A storm of controversy has ushered in the exhibition in Paris of more than 200 photographs by Larry Clark, the American director best known for “Kids” and who used the F-word 327 times in another film* that went on to win the Grand Prix of the 1999 Cognac Festival of crime and thriller films.
The show, “Kiss the Past Hello,” features mostly unpublished photos from Clark’s projects that spanned nearly 50 years and resulted in three books, “Tulsa,” “Teenage Lust,” and “Los Angeles 2003-2006.” It opened at the Paris Musee d’art moderne (MAM) last Friday and will close on Jan. 2.
The pictures, predominantly black and white, chronicle the lives of skateboarding, punk-rock-loving teenagers adrift in a world of illegal drugs, casual sex and violence. Several shots show naked adolescents making love, toying with firearms and males sporting erections. In one photo, a pregnant girl is caught sticking a syringe into her arm.
However, MAM Director Fabrice Hergott insisted that the potentially troubling images constitute only 10 percent of the collections. “Sometimes we see sex acts which could be described in court as pornography even though they’re not at all pornographic,” he told the liberal newspaper Liberation.
But Paris City Hall disagreed, and two days before the opening, authorities issued a decree banning people below 18 from the show, invoking for only the third time a 2007 law against public showing of art works damaging to morality. Clark is widely recognized in France as an “artiste majeur” of counterculture and his works seen as “a witness to America’s history of the 1970s,” and the ban sparked debate on freedom of expression and the limits of art.
The press led the attacks. In an editorial, Liberation lamented the city fathers’ “hypocrisy,” and said that a simple advisory to parents would have sufficed. The Parisian Greens party accused City Hall of self-censorship, deploring its “excess of prudence” that “creates a dangerous precedent” and that “internalizes repression and censorship.”
On the newspapers’ Web sites, comments from readers came in for and against the measure. A Le Figaro reader branded Clark as a “systematic provocateur who spent his entire career depicting “loss of innocence,” a very clever ploy to touch – at least with the eye – fresh meat without falling under laws protecting children. He makes his dough on the scandals that he provokes.” Another adds, “He is not only intrusive, he is abusive.”
A L’Express reader disagreed: “Art must be disturbing, art must be left to itself, it must explore every road. To suppress it is a crime. Censorship is a crime. Looking for moral values when looking at a picture is wrong.”
In response, the Socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, called the criticisms “a staggering reversal of truth” and hinted at their ideological and political undertones. In an unusual step, he sent to media 13 allegedly offensive photos from the show. The news giants struck back by immediately posting them on their Web sites. Liberation filled its broadsheet’s front page with the boldest of them, a shot showing two young lovers in foreplay, the tip of the male’s genital visible in the hand of his partner.
Meanwhile, the queues are growing longer at the MAM, boosting the Parisian art season that is headlined by a once-in-a-lifetime retrospective of the works of Impressionist painter Claude Monet. To a Liberation journalist, two senior citizens fans of the museum said: “We’ve never seen so many young people. Usually there are only old people like us. Now this, just because you journalist bastards stirred the pot of mayonnaise. .… But of course we didn’t say that.”
Five Larry Clark movies: Kids (1995); *Another Day in Paradise (1999); Bully (2001); Ken Park (2002); Wassup Rockers (2005)