Obscenity or Art Photography?
By Brendan Doherty
MARCH 23, 1998: Jock Sturges' controversial book, Radiant Identities, is still available locally despite grand jury indictments of Barnes and Noble in two states. The nation's largest book chain was accused earlier this month in Alabama and Tennessee of distributing child pornography in the form of Radiant Identities and another book, David Hamilton's The Age of Innocence.
The books became the target of conservatives nationwide eight months ago, and the indictments represent the high water marks in their campaign to get them banned. Several bookstores have been the target of loud book-ripping protests in a number of states, in as many as 40 demonstrations in the last eight months. The demonstrations were inspired by Randall Terry, a conservative radio host who led Operation Rescue's anti-abortion protests in the 1980s. His Internet site provides instructions for fighting "this monstrous evil," with suggestions about petitioning local bookstores and governmental entities for protest. Terry can be heard locally on KKIM AM 1000 daily at 4 p.m.
"If Goliath falls, then the whole earth trembles," Terry says. "I'm out to obliterate child pornography."
Terry and his associates approached nearly 25 states seeking the legal action. The Alabama court order charges Barnes and Noble with 32 counts of child pornography, each charge carrying a $10,000 fine. The Tennessee charge is a misdemeanor. Weekly Alibi checked with both the New Mexico Attorney General's office and the local District Attorney's office; officials say that neither has been approached about prosecuting the bookstores.
In a written statement, the Barnes and Noble national office declared its intention to fight the charges. "Under no circumstances will we remove books from our shelves because one or more citizens object to their content," said the statement. "People have asked us to ban The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, The Living Bible, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Merchant of Venice. While these requests come from concerned and otherwise responsible citizens, we do not believe they should abridge the principles of the First Amendment."
Borders Books and Music, which also carries the book, voiced its affirmation of the books. "Borders has decided to continue to stock the book," local spokesperson Clint Wells said. "We want our customers to make their own decisions. This isn't the first controversial book that's ever been printed."
Nor is it the first time that Sturges' work has caused controversy. His photographs, shown in April of 1996 at the Photo Eye bookstore in Santa Fe, are still sold locally through that gallery. The gallery owners were not available for comment on the issue. Reviews of the work, however, that ran in THE magazine caused a ream of letters and phone calls from readers.
"It was the most response we've received for anything," says Michelle Beacham, THE's managing editor. "We got some mean phone calls and some very sympathetic letters. I think that the majority of the backlash is about the discomfort level of the viewer. If the viewer is aroused by the photographs, that makes them uncomfortable."
The efforts of Terry and his followers have gotten a great deal of attention. The fear of censorship has mounted a sizable defense against book banners and their legal wrangling. The New York Times ran an editorial two weeks ago defending Barnes and Noble and called the protests "a campaign of intimidation."
The work that they are defending, Sturges' nudes in this case, are pre-adolescents and adolescents portrayed without clothes, with their and their parents' cooperation, on the beaches of France. Sturges' previous works, compositions of entire nudist families from grandparents to babies, are part of the collections at the Museum of Modern Art. Hamilton's gauzy pubescent portraits were intended by the artist, as were the Sturges works, both to document the subject and engage the viewer in a dialogue about the emergence of sexuality. Neither places the subjects in the positions or portrayal of sex.
Child pornography laws are meant to protect under-age subjects from exploitation and sexual abuse. Recent legislation expanded the definition to include not just images of minors engaged in sexual activity but nude minors where "lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area" was demonstrated, according to the Supreme Court.
The wording of these laws has kept zealots and press-hungry DA's from seeking prosecution on the statutes because of the likelihood that they might lose on the somewhat vague criteria of what constitutes "lascivious." Kansas has a new, clearer law that has yet to be tested. Federal authorities haven't stepped in to try to assist these investigations, though these books are sold in nearly every state in the Union. It is perhaps because they do not deem them to be porn. Sturges has been the subject, according to Newsweek, of an FBI child pornography probe that proved fruitless. Hamilton's own work has been attacked in Britain, but he neither faces nor has faced serious charges. While convictions of child pornographers and Internet sites abound, these visible works, sold through a national chain, make the case that a number of people feel it is not pornography.
"This isn't obscene material, and we think that we will be vindicated by the courts," says a representative of Barnes and Noble.
"I'm not sure that it's erotic," says THE's Michelle Beacham, who had one of Sturges' pictures on her bulletin board above her desk. "It's like people insisting that Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings of flowers were actually vaginas. People see what they want to see regardless of what they are looking at."
While people might feel that the material is offensive or makes them feel personally uncomfortable, the bigger issue, the First Amendment, may override any disagreeable concerns. Naked young girls or not, books are not for burning, some say.
"Book banners will always be with us," says Bill Dixon, an attorney who has worked with the American Civil Liberties Union. "They are a ceaseless group that tries to protect us from ourselves. First we have the spectacle of Gunter Grass' Tin Drum being taken from homes in Oklahoma City, and now this. Videos and books are not safe. What is intended to be an artistic presentation is being censored by litigation and threats. This is the essence of censorship and it's intolerable."
Books: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics
© 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . Weekly Alibi . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch