis of a Romantic ideology, Polanski was plunged by his defenders. By the terms of this ideology – with Byron as an early example – the Artist is troubling, disturbing, unconventional, bohemian, he (probably he) breaks the rules, shocks the bourgeoisie, outrages the puritans, and produces dazzling works of breathtaking originality and greatness. His alcohol and drug-taking and illicit sex and weird dress are part of this story, as is his persecution by a hypocritical and brutish society. It seems evident that this prefabricated identity has been transferred on to Polanski: not only, then, is it no big deal that he raped a child (though it would be, were he not an Artist), but it guarantees the greatness of his Works (which cannot be located in his actual works) and the injustice of his prosecutor (though this, save for procedural issues, has not been demonstrated).
Interestingly, the response in cyberspace was very different. Online polls and message boards in France and indeed worldwide rang with fury against the defenders of Polanski, and with calls for equality before the law. The Mitterrand/Poirier/Woody Allen position was revealed as narrowly based. It is clear that digimodernist authorship, which is multiple and anonymous, does not square at all with the Romantic image of the exceptional, suffering Genius. The French government soon retreated from its anger, while the Swiss tellingly refused Polanski bail. What the fall-out from this episode suggests is the obsolescence, beyond an institutionalized and self-interested elite, of a certain conception or ideology of the artist. Ministers and other creators may still afford it some credence, but in cyberspace the screams of the victim take precedence.
The second incident involved the removal by the British police, before the exhibition it was due to feature in had even opened, of Richard Prince’s Spiritual America from the walls of Tate Modern. Prince’s piece, which dates from the early 1980s (the heyday of formulations of postmodernism) reproduces and refracts a photograph taken of Brooke Shields for Playboy when she was ten years old: she is naked and wearing lipstick and turning a “sensual” shoulder to the camera. In short, this is a work of art distancing itself from and commenting on but nonetheless reproducing a paedophilic photograph. The police seem to have found the element of the work contained in the last four words of my previous sentence decisive: their action was, in a sense, a work of art criticism. In defence of Prince’s work, one might argue politically, in libertarian or liberal manner, that the police have no right in a free society to decide what galleries may display. The legal retort to this is that the public display of an indecent (i.e. both nude and sexualized) image of an actual child appears to be a criminal act; morally, and in support of this, it must be noted that Shields had unsuccessfully fought as an adult to have the picture suppressed. More specifically, and in defence of Prince, a surprising number of commentators retreated to a decrepit model of authorial intent demolished (at the latest) by Roland Barthes in the late 1960s: that Prince meant the work as a socio-cultural comment not as paedophilic titillation so that must be what it really is. The notion that the meaning of a text is not contained in its author’s stated or imagined “intention” seemed to have passed such commentators by.
Nonetheless, the removal of the piece caused relatively little fuss. This stands in need of some explanation. My sense is that the art-critical scaffolding erected around the paedophilic photo in order to transform it into Prince’s comment on our sexualized culture no longer stands up. For, to justify or validate or explain Spiritual America it is to the discourse of postmodernism that we must turn: the piece is a cultural détournement or recuperation, it is meta-representation, an image of an image, an image about the making of images, it is depthless, affectless, a reflection on a media-saturated hyperreality where images refer only to other images and the “real” is dead (or her suit is dismissed), it is an ambivalent response to a culture of desire and representation and exploitation; it’s a simulacrum, an art of the exhaustion of art, a commodified artwork refracting a commodified photo, it’s the logic of Warhol’s Marilyn at its most extreme. One could go on and on. Defenders of Prince accused the police of philistinism: hadn’t they read Jameson or Baudrillard? Certainly they hadn’t, but the general sense seems to have been that all that theoretical apparatus, that barrage of abstract discourse which Prince relies on and adds to, is no longer interesting enough to redeem the public display of an undoubtedly exploitative and paedophilic photograph. In 2009, all one feels is that here is a vile image passed through and subjected to a certain art-critical discourse. But if the last ten words of my previous sentence no longer refer to something people care about, they fall away and leave only the nastiness of the image. Prince is not (one assumes) a paedophile and nor are (most of) the spectators of his work, but he is the postmodernist redeployer of paedophilia, and when “postmodernism” loses its currency, its potency and heft – as I suggest this episode shows it has – all that is left to the viewer is the paedophilia itself. For me this betrays the weakness of the piece: in contrast to Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, which also invites, depends on and enriches a postmodernist discourse, Spiritual America does not walk artistically by itself.
So if the Romantic notion of the artist as shocking but all-justified genius no longer has general currency, neither does the postmodernist conception of the artist as the recycler of images from our commodified hyperreality. In each case the sexually assaulted child prevails. What, then, of the sensibility of the artist in the digimodernist age? It is socialized, not asocial; it is not the creature either of our continuing media excess. It moves between these two poles.