The picture of innocence?

by Victoria James

Sex, nudity and violence — there’s a lot of it happening in Kobe.

Bare-breasted women lie around drunkenly; a naked, handcuffed beauty struggles against her restraints; and a peeping Tom masturbates while peering from behind a curtain.

No, the port city hasn’t become a modern Gomorrah: It’s currently hosting the controversial “Exposed: The Victorian Nude,” a exhibition from Britain’s Tate Gallery. After stopping in London, Munich and New York, the show has been renamed for its stint in Japan. Visitors to Kobe City Museum (and then Tokyo) will be flocking to see “The Victorian Nude: Morality and Art in 19th-century Britain.”

That tacked-on subtitle is misleading to say the least. For, as the show’s varied critical responses around the world have revealed, the relationship between art and morality isn’t a historical phenomenon we can sit back and judge from the safe distance of some supposedly self-aware present. Far from it. The nexus of sex and art remains to this day profoundly troubling.

Some reviewers poked fun at the number of inexcusably bad artworks on show and joked about repressed Victorian sexuality; others viewed such sneering responses as modern liberal condescension toward the Victorians, who, frankly, had things right on a whole bunch of issues (“family values” not the least among them); still others have offered passionate defenses of the Victorian “innocent eye” — particularly with reference to nude studies of children.

So, if there’s one thing this mixed bag of artworks “exposes,” it’s how little progress there’s been in understanding our responses to the visual image. And if there’s any reason to go and see this selection of the good, the bad and the simply saccharine, it’s to be made to reconsider the way we think about art — and morality.

We live in an age when the viewer’s “gaze” (a notion beloved of postmodern critics) is being simultaneously liberated and controlled. Increasingly, sexually explicit imagery is entering the mainstream, finding its way onto magazine covers and video-shop shelves, or just a mouse-click away on the Internet.

Yet now, across the developed world, the viewing of images that just a generation ago would have been deemed blameless — nude pictures of children — has become subject to global policing.

“Innocent” is how Victorian contemporaries would have described the Rev. Charles Dodgson’s untitled 1879 photograph of a reclining Evelyn Hatch. The naked little girl, aged perhaps 6 or 7, turns her crutch toward the camera as she makes languid, lingering eye contact with the viewer. Hatch’s parents gave permission for Dodgson — better known by his pen-name of Lewis Carroll — to photograph both Evelyn and her sister Beatrice (also shown here, legs akimbo, in a photograph of a watercolor painted from one of Dodgson’s pictures).

Such photographs have brought down on the author of “Alice in Wonderland” posthumous accusations of pedophilia — at least in inclination if not in action. Yet Dodgson’s pictures, as artistic compositions, don’t differ very much from some modern works by Sally Mann. This Virginia-born photographer’s most controversial subjects have been her own children, especially pictures taken of her prepubescent daughters Jessie and Virginia for her 1991 book, “Immediate Family.” In one of these pictures, titled “Dirty Jessie,” the little girl — younger even than Evelyn — sprawls on a leafy forest floor, legs apart, clad only in rumpled panties.

Mann’s art has many critics: galleries showing her work regularly receive floods of complaints; protesters have called for boycotts of bookstores stocking her coffee-table volumes. Yet her admirers outweigh her detractors — she has received Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and her work hangs in both New York’s MoMA and the Smithsonian in Washington.

Clearly many have found a way to look at Mann’s pictures and recognize them for what she says they are: a document of childhood passing into young adulthood. “We say everything without fear or shame,” Mann has said of “Immediate Family”; “We speak about what it means to grow up.”

When did that fear and shame enter into our visual vocabulary? Not in 1886, evidently, when Frank Meadow Sutcliffe took “The Water Rats,” a photograph of a group of small boys cavorting nude in the sea on Whitby beach in northeast England. And not in the following year, when Peter Henry Emerson captured two young boys splashing naked in a river. Nor by the turn of the century, when an adolescent and a prepubescent boy, arms raised and penises exposed, struck poses for Guglielmo Pluschow’s camera. All three works are in the exhibition.

So what changed? Wellesley College, Ma. scholar Anne Higonnet, author of “Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood” (1998), a study of controversial child photographs, proposed in an earlier paper in the Yale Journal of Criticism that “Images are now being judged on the basis of the desires their content might arouse.”

But that’s nothing new. Alison Smith, curator of the Tate exhibition, remarks in an accompanying essay that Britain’s 1857 Obscene Publications Act “set out to distinguish between legitimate nudes created for artistic purposes as opposed to material intended to deprave and pollute susceptible minds, by defining the former in terms of private contemplative viewing, the latter in terms of widespread access and corruption.”

Today we’ve turned that notion on its head: Images easily accessed by the public (and in public), say in a gallery, are somehow acceptable due to their very accessibility. If you can buy it in Barnes & Noble, or see it in the Smithsonian, it must be OK. Conversely, the popular image of the pedophile or sex criminal is of a loner pursuing his depraved fantasies in private, behind closed curtains.

It’s as though the manner in which an image is consumed is defining whether that image is artistic or obscene. If you put four porn actors in an art venue, get them to engage in sex acts on request (as happened in “Sex Acts,” devised by artist Heilman-C, that packed out New York’s Jack Tilton gallery in February 1998), has the line between art and obscenity been crossed — into the realm of art?

When an installation like “Sex Acts” makes it into an art gallery, and when the transcript of a porn film written on billboards is nominated for one of the world’s most prestigious art awards — as happened with Fiona Banner’s “Arsewoman in Wonderland,” shortlisted for Britain’s 2002 Turner Prize — roomfuls of shrinking Victorian nudes may seem laughably irrelevant by comparison.

And yet they’re not. The issues they raise are still fundamental to questions of censorship and the art-viewing experience.

Put simply, you do not see what I see, and vice versa.

Take “Saint Eulalia,” John William Waterhouse’s (1885) painting showing the lifeless body of the girl saint martyred by Roman soliders. It is a disturbing picture of a piteous subject, affecting in the same way that tragic news footage can be. What it is not, to this writer’s eyes, is “sado-masochistic” or “pedophilic” — words used by other reviewers. (On an art history link from the Web site of the University Of Newcastle, England, the artist is described as “emphasizing [Eulalia’s] bare-breasted state . . . Waterhouse has negated the virginal aspects of Eulalia by spilling her hair over the ground.”)

Times change, morals change. A number of the paintings and photographs here that do clearly strive for erotic effect have little to hold the modern viewer’s attention (though Edward Linley Sambourne’s photograph of a spread-legged Maud Easton in a masquerade costume is still teasingly sexy). A few — such as “Faithful unto Death” (1888) by the appropriately named Herbert Schmaltz, in which seven chained and pert-breasted martyrs await the lions in a Roman arena — will draw only tears of laughter.

A painting or photograph does not exist “out there” on a gallery wall or in a book, but in the mind and eye of the observer. In this respect, the Tate’s uneven display of Victorian nudes does as good a job as any cutting-edge venue of bringing home the realization that the viewing of art is a subjective act.

Because if we smile at Victorian attempts to draw a line between “legitimate” and “depraved” nudes, we surely have to question our own efforts to regulate the interaction of image and viewer.

If obscenity is in the eye of the beholder, can we ever hope to police it?