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French curators charged for “pornography” in 2000 exhibition

In 2000, Bordeaux’s contemporary art museum, the Centre d’Arts Plastiques Contemporains (CAPC), launched the exhibition Presumed Innocent: Contemporary Art and Childhood, featuring work by 80 artists including Jeff Koons, Wolfgang Tillmans, Ugo Rondinone, and Cindy Sherman. Shortly after the show closed, a French child-protection agency filed suit against the museum’s then-director Henri-Claude Cousseau (now director […]

In 2000, Bordeaux’s contemporary art museum, the Centre d’Arts Plastiques Contemporains (CAPC), launched the exhibition Presumed Innocent: Contemporary Art and Childhood, featuring work by 80 artists including Jeff Koons, Wolfgang Tillmans, Ugo Rondinone, and Cindy Sherman. Shortly after the show closed, a French child-protection agency filed suit against the museum’s then-director Henri-Claude Cousseau (now director of Paris’ Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts) and the exhibition curators Marie-Laure Bernadac and Stèphanie Moisdon for showing “violent images of pornographic character.” At issue were three works: a Gary Gross painting of a girl taking a bath, an Elke Krystufek video showing a masturbating girl, and photos by Annette Messager of children with their eyes scratched out. This week charges were finally filed against Bernadac and Moisdon; Cousseau’s charges were laid November 14.

A lawyer for the organizaton, La Mouette, accused CAPC of “displaying pornographic images of children that are an attack on human dignity, and of allowing children and adolescents to see them.” She added, “There is no question of trying to limit freedom of expression. Our case rests entirely on the issue of protecting children. If the show had been adults-only, we would not have gone to court.” (The museum reportedly did have warning language and had cordoned off explicit sections of the exhibition.)

But a group of prominent museum directors–including the Tate’s Nick Serota, Hayward gallery director Ralph Rugoff, Yale Art School dean Robert Storr, and curator/critic Hans-Ulrich Obrist–think it is about limiting speech. They and nearly 100 other curators, historians, and museum directors have come out in support of the 60-year-old Cousseau and the show’s curators. Paris-based artist Thomas Hirschhorn, in an email to colleagues, writes:

It is the first time in France that charges are laid against a museum director and curators in the frame of their professional activity, for the content of an exhibition. There is no jurisprudence for such a case. They face 5 years of prison and 75’000 euros penalty.

We, citizens, artists, creators, intellectuals, researchers, and above all men and women with the freedom to think, create and express ourselves, wish to assert hereby our unconditional support to Marie-Laure Bernadac, Henry-Claude Cousseau and Stephanie Moisdon, and we whish to express how appalled we are by this laying of charges that represents a serious step back, taken against hard-earned liberties.

These liberties, which are the ground of democracy, are endangered today, and we wish to forcefully express our indignation at the seriousness and the injustice of this situation. We all feel concerned and wish to mobilize.

By undersigning this petition, we assert our full solidarity with Marie-Laure Bernadac, Henry-Claude Cousseau and Stephanie Moisdon. If you wish to join this petition, please indicate your Name, Profession, Town and Country and send these informations to :

presumesinnocents@lamaisonrouge.org

Cousseau says, “The show was about the fragility of children and how their image can be exploited.”

For more links about this case, visit NEWSgrist.