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Larry Rivers: Right or Wrong?

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The flurry of debate surrounding the collected archives of proto-pop artist and beatnik hero Larry Rivers has died down, but the issues it raised still have people talking.

The Reader's Digest version of what happened:

NYU Libraries purchased Rivers' archives from the Larry River Foundation for an undisclosed price. They were set to be transferred later this month.

Among the materials was a series of films, titled Growing, which documented the passage of his teenage daughters into puberty with images of their developing breasts and uncomfortable questions about their changing bodies. One of the daughters, Emma Tamburlini, says that the videos were filmed without her consent, and claims that posing for those videos was psychologically damaging.

The New York Times published a story on the controversy which led to a firestorm of impassioned calls to NYU Libraries, the University changed its position and requested that the videos not be transferred to their possession with the rest of the archives.

For now, the foundation that manages Larry Rivers' works will hold onto them. Tamburlini continues to seek their return to her custody.

The story raised a handful of issues: the ethics of art and parenthood, the archivist’s instincts towards preservation versus the personal needs of an individual, and the line between nudity and pornography. All this happening during a news cycle that features headlines from Roman Polanski, asking us to consider whether artists are above the law.

We asked a range of experts to weigh in and tell us where they stood on these questions.

Dani Shapiro – Writer; Mother

Dani Shaprio is the author of a 2007 novel Black & White, inspired by the controversy surrounding Sally Mann's "Immediate Family," a book of photographs of her three children, often nude. She wrote an op-ed in The New York Times condemning Rivers' Growing and criticizing the position of NYU.

"At least in my own interpretations of where the line is, it's not, “Never write about your children.” On the other hand, I think that children of writers and artists that are written about, it can be complicated for them. They can feel that their privacy has been invaded.

I have a pretty good feel for myself of where I would be crossing the line and invading my child’s privacy, but at the same time I don’t think I could say “I’m not going to write about him at all,” because it would be like cutting off a limb, creatively speaking.

The point that I really want to make is that the Rivers case is the ultimate victimization of an artist's children by the artist, and sort of the coercion of them to speak in ways they weren’t comfortable speaking, themselves, about their own physical and sexual development. I don’t really see how it’s possible to think of that of anything other than abuse and victimhood.”

Rick Woodward –  Arts Critic

Rick Woodward is an author, journalist and art critic who writes for a number of publications. He did a lot of thinking about the issues surrounding parenthood, art, and child pornography while researching for a 1992 article for The New York Times Magazine, titled "The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann."

“Larry Rivers was an artist and kind of a nut, and this was a time when nudity was not supposed to be a big deal. Parents were nude in front of their children, and anyone who objected was supposed to have hangups, so it has to be put in some kind of historical context.

I just think that anyone who objects to piece of art in an archive because it's offensive – that principal has to be watched very carefully. There is a lot of material in the archives or writers and historians that offends someone, and I certainly don’t think this work should be destroyed, but I think if they severely restrict it, it should be kept as part of the record of part of who he was.

Its disingenuous to think that people aren’t going to be upset by it at the same time, as Larry Rivers certainly knew. He would screen this work, and he certainly knew that he was doing something naughty or transgressive. He was a provocateur, and this was part of who he was and part of his outrageousness.”

 Amy Adler -  Professor of Law; Child Pornography Expert

 Amy Adler is the Emily Kempinon Professor of Law at NYU School of Law. She among the nation’s leading experts on child pornography law. She also specializes in free speech and art law.

“What’s interesting, is that when it comes to adult pornography – that’s sort of the perennial question, “is it art or it obscene?” - and traditionally, in First Amendment law, if something can be shown to have artistic value, then no matter how dirty it is, it’s protected by the First Amendment.

But when it comes to images of children, then the question of whether something is art, doesn’t matter any more, in the eyes of the law.

The legal definition of child pornography is visual images of child sexual conduct. I think it’s possible, without having seen the videos, that this is a case where a film is both legally child pornography, but might also be important in terms of understanding an artist’s corpus. I would say that artists aren’t always known for their moral greatness, or lack thereof. And sometimes what makes something great art, might be the very thing that’s most morally disturbing about it.”