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Carnal Knowledge: Art in an Age Without Moral Limits

“My theme is young girls,” stated photographer David Hamilton, and his theme has landed him right on the front lines of America’s culture war.

Many Americans learned of the controversy when an Alabama grand jury indicted Barnes & Noble bookstores for selling Hamilton’s collection The Age of Innocence as well as the work of Jock Sturges, perhaps America’s most controversial photographer.

The furor over the indictments-and similar charges expected in other states-reveals one of the great moral fault-lines in America. The real question is this: Do any moral limits distinguish art from pornography? To hear the nation’s cultural elite, virtually anything is permitted, so long as some critic is willing to call it art.

The work of Hamilton and Sturges is intended to shock-and to create erotic interest. The heart of the scandal surrounding the artists is the age of their sex objects. Both photographers specialize in prints of naked children, mostly girls, in sexually suggestive poses and contexts. The girls are intended to be objects of desire, and their physical journey through adolescence is transformed into a gallery of pornographic images.

Hamilton, who lives in France, argues that “A distinction must be made between eroticism and pornography.” The distinction is a matter of intelligence, he argues. “For those intelligent enough to recognize the difference, erotica will continue to hold a unique fascination. Social evils should not be confused with the pursuit of true beauty.” Hamilton demonstrates his ‘pursuits’ through what his publicity material advertises as “lolita type pictures of naked young girls.”

Sturges, whose Radiant Identities collection prompted the Alabama indictment, also specializes in the eroticism of the young. As the Los Angeles Times describes, “In a typical Sturges photograph, a girl about 10 years old lies back on a futon, her arms outstretched, her exposed genitals drawing the viewer’s eye to the center of the frame.” Anyone who objects to this sexual exposure of children is simply repressed, suggests Sturges.

“There’s nothing criminal in my work. The thing absent from these pictures that drives people nuts is shame.” No, the thing absent that drives people nuts is common decency, and the principle that children are not to be sex objects for pedophiles.

The Alabama grand jury is not the only legal authority to think so. The U.S. Justice Department has confirmed that, for the second time in eight years, Sturges is the target of a criminal investigation. Sturges’ studio was raided in 1990 by federal agents and local police. Though that investigation did not lead to a criminal prosecution, Thomas L. Eisenmann, the investigator for the San Francisco Police Department, still uses Sturges’ photographs to train police about pedophiles. “I thought it was child pornography,” he explains. “And I still do.”

Unfortunately, the investigator’s view is not shared by all. As expected, the American Civil Liberties Union is ready to defend the indefensible with cries against censorship. In the view of the ACLU, there should be absolutely no limitations on the distribution and sale of child pornography. So much for the civil liberties of the children.

Likewise, the American Booksellers Association protests the action against Barnes & Noble and warns that the criminal actions threaten to undermine the ability of citizens to exercise constitutional rights. In a joint statement, Barnes & Noble, Borders Books and Music, and the ABA argue that “it is a critical part of our role as booksellers to defend the right of our customers to have access to all books, magazines, recordings and other materials that are protected by the First Amendment.” In this swift move, the booksellers attempt to deny any moral responsibility for the materials they sell.

Their arguments may not convince an Alabama jury, and they are not likely to fool anyone who cares for the welfare of children. Nevertheless, the frightening reality is that many Americans will jump on their bandwagon and decry any curtailment of child pornography as censorship.

Doubtless, the defenders of Hamilton and Sturges will claim First Amendment protection for their ‘art.’ Given the track record of the federal courts, they just might find a jurist eager to accept their argument. But the Bill of Rights was not designed to make the world safe for child pornographers.

Hamilton and Sturges claim to care for the children they so graphically exploit. Sturges boasts that he maintains a relationship with his subjects and their families, and does not exhibit a print without their permission. “I have a sincere and ongoing relationship with these women and their families,” he said. In at least one case, that relationship went far beyond the camera. According to the Times, when Sturges was 28 he had a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old model named Jennifer Montgomery. Similarly, Hamilton met his 30-year-old wife when she was one of his 13-year-old models.

The feminists used to chant “the personal is the political.” In the case of Hamilton and Sturges, the personal is the pornographic. What can explain the fact that mainstream museums and institutions exhibit their photographs, and prominent booksellers are determined to sell their works?

The only explanation is the absolute determination of the cultural elite to overthrow all moral limits. In an age of moral relativism, the individual will alone determine right or wrong. In the name of cultural sophistication and the abandonment of repressive shame, pornography is declared to be art, and children are fair game. In the name of art, all rules are off.

A culture ready to see its children as objects of sexual desire is on the brink of total moral collapse. What barrier will fall next? A nation which will not defend its young against sexual exploitation has reached an end stage of moral rebellion from which there may be no return. This is no age of innocence.