Tuesday, October 20, 2009

My Story of Censorship

@2009 by Jacqueline Livingston

In 1976, my second year at Cornell University as an Assistant Professor of Photography, I exhibited a few photographs of male nudes, including one of my six-year-old son, Sam playing with himself. My life quickly changed. I was called into the dean’s office and told to remove my photographs from the exhibition because complaints had been filed; some were worried that children might see them. I refused to remove my photographs and argued in their defense, “My photographs were meant to challenge a sexually repressed culture, to open its eyes to the beauty of the male nude and the beauty of a child raised to be comfortable with nudity, owning his own body. Who better to see these photographs than children?”
A month later I was told my contract would not be renewed. In speaking to the art department chair, I was told bluntly, “You cannot be a feminist and stay at Cornell and furthermore, you cannot photograph male genitalia and expect to stay here either.”
I had moved across country from San Francisco to Ithaca for this job. My marriage had ended; I had my child to support. Another move at this point seemed out of the question. After months of bargaining with Cornell, I threatened a sex-discrimination suit. Within one week, a one-year, nonrenewable contract arrived. At the end of that year (June 1978) when Cornell still did not provide reasons in writing for denying me further employment, I filed a sex-discrimination suit against the university with the Human Rights Commission of New York State.
In the fall of 1980, four other plaintiffs and I entered court with a class action sex-discrimination suit against Cornell. During the five years of litigation, thirty-six other women, ex-Cornell faculty, joined the suit. Cornell settled out of court for $250,000--$16,000 each for the five original plaintiffs. It was hardly a year’s academic salary.
In October of 1979, I refinanced my home and published a series of fourteen posters (each 18 x 24 inches) containing over 200 photographic images of three generations of men. My son Sam, my husband Richard, and my father-in-law John are introduced on the first poster. Four separate posters for each of them follow, telling the story of each character (a total of twelve posters). The series ends with the final (fourteenth poster) showing the three males together again. The two men are shown letting the boy experience his freedom and supporting him as well.
In the first poster showing the three generations, each of the males is shown in a sequence of four photos. Running down the left of the poster, Sam is first seen nude with his back to the camera, a boy of six, wearing a wig, lying on a bed with a rose-covered sheet. As the series progress, Sam looks over his shoulder at me (his photographer-mother) and says with his facial expression, “What are you up to? What’s with the wig? You want people to think I’m a girl?” In the last frame, he flips over, spreads his legs, showing full frontal nudity with a grin from ear to ear, as if to say, “Hey! I am a boy! Take a look.” The series has the title, “Sam on a Bed of Roses.”
Running down the middle of this first poster are the four photos that introduce John. He is at a beach, dressed in a suit holding up a ten foot long, three to four inch in diameter piece of seaweed that resembles a snake. John appears to be charming it and then cuts the seaweed into foot long lengths and buries them standing upright in the sand. The phallic symbolism is unmistakable.
On the far right of this first poster are four photos of Richard. He is dressed in a suit, sitting in a large office chair with his briefcase on the desk in front of him. The image of Konan the Barbarian is glued to the front side of the briefcase. He lets out an enormous scream, leaves the office and his briefcase behind.
Moving on to the second poster, we see the first in the series of four posters about Sam. He is a boy of six who has just moved from posing nude on the bed (where we found him introduced in the first poster) to posing nude on the sofa. He is still full of mischief, joking around. The camera moves in for close-ups of him playing with himself, unselfconscious. (This was the series of nine photos first exhibited at Cornell in 1976.)
In the second poster about Sam, he is eight and playing in the bathtub with a phallic-shaped balloon that he clearly recognized as such. He has fun pretending it is a gun and his penis, putting it between his legs, bending it, sucking it as a breast, hugging, squeezing, bouncing it—his toy.
In the third poster about Sam, he is ten and nude in the first frame, then frame by frame (through a series of nine) he adds a piece of clothing until finally, with a bit of wishful thinking, he puts on his father’s suit coat. Its oversize arms nearly cover his hands, only the ends of his fingertips show.
In the fourth and final poster about Sam, he is holding a cardboard cut-out of a suit coat nearly the size of his father’s coat in real life. It is covered with a collage of stereotypical male-role-icons representing cultural expectations. Sam takes the collaged coat to a cemetery, buries it, and leaves with its reverse shadow, a white cardboard cut-out of a suit coat, symbolic of a clean slate on which he can create his own future.
In the photographic posters about Sam’s father and grandfather, each man starts out clothed and gets undressed (symbolically freeing themselves from cultural duress) in the process of transformation. In a series of ten photos, they make strained gestures and attempts at touching.
I sent a set of these 14 posters to a total of 300 museums, galleries, critics, and artists, asking them to hang the posters in whatever venue they could during the month of October 1979. This was a way to confront and bypass art-establishment practices that in essence censor (potentially) controversial work. Some of my peers in academe showed and discussed the posters in their art classes. At one school a professor attempted a public exhibition of the entire set only to be foiled by the school’s president. The professor rented a space off-campus at his own expense and advertised. Hundreds lined up to see the show, and all four local TV stations reported the event.
On October 8, 1979, the Village Voice printed an interview with me by Howard Smith. They published three of the posters, including the one of Sam playing with himself. I received over 400 letters of congratulation and support from around the country, surprisingly only one was condemning, and sold nearly 100 sets. The negative side soon arrived. Howard Smith called saying, “Hide your posters. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is pounding at our door, threatening legal action against the Voice. They are calling your photos ‘kiddie porn.’ Their lawyers are talking to ours. If they bring charges, they could confiscate your work.”
Then someone called the child abuse hotline about me. A letter from New York Child Protective Services informed me that I was under investigation for suspected child abuse; my character and fitness as a parent were questioned. I had to hire a lawyer. He got me a copy of New York State’s pornography law. I felt relieved that it seemed to allow for artistic merit and intent, and didn’t automatically label all nudes “obscene.” I was under the impression that my art was under the protection of the First Amendment. With this assurance, my then eleven-year-old son and I met with a social worker who questioned us with our lawyer present. My son was asked how he felt about the photographs of him (“Fine we’re nudist.”), and I was asked, “Are you photographing other children nude?” (“No.”)
The social worker had seen my fourteen posters in the local gallery in a feminist bookstore and said he supported my work. According to him, I was fortunate to have him assigned to my case; anyone else would have given me a hard time. Four months later, I received a letter declaring the accusations “unfounded.” That was one of the happiest days of my life.

[Flashback:] Months before the Voice publication, I’d photographed Sam nude in a friend’s New York City loft. Sam stood next to a brass birdcage almost as tall as him with a beautiful parrot. As I always did with slide film, I mailed it to be processed at Kodak in Rochester. It seemed to be taking a long time. I finally heard from Kodak. They were holding eight rolls of my film and giving me the choice of allowing them to destroy the film or turn it over to the district attorney.
My lawyer advised me that I let Kodak destroy my film because the district attorney was up for reelection and had already created a name for himself by “successfully” prosecuting seven “porn” cases. He was almost certain to prosecute me, so I felt I had no choice but to succumb; and Kodak destroyed my film.

With no teaching position on the horizon, I realized that the controversial nature of my photography might mean my demise in academe. So I was forced to find a new career. I began investing in real estate. In 1982-83, with the help of my future husband Leo, I opened “Jacqueline Livingston—A One Artist Gallery” in New York’s Soho. I exhibited my photography with a different show monthly and displayed the fourteen posters of my family throughout the year I was open.
As soon as I opened, the FBI showed up. They sent a powerful looking man nearly weekly to confront and harass me face-to-face; later his visits tapered off to monthly. Each confrontation was the same; he’d ask, “How are you able to get away with your exhibition of kiddie porn?” I felt protected by the First Amendment and said so. I explained that not every nude picture of a child is pornography and that my photography was art, it had a message. And it was owned by major art museums. (The fourteen posters were already then collected by The Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York and in San Francisco, plus several others.)
The $100,000 the gallery project cost was much more than I’d anticipated. To maintain it I had to sell and refinance some of my newly acquired real estate. From that point on, I had to work mostly at menial jobs that left me exhausted. There was no extra time or energy to realize my most ambitious photographic ideas or to edit, promote, and exhibit the photographs that I did make.
I continued applying for academic jobs, but it was hopeless. I never stopped photographing, but I simply could not find the time and energy to give voice to my images by writing autobiographical texts to accompany them or to produce a book of my photography. I no longer saw myself as the triumphant veteran of censorship. I began to think it was my fault that I was silent and submerged.

I received some vindication for my work in 1999 when the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University presented the exhibition “Children Seen and Not Heard” and included my poster of Sam in the bathtub, playing with the phallic-shaped balloon. The show’s catalogue describes how exhibiting the photos of my son at Cornell cost me my teaching position there, explains that I believe in “bringing up children liberally and openly addressing their sexuality,” describes the poster and continues by saying, that “Ultimately, it is undeniable that this child is having fun playing and it the [sic] only the adults who find this problematic.”

Sunday, October 18, 2009

My Trip to Gdansk, Poland

@2009 by Jacqueline Livingston

My trip to Gdansk was one of the peak experiences of my life. My mind and conversations are still filled and will be for years to come, with all that my husband Leo Brissette and I saw and did there. Everything in those five days was a dream come true--only better. Nearly everyone involved in putting my exhibition together spoke English, so conversation flowed well and making friends was possible. The bonds we formed were as if from a life time.

The exhibition, titled “Spaces of Intimacy” was scheduled to run April 27 - May 31, but was so well received that the exhibition was extended to June 14. Every detail was taken care of. I had sent my twenty five 12 x 16 inch photographs matted (and printed by me), and the curator Mariola Balinska did a brilliant job of backing and framing them in 20 x 30 inch frames. She choose a dark-gray matt to back the color photos and a rich-brown for the sepia toned and had the gallery newly painted with one section of walls off-white and another gray to off-set the matting colors. The exhibition space and framing were so well designed they became a work of art in themselves. The work was hung in one enormous room and a second about half its size on the ground floor of Abbot’s Palace, one of three buildings in Gdansk that make up the National Museum. A third room smaller room was used to display one of my photographs projected wall size (about 10 x 15 feet) during museum hours.

The opening on April 26th was an enormous success with an unusually large gathering of nearly two hundred. After introductions, I was presented with a large bouquet of red tulips, and photographs were taken. Walking through the crowd, I sipped wine as I mingled, having warm conversations with some who spoke English.

The symposium the following day brought more attendees than expected and had to be moved to a larger room, where I presented another eighty images which included the fourteen posters of my son, his father and grandfather (all shown nude in numerous photos) that created my infamy in the late 1970’s. Malgosia Zwolicka, Head of the Photography Department, managed all the technical parts of Power Point for me. Ewa Majewska, Chair of the Gender Studies Program at Warsaw University, delivered an essay concerning feminist social philosophy, and issues of private/public power in the family and as it relates to my artwork, and Malgosia Paszylka-Glaska, Curator of the Department of Modern Art, spoke and gave an historical overview of the family as subject in art. Our interpreter did a splendid job.

After both the opening and the symposium, those of us closely involved went to restaurants for food, drink and much conversation. At times, because English was spoken and feminist issues were discussed, I forgot I was in Poland. It felt like we were amongst friends from the States--pretty amazing how really small our planet has become. Our technology allows us to travel easily both physically and electronically. Specifically, Mariola Balinska was familiar with my work due to her travels from Poland to the States, meeting my friend, New York photographic artist Barbara Yoshida who generously showed Ms. Balinska slides of my work (when she showed her own) and Ms. Yoshida maintained contact through her trips to Poland. In general, my work is known in Poland largely because of the Internet. Planning the show's details was possible due to email communication. In addition, many of the photographs taken by various photographers at the opening are available on their blogs.

The next day I was interviewed at the exhibition gallery by Polish TV news, and the following day I gave a half hour interview for a TV art program. Afterwards, Aleka Polis, an artist and writer from Warsaw, did a video of me as I walked through the exhibition and talked about many of my photographs. Her 8 minute video was published in the online art magazine http://www.obieg.pl/.

Leo and I were treated like royalty. We were provided a lovely fourth floor walk-up apartment on the top floor, really more like the attic, in Abbot’s Palace where my photos were being exhibited. Through two dormer-windows (very European) we looked out over Oliwa Park, one of the most beautiful parks we have ever seen, complete with a botanical garden, small lakes, waterfalls, streams, trees covered with pink and white spring blossoms, huge magnolias, and forsythia at their peak. Opposite this view, across our twenty foot room was a single large dormer that had a view of the main entrance to Abbot’s Palace where we could see one of two 5 x 6 foot banners announcing my exhibit. (The second was placed on the main gate to Oliwa Park.) And beyond that, rising against the skyline was Oliwa Cathedral, originally built in the 12th century with today’s interior dominated by an extraordinary organ over the main entrance which is one of the largest of its type in Europe. The apartment was stocked with cheeses, meats, vegetables, fruits, cereals, and drinks.

We were given guided tours to every place in our tourist guide books of Gdansk, including a private viewing of Hans Memling’s triptych “Last Judgment”, the pride of the National Museum, and St. Mary’s in Old Town, believed to be the largest brick church in the world (it can hold up to 25,000 people), though frankly right now it looks like the largest scaffolding construction in the world. We had the extraordinary experience to ride the construction elevator up the side of that scaffolding to the top of St. Mary’s 256 foot tower and once nearly to the top, climb further up two flights of scaffolding to a viewing platform overlooking all of Gdansk. Breathtaking! The tower was closed to tourist due to the construction. Had it been open, it was a 450 step stairway to the top.

Main streets of Old Town Gdansk were enjoyable. A tour guide walked us through shop after shop displaying amber jewelry and then along the waterfront, taking us through large stone gateways to municipal buildings, museums and Neptune’s Fountain.

Our hosts took us on several excursions. With Malgosia Zwolicka, her husband Rafal and five year old daughter, Amelie we visited the lovely and picturesque seaside resort town of Sopot. On another day with Mariola Balinska, her husband Marcin and eleven month old daughter, Julia we traveled an hour outside the city to one of the largest castles in Europe, Malbork which reminded us of Renaissance Fair grounds that we have frequented in the States. On the return to Gdansk, we stopped at the childhood country home of Marcin to meet and have tea with his mother.

We enjoyed wonderful food everywhere, eating in great restaurants, bakery and coffee shops for breakfasts, and meals at both Mariola’s and Malgosia’s homes was special, enjoyed with their families. We shared frequent breaks for tea, one tea of which I was so found that they sent it home with me as a gift. Additionally I was given gifts of amber jewelry as keepsakes from my new dear friends, the three women curators who made our visit to Gdansk outstanding.

Gdansk is the first city that Hitler wanted, both for its seaport and the fact that before it became part of Prussia after World War I, it was Germany’s. It was in Gdansk that the first shots of World War II were fired. Everywhere we went there were photographs and talk of Gdansk’s reconstruction after the War; a war that remained very much a part of the Gdansk psyche. In the reconstruction, what bricks could be reused were. Their contrasts when placed next to new bricks was striking and made for telling walls throughout Gdansk, appearing as scars that punctuate memories and serve as reminders of World War II.

And on the last day, we were all to meet for tea at the Curator’s office in Abbot’s Palace to say our goodbyes. Mariola’s husband, Marcin misunderstood what was happening, came to pick us up too early, did not know about the scheduled tea, told us plans had changed, took us to the airport, and since we were early for our flight, we stopped for tea and biscuits and a walk around a very posh shopping mall.

Everyone waited for us to come for tea at Abbot‘s Palace--Mariola Balinska, and her baby Julia (who was nearly always with her due to nursing), Malgosia Zwolicka and her daughter Amelie, and Malgosia Paszylka-Glaska waited for us at Abbot’s Palace. When they realized that Marcin must have mistakenly taken us to the airport, and since he had left his cell phone at home and could not be reached, they transported themselves to the airport (ten miles), arrived just before we did, were paging us, and met us as we stepped out of the car. What a surprise! The three women and the two daughters all smiles, standing in a line waiting for us. We hugged, and laughed about the mistake, went into the airport and had tea and biscuits a second time, and said our fond farewells.

We were in England for a week, staying with a friend south of London in Selsey, spending a day in Brighton, a day in London that included seeing the Tate Modern across the Millennium Bridge from St. Paul’s, riding and photographing from the top of a double-decker bus all the way to the House of Parliament and Westminster Abby, returning back to our airport hotel and leaving for Maui the following day.

I was back in Maui about a week when Ewa Majewska emailed asking if she could use my photograph of “Vinceanna Nursing Vajra and Bell” (which was reproduced on the announcement the National Museum circulated for my exhibition) on the cover of her book that was waiting publication in September 2009 titled Feminism as Social Philosophy. Essays on the Theories of the Family. After its publication Ms. Majewska emailed me saying, “After your exhibition I gave an interview for a Warsaw based TV, and the journalist also seemed to be very inspired by your work and (if I can say so:) by my approach to it somehow too...and everybody loves your picture I now have on the book cover... and many people say it is so good to see the word "feminism" with this very picture - it takes away all the stereotyped images of feminism as mainly aggressive...”
In October 2009 Ewa Majewska’s essay on my photography (that she delivered at our symposium on April 27th in Gdansk) was published in the feminist section, Artmix, of the online magazine http://www.obieg.pl/ along with five photographs from the exhibition.

At a future date, Mariola Balinska, the primary curator of my exhibition “Spaces of Intimacy”, will publish in http://www.obieg.pl/ an interview with me concerning my 1960’s involvement in the feminist movement.

Scroll past the "comments" section to see my 5 photos taken at Gdansk:
"The Team," "Opening Crowd", "Bouquet of Tulips from Mariola", "Perfect Welcome", and "Waving Next to My Banner at Oliwa Park".