Dangers Imagined and Real: An investigation into what “Artifacts at the End of a Decade” can teach us about mothers, artists and the safety of children

By Jessica Scott

This article was written as a result of a semester long practicum with Associate Professor Sam Redman focusing on research into the original production of Artifacts at the End of a Decade. Professor Redman also serves as a member of the steering committee for the UMCA exhibit opening February 16th.

It was early Fall 2019 by the time co-curator Jill Hughes and I decided to show the artists book Artifacts at the End of a Decade in its entirety for our 2020 UMCA Curatorial Fellow Exhibition. We’d only seen  its “pages” through the thumbnail images on the website for the 5 Colleges Museum’s Digital Database but we were already piqued by how it stood out from the rest of the collection’s 3000 works on paper. Published in 1981 by Steven Watson and Carol Venezia-Huebner, Artifacts at the End of a Decade is an unbound artists’ book consisting of of 44 unique pieces of photography, ceramics, fiber, print, clothing, painting, and drawing, contributed by artists including Martha Rosler, Fab 5 Freddy, Laurie Anderson, Sol LeWitt, Robert Wilson, Lucinda Childs, and Robert Kushner, among many others. As a multidisciplinary American survey of the 1970’s in the form of an artists’ archive, it’s a work that was both a response to its time and far ahead of it.

An image of an opened archival box containing the artists Watson and Venezia-Huebner's portfolio "Artifacts at the end of a Decade."
An image of an to closed archival box containing the artists Watson and Venezia-Huebner's portfolio with the title "Artifacts at the end of a Decade" on the cover of the box.

Artifacts in its portfolio, photography by Stephen Petergorsky.

Once our exhibition proposal was approved, UMCA archivist and conservator Jenny Lind pulled the bound box which contains Artifacts out of the UMCA collection so that we three could explore its contents. Thrilled to hold Artifacts’ heavy portfolio in our hands while finally leafing through its complete holdings, we paused midway through to examine a piece called PhotographPoster Male/Mail by the artist Jacqueline Livingston. In the physical portfolio her work was accompanied by a poster which hadn’t appeared in the digital archives. The poster named the subject of the tiled nude photographs in her artwork as her 6 year old son and explained the casual circumstances under which they were taken. The way the photos are cropped makes it clear there is a nude male figure with his penis in his hands, but each photo is cut off at the torso so the age and identity of the person depicted is not immediately apparent to the viewer. The poster details, in chronological order, some of the immediate consequences Livingston suffered after originally publishing these photos of her child in 1978. Compelled to do my own research, I discovered that the public backlash to the publication of these photos would have a lifelong impact for Livingston beyond the events listed in the poster.

Image of the poster from Jacqueline Livingston's "PhotographPoster Male/Mail" work.

The poster from Jacqueline Livingston’s PhotographPoster Male/Mail, photography by Stephen Petergorsky.

After the first publication of PhotographPoster Male/Mail, Jacqueline Livingston became one of the first targets of the newly created child pornography legislation that took effect in the late seventies. New York Child Protection Services threatened to remove her son from her care using these photos as evidence of abuse. Livingston lost her job as a professor of photography at Cornell University and some of her films to the Kodak Film Company which confiscated them as “pornography”. Several art magazines refused to run ads for Livingston’s posters of adult male nudes. She sued Cornell University for firing her, alleging sex-biased employment discrimination.[1] After five years of litigation, the case resulted in a settlement. However, Livingston was never again allowed to teach at Cornell. After her settlement she attempted to move in a new professional direction and opened One-Artist’s Gallery in New York, but due to continuing surveillance by the FBI she was forced to close.

In a recent interview with the creators of Artifacts, Steven Watson and Carol Huebner-Venezia state that they were never the targets of any public outcry for distributing this work as a part of Artifacts’ collection.[2] The severity of the backlash that Livingston alone experienced stunned me, prompting a sudden realization of the responsibility Jill and I had as curators to carefully consider our own community’s standards for displaying such content. But more than that, I was gripped by the familiarity of this story. Finding Livingston’s work felt like we’d stumbled upon the site of this story’s first telling, a recitation which in the 40 years since continues to echo in our public imagination when we talk of mothers who are artists and pictures of their children.

Jacqueline Livingston was one of the first victims of an increasingly polarized attitude towards contemporary art, one which would gain momentum by the 1990’s and become part of what was known as the culture wars. Spearheaded by the arch-conservative politician Pat Buchanan, the rhetoric of the culture wars divided American’s along ideaological lines on the topics of abortion, women and gays in the military, teaching sex education and evolution in schools, pornography and obscenity in popular media. The culture wars of the 1990’s were notable in that both the religious right and moderate left were in agreement that artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Chris Ofili and Sally Mann were purveyors of dangerous obscenities. This claim was used to slash government funding for the arts resulting in a barren landscape of fiscal austerity, a loss from which the arts community in the United States has not yet fully recovered.

At the time, Claire Henze, Nan Goldin and Sally Mann, like Livingston were female photographers taking nude pictures of the children in their lives. Sally Mann and Claire Henze were also the mothers of those children and a distinct brand of vitriolic logic was used to attack their reputations, their art and the very structure of their families. My research on Livingston revealed these same attacks were rehearsed on her over a decade before. Written in 2009 on her self-published blog, Livingston recalls a conversation with her administration at Cornell in 1976 shortly after the first exhibition of Male/Mail and other male nudes on campus, “In speaking to the art department chair, I was told bluntly, “You cannot be a feminist and stay at Cornell and furthermore, you cannot photograph male genitalia and expect to stay here either.” While the style and degree of nudity depicted in the photos vary strongly between Livingston, Henze and Manns, the fact that they are all the subjects’ mothers seems central to the “How could you?” undertone of the broad accusations of child endangerment they each received. The rejoinder “You’re their mother!” could remain unsaid; an audience so conditioned by the culture wars script could easily fill in the blanks like a moral outrage call and response. In spite of or in part due to the controversies, Manns, Henze and Goldin still enjoy enormous artworld success while Livingston was hounded throughout her career.

The debates against exhibiting certain artworks during the Culture Wars of the 1990’s are very different from the debates happening now about people’s history, power and public art. In the Culture Wars the identities of the artists themselves, and not just the content of their work, were under vicious attack. Some of the public reaction against Livingston, Henze and Manns was a rejection of how these artists radically collapsed and combined categories, pushing back against a cultural expectation that women’s professional, artistic and intellectual lives be maintained separately from our lives as mothers. When combining these identities in their work, they provoke our discomfort with a mother’s access to and power over her children’s bodies. Amidst these and other challenging questions, Jill and I were most concerned with how to curate and contextualize Livingston’s work so that it could receive a more fair reception from a contemporary audience in our upcoming exhibit.

It’s been 40 years since Livingston’s PhotographPoster Male/Mail was originally published in Artifacts at the End of a Decade. She is dead and her son is grown. Many of the children in these pictures have gone on record to say they are fine and the pictures themselves did no harm.[3] We, the public, have also changed. Our social media is full of child actors and young influencers with accounts managed by their “momagers” giving the world unprecedented access to images of their youthful routines, both candid and posed, in exchange for ad revenue. Family albums shared on Facebook are full of photos of children in bathtubs and in pools. Reality TV shows regularly feature child stars competing with the coached and stylized composure of adults. We protest and consume, in equal amounts, hypersexualized media featuring children, media which paradoxically warns against the possible outcomes of this hypersexualization at the same time as it peddles it. Celebrities crusade against child-trafficking using quack statistics published by Q-Anon who have commandeered the “Save The Children” hashtag .[4] We witness the troubling acceptance and mainstreaming of conspiracy theories about supposed sexual predators under our very noses, literally under neighborhood pizza joints if you believe the confabulations of Pizzagate.[5] And yet, amidst the sensationalized threat of a fictional epidemic of child abuse, we have solid documentation of a national regime of blatant child abuse funded by citizen’s tax dollars with the full approval of our administration in detainment camps at the Mexican-US border and carceral facilities coast to coast. With cultural discourse pulling even farther away to each contradictory extreme of the issue, how could we predict the possible consequences of exhibiting PhotographPoster Male/Mail work at a teaching museum on a public university campus?

I’ll cut to the chase: with the full support of the UMCA we have chosen to exhibit Livingston’s piece alongside the rest of Artifacts’ collection because it is critical for us to be authentic in our claim to offer Artifacts in its entirety. Each piece in Artifacts contributes to the intertextuality of the portfolio that marks it as a singularly complex, layered and special work within the UMCA collection. But we display PhotographPoster Male/Mail in such a way that the explicit portions of it are not viewable. We have included the poster detailing the public backlash in the frame with the work. An extensive chat label below describes our curatorial concerns and the process of arriving at this solution for display. At the end of a committed conversation with UMCA leadership, we could not deny the very real possibility that controversy about this one piece could overshadow the entire show at a loss to everyone involved: curator, museum and audience alike.

Image of the display solution Scott and Hughes created for the UMCA exhibition, showing Livingston's poster with a contextual label beneath.

Our display solution for Livingston’s work from the UMCA exhibit. Photography by Stephen Petergorsky.    

Instead of interrogating Livingston or her motives as a mother and artist, what does displaying Photograph Poster Male/Mail as not viewable do to us, the viewer? Does it position the work as illicit now that part of it is hidden, encouraging the very perspective we curators originally wanted to combat? The history of this embattled discourse on images of children forces the viewer to temporarily inhabit the mind of a predator to determine if this work could be seen as titillating instead of viewing it as the artwork as it was intended. Our censorship of these artworks is a trap for kids, their parents, the audience, artists, and for people in social services on the frontlines of actual incidents of child abuse because it makes us see something that isn’t there and erases what actually is there. We search these images for signs of danger first, eliding other possible meanings, artistic value and insight, all the while ignoring, tolerating or actively abetting cruelty towards children in our national policy at the border and in our war on the poor. Jill and I could not determine the perfect way to show this work because the public is still gripped in a confounding political impasse about whether our world is safe for children, what threats are real and which are propaganda. Even though the decision is made and the work is hung, I continue to turn our treatment of Jacqueline Livingston over in my mind. The final question we ask the viewer in the chat label under PhotographPoster Male/Mail is most poignant for me: what kind of world might enable this work to be exhibited without controversy?

Jessica Scott, MFA Studio Arts 2021, UMCA Curatorial Fellow, 2019-2021, Co-Curator of “Artifacts at the End of a Decade”

Jill Hughes, MA Art History 2021, UMCA Curatorial Fellow, 2019-2021, Co-Curator of “Artifacts at the End of a Decade”.

The exhibit of Artifacts at the End of a Decade will open at the University of Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, February 16th 2021. A zoom artists talk will be held on February 25th with Artifacts creators Stephen Watson and Carol Huebner Venezia, moderated by Associate Professors Sam Redman (History) and Karen Kurczynski (Art History). Visit Artifacts at the End of a Decade Digital Exhibit for more information.

Additional Sources: 

Jenkins, Tiffany. “Art of Abuse”, The Independent, September 2010. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/art-or-abuse-a-lament-for-lost-innocence-2078397.html

Linkhof, Ralph and Parsons, Ralph. “The Controversial Act of Taking Pictures of Children”, UNFRAMED, LACMA Blog. December 2012. httpsChildren” ://lacma.wordpress.com/2012/10/11/the-controversial-act-of-taking-pictures-of-children/

Livingston, Jacqueline. “My Story of Censorship”, http://jacquelinelivingston.blogspot.com. October 2009. 

Reich, William. “Jacqueline Livingston: Male Nudity Against The System”, Artlark.org, June 2020. https://artlark.org/2020/06/21/jacqueline-livingston-male-nudity-against-the-system/

Steward, James Christen. Michigan quarterly review,” The Camera of Sally Mann and the Spaces of Childhood” Volume XXXIX, Issue 2: Secret Spaces of Childhood (Part 1), Spring 2000

Footnotes: 

[1] From Livingston’s self-published blog, she reports, “In the fall of 1980, four other plaintiffs and I entered court with a class action sex-discrimination suit against Cornell. During the five years of litigation, thirty-six other women, ex-Cornell faculty, joined the suit. Cornell settled out of court for $250,000–$16,000 each for the five original plaintiffs. It was hardly a year’s academic salary.”  

[2] Interview with Steven Watson and Carol Venezia-Huebner, February 2019.

[3] “It was actually Mann’s children who insisted that she publish the photos sooner rather than later; she had wanted to wait a decade, when “the kids (wouldn’t) be living in the same bodies.” Mann and her husband did take steps to protect their kids—the two older children went to a psychologist to be sure that they understood the implications of publishing the photos. She also attempted to limit the availability of Immediate Family in Lexington-area bookstores and libraries.” https://www.eileenmcginnis.com/blog/2019/4/29/exposures-photographer-sally-mann-and-the-dangerous-art-of-motherhood.

From Livingston’s blog, “With this assurance, my then eleven-year-old son and I met with a social worker who questioned us with our lawyer present. My son was asked how he felt about the photographs of him (“Fine we’re nudist.”), and I was asked, “Are you photographing other children nude?” (“No.”) The social worker had seen my fourteen posters in the local gallery in a feminist bookstore and said he supported my work.” http://jacquelinelivingston.blogspot.com

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/28/technology/save-the-children-qanon.html; https://www.vox.com/21436671/save-our-children-hashtag-qanon-pizzagate; https://www.newsweek.com/celebrities-who-have-tweeted-about-qanon-1526473

[5] https://www.politifact.com/article/2016/dec/05/how-pizzagate-went-fake-news-real-problem-dc-busin/

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