Elton John and the Picture Police

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Police in the British town of Gateshead have given the British press a gift of great value — a chance to put the words “Sir Elton John” and “child porn” into the same headline. Don’t get excited, no one is carting away Elton’s home computers. A gallery in Gateshead, called the Baltic Center for Contemporary Art, is the latest stop on a tour of photographs by Nan Goldin that are owned by Elton. One of the pictures, Klara and Edda Belly-dancing, has caused a problem with the law. The Times of London on line describes it this way:

[It] shows two young girls playing together in front of a kitchen sink. One is skimpily dressed, the other is naked and lies beneath her, knees bent and legs splayed towards the camera.

It appears that officials of the gallery, concerned that the image might violate child pornography laws, called in police as a pre-emptive measure to take away the picture and make a determination.

So here we go again.

Nan Goldin is one of the best known living American photographers. If this matter ever does come to a courtroom, there will be no difficulty finding artworld professionals happy to make that plain. I’ve occasionally found her work to be a bit listless. And she doesn’t hesitate to include sexually explicit images in the mix of what she does. (This is after all a woman who has a picture titled Bobby Masturbating.) But she’s a serious and influential artist. She’s not a pornographer. She’s a documentary photographer who mostly documents her own life. She photographs herself and the people around her in their natural habitats.

And Elton John is well known as a serious photography collector. If anything, the sampling of his collection that I reviewed seven years ago at the Atlanta High Museum was a bit tame and conventional. (And while we’re at it, you may have heard that girls are not really his thing.) The picture that has been causing a fuss in Britain is part of a large suite of Goldins that he purchased as a group from London’s White Cube Gallery. I’ve seen it described in one British paper as part of his “private collection”, which makes it sound like he keeps it hidden in a drawer. It’s been exhibited repeatedly and, until now, without incident.

There is such a thing as child pornography. It’s produced by a criminal industry and distributed on line. The police should go looking for it there. What they’re after they won’t find on gallery walls.

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