But is it art?

The girl sits on the bed, spine arched backwards, leg kicked high in the air. Dressed in denim shorts and black leather boots, her slim frame is tanned and lithe. She seems amused at her own audacity: her mouth is open in a cabaret gasp, her tongue licking her lips suggestively while wisps of blonde hair frame her face.

leg-up-lighter2This photograph, by Valerie Phillips, is one of 68 currently on show in Jaguarshoes bar, near Old Street. The exhibition, entitled “You’re so sexy baby – shut the fuck up” is made up of photographs of Lacy, a girl from Oklahoma, whom Ms Phillips met while researching one of her books and who has since become one of her most prolific subjects. What has caused controversy is that in most of the pictures, Lacey is between 13 and 16 years old.

The previously unseen images range from Lacey looking after horses on a farm to more controversial images of her in a glamourous dress posing on a table or wearing a bikini in a swimming pool. The images are possessing, attractive, and so all the more disturbing when a second glance reveals that the seductress is a nymphet in her early teens. Yet outright condemnation misunderstands the issue.

The exhibition, which takes its title from a conversation between Lacy and her boyfriend at the breakfast table, in which he said “You’re so sexy baby”, to which she replied “shut the fuck up”, has been met with mixed reviews. The bar reports to have received several comments from customers perturbed by the pictures, although no official complaints have been lodged.

Steve, a barman at Jaguarshoes, says that one of them was from a man purporting to be from the NSPCC, which has offices nearby. He says: “Yeah, he wasn’t too happy about it. But that’s art – that’s what it’s supposed to do.” The NSPCC say that they have no official position on the matter.

Ms Phillips, an internationally-recognised photographer who divides her time between New York and London, says she is baffled by the complaints. “I always think it’s really funny that something so uncontroversial could cause so much controversy,” she says. “People aren’t comfortable with portraying the natural process of growing up. People want to be alarmed by things that aren’t the slightest bit alarming.”

swimmingpool-lighter6As a professional photographer, Ms Phillips has published four books of her own work, as well as fashion shoots for British Elle, Nylon magazine and artwork for the single Indian Summer by the Manic Street Preachers. She believes that many people are uncomfortable with real-life depictions of teenage sexuality outside of the mainstream media.

She says: “I think it’s really interesting that people can deal with it when it’s a big celebrity on a poster in a bus shelter. Meanwhile I’ve got this girl who for all intents and purposes isn’t wearing anything particularly revealing who’s in her mid-teens and suddenly people are shocked.”

However, punters at the Jaguarshoes bar seemed unfazed by the collage of pictures across the walls. Maria, 23, from Old Street, says: “There’s so much art that’s more provocative than that. All girls try to be sexualised at that age.”

Rob, 24, who lives nearby, thinks people are only uncomfortable because of their own reactions. Pointing to one that shows Lacey dressed in a bikini lying in a swimming pool he says: “At first I thought: ‘That’s fit’. Then, when I saw how old she was, I thought: ‘Oh, that’s a bit wrong.’ But I think it’s excessive for people to complain.”

A spokesperson for Jaguarshoes says: “We have received no formal complaints and do not expect to.”


3 Responses to “But is it art?”

  1. 1 Ruba Asfahani April 22, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    the argument over whether something is art or not will go on for centuries. they did it with homosexuality in the renaissance, aids in the 80s and 90s, and paedophilia in more recent times. no-one will ever be satisfied and ultimately, art was created to be subjective, to be controversial, and to be an “eye of the beholder” experience. at least we have the freedom to say what we think and feel. problem comes about when people react in an extreme manner.

    • 2 Caroline April 22, 2009 at 3:21 pm

      I would generally agree, but while I hate prudishness in all its forms, especially because it mainly harms the children, but when it comes to something like this there is the potential for children to be expolited and that is very dangerous territory. Where is the line between something beautiful that features a child a a picture of a child purely for the purpose of sexual titilation?

      I completely agree with Valerie’s point about how people today can’t deal with seeing ‘unpackaged’ teen sexuality outside of the cultural norm of celebrity and that peopl’s own reactions are often largely down to guilt at their own attraction but I think that there has to at least be an awareness of who might see what and the effect it might have. Take the youtube video of the little girl dancing to Beyonce…

  2. 3 Ruba Asfahani April 22, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    well i guess i can’t argue with that. i would never want anyone to look at images like that and feel … whats the word… feverish!? but at the same time, how far can a nation go to censor something. what is construed as paedophilic by one person can be seen as art by another. louis theroux pointed that out in the documentary with that guys wall. but you and valerie are of course right. people can’t handle it. living in fear. and yeah… that youtube video of the little girl is another perfect example. an innocent home video of someone’s child can be completely taken the wrong way. unfortunately. it just shows us what society has evolved into..

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