Visual Arts


Recently, the Tucson Police Department's child-abuse detail confiscated artwork by local artist-photographer Robyn Stoutenburg from the city's downtown Gallery Six & 13--without a validly executed search warrant. Twelve of the artist's photographs were seized after the principal of an adjacent middle school complained of the propriety and accessibility of the photographs for minors. The photos contained images of nude children.

The one image that sent the Tucson P.D. into a real tailspin was titled "Oscar With Chicken." This photograph, which is part of a larger Joseph Cornell-style box, depicts Stoutenburg's nude 4-year-old son Oscar, head cropped from the image, clutching a plucked, headless chicken next to his genitals.

The photo has been referred to the Tucson grand jury, allegedly on the grounds that it violates Arizona Revised Statute No. 13-3507, a criminal law originally enacted in 1971 that makes it a felony "to place sexually explicit material upon public display. . . ." For purposes of the statute, "sexually explicit material" includes any drawing or photograph that "depicts human genitalia or depicts or verbally describes nudity, sexual activity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement or sadomasochistic abuse in a way which is harmful to minors. . . ." Subsection C(1) of the statute specifically excludes from this definition sexually explicit material "which, taken in context, possesses serious educational value for minors or which possesses serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value." The Tucson P.D. and deputy Pima County attorney Kathleen Mayer conveniently forgot to read this subsection before they jumped on the child-pornography bandwagon. Mayer, a bit confused about identity of the fowl offender in the picture, claims that the image depicts a minor male "simulating sexual contact with a dead turkey." Stoutenburg, afraid that her child will be taken away from her by Child Protective Services, claims that no sexual intent was involved in "Oscar With Chicken" and that "it's just a little kid trying to hold up a heavy chicken." Arizona Republic art reviewer Richard Nilsen, afraid to call a spade a spade, claims that "the photo underlines the biological commonality of food and devourer."

What everyone seems to look past is the fact that the photo is sensual, if not downright sexual, but in an obviously artistic way. And that's okay. Even the law acknowledges that sexually explicit material is not obscene or pornographic when it has serious educational, literary or artistic value. As such, it is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. Stoutenburg's photo falls right within the protected exception carved out by our legislature.

Throughout history, humans--including children--have been portrayed in both art and literature in an erotic manner, although no one ever dared to point this out to you in Art History 101. Strident art historian Camille Paglia has just devoted several volumes to this very subject, one which had been neatly sidestepped for the most part by scholars, students of art history and the public in general. Ancient Greek kouroi, those elegant, pre-Christian marble statues, celebrate the sexuality of nubile young boys. Anatomically correct male infants, playing the role of cherubs, float about in midair, hold choir missals and flutter in attendance in thousands of religious paintings and frescoes created during the Renaissance; most of these airborne sprites are gratuitous, some downright lascivious. Slapping wings or halos on chubby, young boys does not change the essentially sexual nature of the imagery. Raphael's "Stanza dell'Incendio," a 1514 fresco commemorating Pope Leo IV's success in putting out a Vatican fire, showcases a number of naked boys promenading with their mothers and running through streets, not a flame in sight. The "Madonna Litta," a 16th-century painting ascribed to Leonardo da Vinci, features a splayed Christ Child feeding at the ripe breast of a rapt Madonna, while staring lewdly at the viewer. "Boy Bitten by Dolphin," a beautiful marble sculpture executed by Bernini when he was 16, depicts a naked child with his head thrown back, eyes closed, mouth slack; the kid is obviously in the throes of something other than discomfort from a dolphin nip. The Italian master's "Ecstasy of St. Teresa" uses a beaming child angel to plunge an arrow into the breast of a moaning St. Teresa, consumed by more than religious rapture. Caravaggio's "Amor Victorious Over Worldly Might, Art and Science" is the artist's concept of Cupid: a leering, naked boy, sporting the wings of a bird of prey, half on and half off a table, genitals displayed to their fullest. He is surrounded by objects representing man's achievements, which he is in the process of trashing. Francois Picot, a 19th-century contemporary of Ingres, casts a winged, frontally nude boy as Amour leaving the bed of Psyche, shown as a very young, nude girl comatose from Amour's attentions. Because we are heirs to the sexually repressive Puritan ethic of our forebears and an antisexuality sensibility common to the Judeo-Christian tradition in general, this country has a serious problem with the sexuality of its children. As a rule, American culture is in total denial about the fact that children have sexual thoughts and feelings, and often act on them. The majority of us were taught early on that sex is sinful and our bodies are dirty (in certain quarters, this is still being pushed). We were told to avoid any impure thoughts, words or deeds, upon punishment of eternal damnation. And impure deeds included masturbation. Sex education was not an appropriate school subject, allegedly on the grounds that it was the responsibility of the parents to educate their offspring about the joys and responsibilities of sex.

Unfortunately, current strides toward more sexual frankness and education are being undermined by a resurgence of religious fanaticism that rivals that of the Puritans. As the line between church and state becomes more blurred, the morality brigade grows stronger. Funny how the government rushes to the rescue like Dudley Do-Right at the mere suggestion of sex portrayed in a photograph, while children who are repeatedly beaten or otherwise physically abused by Mom, Dad or the boyfriend are virtually ignored until it is often too late. Our collective refusal to admit the truth results in children's sexuality being a verboten subject. It also results in 9-year-old girls having babies and teenagers getting AIDS through unprotected sex, not to mention the festering and eventual eruption of ugly sexual perversity that has historically occurred in times of institutionalized sexual repression. It's time that we acknowledge and accept the fact and power of children's sexuality, and the inherent beauty and magic of the human body at all stages of life, which has been celebrated in art and literature for centuries. Only then can we have a healthy understanding and respect for it.

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Kathleen Vanesian