Paris's reputation as a home of artistic liberation has taken a fresh blow with the banning of teenagers from a photographic exhibition about teen sexuality – because of fears of legal action.
The exhibition, which opens today, is a retrospective of the US photographer Larry Clark's 50-year career and chronicles the lives of American teenagers between 1960 and 2010. His photos, viewings of which have been restricted to over-18s at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris, depict their subjects' everyday lives and subcultures, from skateboarding to punk rock, drugs and firearms. About one in 10 of the pictures portrays young people engaged in sexual activity.
In protest against the age restriction imposed by Paris City Hall, an explicit black-and-white shot from the collection was splashed on the front page of the newspaper Libération yesterday. It showed a young, naked couple on the back seat of a car, embracing and visibly fondling each other's private parts.
The show's catalogue has also raised difficulties. The traditional publishing house for the capital's exhibitions, Paris Musées, refused to print the book because six images made it feel "uncomfortable". Like some of the works of the French 18th-century writer Voltaire, the catalogue for Clark's retrospective had to be printed in Britain, by his London gallery. Yet some of the controversial photographs have already been exhibited several times in Paris, and some are displayed at the New York Museum of Modern Art without an age restriction.
The ban has therefore provoked controversy in the French media and complaints by Green Party politicians sitting on the Paris city council. Are French teenagers more innocent than US teenagers, they asked, or is France, which used to have a reputation for being open-minded, becoming prudish?
The Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, replied that "what could be done 20 years ago raises problems today; the ideological and legal context regarding contemporary art has changed". The Mayor pointed to legal action launched by associations against museums and curators in the recent past, and said this was not a risk he is willing to take. He was referring to a 10-year battle against the director of the Contemporary Art Museum of Bordeaux for an exhibition called Presumed Innocents: Contemporary Art and Childhood, which showed images "of alleged pornographic content". Clark claimed yesterday that the Paris museum's ban made no sense, saying that it was like telling teenagers to "go back to your rooms and watch all this shit displayed on the internet, but we don't want you to see art that talks about you in museums".
He added: "Of course these photos are disturbing. Art is disturbing. And yes, it's showing sex and nudity, but it's part of life."
The 67-year-old Clark is also a film-maker best known for the 1995 movie Kids, which caused a scandal with its raw portrayal of teenagers, sex and drugs.
Age restriction or censorship of an exhibition by the courts is very uncommon in France, but the stereotype that the country is more artistically liberated than any other has been eroded in recent years. Legal actions are almost systematically brought by associations every time an exhibition is alleged to raise questions about "human dignity".
Three weeks ago, France's highest civil jurisdiction decided that the exhibition of dead human bodies for commercial purposes was illegal, thereby banning exhibitions such as Body Worlds – a touring show hosted by the O2 Arena in London's Docklands last year. It presents human bodies preserved through a process called "plastination" by the German anatomist Gunther von Hagens.
As Clark pointed out, Parisian teenagers need not be too concerned about missing his exhibition: they will still be able to download his photographs from the internet.