It’s not about if it’s art
I Blame the Patriarchy recently wrapped up Art Week, but I think Twisty may have to reopen it just to discuss this insanely fucked up story about the archives of artist Larry Rivers, who I feel pretty assured was a child-abusing pervert. NYU has acquired these archives, but Rivers’ daughter Emma Tamburlini wants them to turn over some pieces of the archive to her to be destroyed. Pretty crazy, right? What kind of daughter wants to destroy her father’s Important Art? Well….. because it’s basically filmed child abuse. Tracy Clark-Flory describes it:
Rivers, who died in 2002, filmed his daughters, starting at the age of 11, every six months for five years, asking them “about their breasts and whether boys have started noticing them.” There are “close-up shots of one daughter’s genitals and detailed commentary by Mr. Rivers on the girls’ changing bodies.” In some scenes, his wife, Clarice Rivers, “appears with her daughters, displaying her own breasts and talking about them.” The clips were edited into a 45-minute-long film. He titled it “Growing.”
In case you’re indulging the urge to say, “Hey, they’re arty-farty people, and so they don’t live the same way the rest of us do. Those girls probably think fondly of their kooky dad and his artistic interests!”, well, think again. No matter who you’re born to, this kind of pervy shit feels like abuse.
Ms. Tamburlini said the filming contributed to her becoming anorexic at 16. “It wrecked a lot of my life actually,” she said.
Calling something “art”, though, tends to obscure issues like, “Is it okay to torture your teenage daughters with quasi-incestuous videos about their sexuality that involve nudity?” Which is why I respect Becky Sharper’s desire to say that this is basically not art, because it’s child pornography, and it’s stupid to confuse the two.
Apparently a grand jury in San Diego declined to prosecute Rivers for child pornography, which strikes me as utterly ridiculous. If a stranger did this to minors, or this kind of work was found on someone’s hard drive, the police would intervene. When Rivers says that the girls “kept sort of complaining?” That means what he was doing was not consensual, and from Tamburlini’s account, he coerced them into doing it. Of course, the girls were below the age of consent for this kind of sexually-charged activity anyway, but their parents were able to get away with it because they were the parents.
I can see why this is a legal question, but as an ethical question, it tends to obscure the major issue, which is that exploiting children isn’t right no matter what you call it. Twisty gets right to the heart of this dilemma:
I get it! Like, if you are unenthusiastic about 2008 Chicken Butt Viognier, and somebody hands you a glass at the taco-tasting party, you don’t say, “this damned Chicken Butt is too green and minerally to pair well with smoked avocado tacos.” You merely state that it isn’t wine. End of discussion. Talk to the hand. Well, perhaps you insinuate that wine is elitist first.
In other words, arguing whether or not it’s art is missing the point, which is that it’s child abuse. And it reveals that Rivers treated his daughters like they were his personal property, fit to use how he’d like, even if it was sexually. Even if they refuse to consent.Tracy Clark-Flory explains:
In a voice-over for the film, Rivers explains that he continued with the project despite “the raised eyebrows of society in general and specific friends and even my daughters — they kept sort of complaining.” Indeed, Tamburlini says she resisted at the time and was called “uptight and a bad daughter,” as the Times paraphrases it.
NYU is wanting to hang on to these films in order to release them after the subjects pass away. That’s not enough. Rivers abused his children, and NYU shouldn’t cooperate in the abuse, even in the name of art. They should let Tamburlini destroy the videos if she wants. After all, she was part of the making of them; they belong to her as much as they do her dead father.