Musings on Art and Duty

Larry Rivers, who I previously had no knowledge of until the other day, did a film series in which he filmed the breast development of his daughters, asking personal, sexually-charged questions like, "have boys started noticing yet?" From the article in the New York Times, one daughter made it clear that this made her uncomfortable, and that she was pressured to participate. The film series affected her adversely, leading to psychological problems during her teens. She wants the film removed from the archives of the New York University. NYU responded by saying they would keep the film out of public consumption for the duration of the daughters' lives. The Rivers Foundation's director, David Joel, is quoted as saying, "I can't be the person who says this stays or goes. My job is to protect the material."

Well, that's great, I guess. Yay for folks who are doing their job, and in this case, to preserve material. 

Okay, um, why?

Let's look at the facts here: this is a film which is built on the exploitation of helpless persons. One of said persons has come forward revealing just how damned exploitative it is. Hell, even within the film itself, Larry Rivers says in a voice-over that his daughters "kept sort of complaining". This was a film meant to push the boundaries of societal approval. 

Looks like those weren't the only boundaries pushed. 

Look. When you create art that banks on the participation of other people, it is abusive to make them do something they don't want to do. Plenty of people have to do stuff they don't want to do, every day, which doesn't necessarily enrich their lives in any way. And in this case, these girls did stuff that not only did not enrich their lives, but affected them badly. 

Art that pushes boundaries, folks, is the province of the privileged. If you create art that doesn't push boundaries, that guarantees returns, you're probably doing it because you need those returns. If you are in any position to create art that you know will create some pushback, that you know might lose you fans and their patronage, you are more than likely in a very good position where this loss won't affect you significantly, and that is a sign of privilege

Which means, you know, you are in a position where you have options. And among these options, the choice to create art that doesn't depend on hurting other human beings.

Guess which option Larry Rivers did not take in the making of this film series?

The fact that it is getting preserved in the first place is another sign of privilege. The fact that people are defending it, yet another notch illustrating that this man, although dead and gone, still has power over his art, that others will rise to protect it as they feel he would want them to. 

So when David Joel says something stupid that runs along the lines of "I sympathize but my job is to protect this material" he is also really saying, "this film, built on exploitation of this woman and her sisters, is much more important than this woman herself." That duty to a dead abuser's output is more important than the right of a person to lay to rest her abusive past the way she sees fit.

So let's talk about art. I firmly believe that art has power. Like revolutions, art can be an act of creation, or of destruction. Art reflects the world, as much as it influences the world. It is informed by the culture from which it is produced, as much as the culture around it will look to it as a model for how it should be performed.

At the Pursuit of Harpyness, in comments, baraqiel gave a thought-provoking anecdote on how engineers are taught that their technical knowledge gives them power, and that sometimes the data comes from unethical sources, and how valuable / necessary is that technical data which is procured through killing other humans? And supposedly, engineers are the most unfeeling of professions - artists are supposed to be feelers as well as thinkers.

In the preservation of art, something has got to go. There is a reason why there is a filtering process, a judgement process, in which people decide what to keep and what to throw away. We keep things of value, because we see a continued benefit in having them around. We throw away things that no longer have value, because we need to make room for other things of potential. We also throw away things of detrimental value, because they are symptomatic of social ills that continue to eat at our societal consciousness.

David Joel is implying that he, as a curator of sorts, has no sense of judgement, because his "job", his function" is to preserve these materials. BULLSHIT. The function of preservation should not override the judgement of a human being to weigh, ethically, the value of preserving something that has caused pain. He also implies that the ethical value of any piece of work is meaningless beyond its immediate effects. BULLSHIT, AGAIN, because anybody who pays the smidgen amount of attention to art and how it has functioned in our societies knows that it is meaningful beyond its first moment of creation and immediate effect, that it continues to affect long after its creators have move on, that its effects cannot be controlled once we have relinquished control of it.

Here, Ms. Tamburlini has shown that she does not want to relinquish control of something that has exploited her in the past, that she was forced to participate in. But does she get it? No, because apparently, despite the fact that she's part of this material, she's not allowed to have any say in what happens to it. She's not allowed to touch it or mess with its otherwise pristine preservation. 

We know what happens when arts get taken out of context. Appropriation, for one. A different interpretation that we cannot control, because we're not in the heads of our audience, can be attached without our meaning to. If I do an art nude, and I release it, I cannot help the fact that someone somewhere may take it and use it as masturbatory material, and the only way to really prevent that is to not do art nudes. However, I can weigh the benefits and costs and decide, nope, someone wanking off to my art nudes does not hurt me or anybody participating in the making of the art, and I can create art nudes that do not exploit anybody without their express permission. This can get lost in a few decades when someone can just go "this is a rubbishy piece of art." Thus, it rests on me, right here and now, to decide if I want to run that risk, and can I live with myself knowing I have released something out into the world that might be rubbish? 

This Larry Rivers thing is even worse, because he knew he was affecting his own family adversely by demanding their cooperation, and only a sociopath goes on with such a project knowing that it is causing huge discomfort, even psychological problems, for those he is responsible for. And NYU and the Rivers Foundation continue this sociopathic decision by deciding that the people whose lives were affected matter less than the preservation of artistic material. This is where I would accept, "it's just a ____," because in this case? Compared with the well-being of someone who was hurt in its making? It really is just a piece of film. 

I come at this from an artistic, ethical standpoint, because I'm not interested in legalese. Legalese has been used to hurt and destroy other people, and it is constantly abused. And I cannot, cannot fathom how anyone could be so cruel as to preserve the memories of sexual abuse and exploitation as "art". 

I'm not part of any artistic community, except NaNoWriMo, so I can't speak to the ethics of the artistic community as a whole. I do feel, as an artist and as a believer in art, that art is a powerful tool, and like, all powerful tools, should be used for good. And I cannot fathom how this film is in any way a strong contribution to the artistic world. At all. Maybe I'm missing something and someone will concern troll me on Why It Is Important To Preserve Clearly Exploitative Material.


  1. When I first read about this case this weekend I posted the following on Facebook:

    "This just makes me sick, as a woman, an artist and an archivist. I don't understand what there is to discuss. Rivers' work is neither art nor history; it is a graphic example of child sexual abuse."

  2. Society of North American Archivists is the major professional organisation for archivists in North American and is therefore precedent setting. According to their Code of Ethics:
    1. "Archivists protect the privacy rights of donors and individuals or groups who are the subject of records." That includes individuals such as Rivers' daughters.
    2. "Archivists must uphold all federal, state, and local laws." That includes laws against disseminating child pornography.


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