Artistic freedom debate sparked by 'paedophile' show

1st December 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Dec 1, 2006 (AFP) - France's cultural establishment has leapt to the defence of the director of the historic Ecole des Beaux Arts after he was placed under judicial investigation for displaying "paedopornographic" images at an exhibition six years ago.

PARIS, Dec 1, 2006 (AFP) - France's cultural establishment has leapt to the defence of the director of the historic Ecole des Beaux Arts after he was placed under judicial investigation for displaying "paedopornographic" images at an exhibition six years ago.

In a case that has reawakened debate over the limits of artistic freedom, Henry-Claude Cousseau, 60, was summoned to a judge's office in Bordeaux on November 14 and told that he may face trial over a 2000 show entitled 'Presumed Innocent: Contemporary Art and Childhood'.

The exhibition — featuring some 80 international artists — was put on at the museum of contemporary art in the southwestern city, where Cousseau was director of museums before taking up his current post at the world-famous arts school in central Paris.

The judicial investigation — a precursor to possible charges — follows a complaint filed by the children's rights group La Mouette (The Seagull), which said that 24 of the works on display in Bordeaux broke the law by presenting children in sexual and violent situations.

Among the controversial items — according to La Mouette — were photographs of sodomy in the presence of children and of the torture of children, as well as a video of masturbation by the Austrian performance artist Elke Krystufek.

This was screened at the end of a low tunnel which children visiting the exhibition were tempted to go down, according to La Mouette's president Annie Gourgue.

"We accuse Monsieur Cousseau of displaying pornographic images of children that are an attack on human dignity, and of allowing children and adolescents to see them," said La Mouette's lawyer Christine Maze.

Groups of children from 49 elementary schools visited the exhibition, though only two teachers complained to the museum about the content, Le Monde newspaper reported.

Cousseau has been placed under investigation for "displaying paedopornographic images" and "corruption of minors by exposing documents that attack children's dignity" — charges which bear a maximum sentence of three years in prison and a 75,000-euro fine.

Two curators of the exhibition have also been summoned to appear before a judge later this month.

A veteran arts administrator and a Knight of the Legion of Honour, Cousseau said he was shocked by the judge's decision.

Police had inspected the exhibition at the time and decided there was no breach of the law, he said. Potentially upsetting works were clearly marked with warning signs and attendants made sure children were kept away from them.

"The show was about the fragility of children and how their image can be exploited," he told 20 Minutes newspaper.

"History has shown that no justice system comes out well from this type of affair. Baudelaire, Flaubert and Oscar Wilde were all regarded as scandalous at the time. Now they are seen as geniuses," said Cousseau's lawyer Richard Malka.

Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres defended Cousseau as "a man who is widely respected for his competence and ethical sense."

"It is not my job to replace the justice system. Nonetheless I regard it as important to allow artists a degree of supplementary freedom — beyond what is permitted to ordinary mortals — so they can represent and denounce the ills of our society," Donnedieu de Vabres said.

Condemning the action against Cousseau, the League of Human Rights (LDH) said France's penal code should be amended to remove ambiguities which lead to the "repression of creativity".

A petition circulating on the Internet and signed by many artists, curators, art historians and teachers condemns "the threats which weigh on our freedoms of thought, creation and expression ... Artistic creation is the inalienable expression of culture."

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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