Leading Article: Snap judgements, but not indecent exposure

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The Independent Online
Pity the poor sales manageress. An ability to appreciate the finer points of modern art is not normally regarded as a qualification for running a chemist's shop, in this case a branch of Boots in Glasgow. Yet here she was, faced with reel after reel of naked, bulging female flesh on film sent for processing. She balked. At least, that is what the owner of the body in question says - Boots is taking refuge behind an obfuscatory statement that does not quite call the customer a liar.

Most people find it difficult to follow the arcane debates that take place among experts about the distinction between art and pornography. Some refer to instinct, others to learned articles, yet others to long traditions. The manageress referred to Boots' guidelines, which give branch managers the right to refuse to print pictures 'of an indecent nature'.

How was she to know that the pictures were not indecent but art, or anyway art in the making, and that the owner of the body was Jenny Saville, described by Charles Saatchi as 'one of the most exciting artists' he has seen in the past 30 years and much admired by numerous critics? After all, the snaps did not show a painting but a body, sometimes deliberately distorted. Ms Saville uses them to do enormous paintings, now worth a lot of money. In effect, and far from unusually among artists, she uses herself as a model. These were the images from which she works.

Should it have made a difference to whom the body belonged? A picture is either obscene or not, beautiful or ugly - admittedly subjective judgements - regardless of the identity of the model.

In that respect, there is no difference between the depiction of a famous artist and one of a housewife in a Glasgow suburb. The manageress's mistake was not that she failed to recognise fame or art, but that she was too easily shocked by nudity, which must by now be fairly common in family snaps.

Another question is whether Boots is right to encourage this type of censorship at branch level. Photographs taken in private and processed largely by machine can reasonably be regarded as a private matter among consenting adults. If they show acts that the staff suspect are illegal, the guidelines rightly suggest that the police be informed. But private nudity? Are we not grown up enough for that?

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