Tom Sutcliffe: Ban an image and the more it is noticed

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The Independent Online

I can't recall attending a redacted exhibition before, but by the time I got to Tate Modern's new show "Pop Life" it had, in the dictionary definition of that word, been put in an appropriate form for publication, at least as far as the police were concerned. The odd, chapel-like enclosure in which Richard Prince's Spiritual America is displayed was sealed off from gallery-goers while negotiations continued about the lawfulness of an image of the 10-year-old Brooke Shields, naked and precociously sexualised.

Prince didn't take the photograph and he wasn't endorsing its queasy indifference to the barrier between childhood and knowing maturity (quite the opposite). But even so, somebody had thought it was best to take no chances. Even the catalogues had been removed from the shop; presumably they are destined for a rather laborious process of redaction if Prince's image is deemed permanently unacceptable.

You can hardly blame the police for feeling they ought to visit. The exhibition opened, after all, in a week in which three people, including two women, were found guilty of exchanging photographs of the sexual abuse of very young children, and when the arrest of Roman Polanski focused attention on older men having sex with under-age girls.

Had the police not gone in off their own bat I think it is virtually certain, given the current sensitivity to images of naked children of any kind, that they would have been called in by an indignant member of the public or a tabloid journalist looking for a bit of copy. But the decision taken to seal off the room was quixotic even so – a response almost as dated, in a way, as the image that was causing the problem.

That we have come a long way since that picture was taken is graphically demonstrated by the exhibition itself. Thirty years ago, perhaps even 20, the police may well have contemplated closing the show entirely. It contains explicit images of sexual penetration, open-crotch shots from pornographic magazines and a video recording the encounter between the artist Andrea Fraser and a well-heeled art lover who paid $20,000 to have sex with her.

Now, none of those works present a legal problem for the gallery, though they generate a certain amount of human comedy as you watch visitors trying to compose their features into expressions of intensely serious and unprurient scrutiny. Meanwhile, the Brooke Shields photograph, which was legally publishable when it was taken (though in dubious taste even then) has potentially shifted into the realm of prohibition.

But we have also come a long way in terms of the availability of images. The absurdity of sealing off that room as if it was a honeytrap for paedophiles is that Prince's artwork is readily available to anyone who can type his name correctly into an internet search engine.

To censor a work of art used to be relatively easy: preventing display of the original and access to reproductions of it would usually be confined to a small handful of specialists. Now anyone who wants to can look at that image, perhaps for the wrong reasons, will almost certainly have been alerted to its existence by the police action.

I'm inclined to think Tate Modern should withdraw the work. It records an act of sexual exploitation, and the person exploited does not want it in circulation. I doubt that its capacity to make us think about the sexualisation and commodification of children outweighs that fact.

But nobody should imagine that by taking it down you are taking it out of circulation or making it less likely that it will be seen. These days, paradoxically, censorship is publication.

A performance that leaves Spacey upstaged

Trevor Nunn is obviously not worried by that old theatrical warning against working with children and animals. His new production of Inherit The Wind, the lively dramatic fossil that has just opened at the Old Vic in London, features both. There's quite a bit of uncalled-for urchinry in the crowd scenes (stage-school children pretending to be impish and darting around the legs of their elders and betters) and there's a live monkey, accompanying a hurdy-gurdy man on a stroll down the main-street set.

On this occasion, the children didn't underline the truth of the remark, being broadly ignorable, but the monkey certainly confirmed its essential wisdom. It wasn't just that it suffered from first-night nerves and had to be followed by a swabbing stage hand with a large towel (though such a moment was hardly conducive to suspended disbelief). It was that for every second that it was on stage, no one in the audience could look anywhere else at all. Indeed, this theatrically sophisticated audience couldn't help but respond when it first appeared, with that collective "aww" that traditionally greets a winsome spectacle.

Fortunately, neither David Troughton nor Kevin Spacey had to share the stage with this 2ft-high co-star for any length of time because I don't think they'd have stood a chance of winning our attention. I imagine it was animal welfare laws that robbed it of a well-deserved curtain call, but I'd like to put it on record that quite a lot of my claps were for the monkey.

Keep a lid on unnecessary alcohol laws

There seems to be a worrying trend to ban drinking in public. Some prohibitions make sense, of course. Boris Johnson's ban on drinking on the London Underground makes it a safer and more pleasant place, particularly late at night, and the proposal that some Barnsley parents might be legally discouraged from swigging lager cans as they drop their children at school is hard to argue against. God knows a school run can be stressful, but it's probably best to do it sober.

What is more worrying, though, are suggestions that binge-drinking and alcohol-related disorders can best be addressed by large-scale geographical bans on al fresco drinking. Nottingham is considering going alcohol-free in parks, and many areas of Scotland now have public drinking bans.

In most cases, the authorities assure us the ban is not targeted at nice people having a bit of wine with a picnic in the park. This seems to suggest it is a law that is designed to be operated with social prejudice, inviting the police to distinguish between acceptable public drinkers and unacceptable ones, between the sauvignon blancs and the White Lightnings, and that's a very bad idea. It's also a bad idea to remove a general freedom to target a particular and quite localised problem.

There are plenty of laws already on the statute book that allow the police to deal with offensive and troublesome drunks and – should they be so inclined – harmless drunks too.

We should apply the rules we've got, rather than invent new ones.