by Natalie Edwards
Barbara DeGenevieve is chair of the photography department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and, in 1994, was the recipient of a $20,000 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. This fellowship, along with those granted to Andres Serrano and Merry Alpern, was rescinded. In DeGenevieve’s case, the NEA found the sexual content and graphic nature of her work objectionable. Last fall, her movie Desperado, a self-filmed documentary of her sexual relationship with a truck diver she met on a road trip, was on view at the faculty sabbatical show in the Betty Rymer Gallery. She recently testified on behalf of the ACLU, to challenge the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), a law that intends to protect minors from “harmful content,” mainly profanity and pornography. Though many states have passed similar laws to prevent children from accessing web pages the courts deem harmful, COPA was ruled unconstitutional in 2003 and was recently sent back to the courts for reexamination.
F Newsmagazine: What is your artwork for? What does it “do”?
Barbara DeGenevieve: What it does is annoy people a lot. I make it for a reason, but it’s not to make a specific statement. I think one of the last [artist’s] statements I wrote was that basically, I didn’t have anything specifically in mind other than for the audience to ask themselves questions about what they’re seeing — about the male body, about race, about gender, about sex. I’m more interested in the audience looking at it and responding to it in whatever way they want to respond to it. It’s not like I have a mission like I did when I was in grad school.
F: Even if [the NEA] is going to take $20,000 away?
B: I figure if they’re that angry, on some level I must be doing something that is moving people. I think when I first started making art I had a very specific purpose in doing it, to teach people something. Now I just think that’s a really arrogant position for an artist to take. I mean, you learn something from everything you look at. I’ve changed my attitude a lot, particularly in terms of responsibility.
F: What responsibility?
B: A responsibility to your audience, to the culture, to ideas, to anything. And I just think now that my only responsibility is to myself and my ideas. I can’t be responsible to everything, especially the “audience.” If I feel like I am responsible to some kind of ideal that was set by academia, then I end up becoming impotent. That’s partly what I’m responding to now in my work, that kind of political correctness that results from the faulty logic of academic theory, particularly about the representation of race and sexuality.
F: So, you just want people to look at [your work]?
B: And think about it. This is somewhat arrogant to say, but I make art because I can. Academia is a system of patronage for artists, and it gives you a platform from which to speak. I’m interested in doing what I don’t see being done culturally. I guess that’s sort of an agenda, but at the same time, I don’t want to direct that in any way, I just want people to see the work. Unfortunately the kind of work I do doesn’t have much of a public platform. That’s why I have a website.
F: What do you do with Desperado next? Are you still editing it? What happens next?
B: Desperado is still a work in progress, and I’m really excited about it. But right after the faculty sabbatical show opened, I went to Philadelphia and testified in an ACLU trail on the COPA legislation.
F: Tell me more in detail?
B: The ACLU told me that I was their ideal visual artist witness. My work is sexually explicit and if COPA (Child Online Protection Act) was to be put into effect, I could be in a lot of trouble, like being prosecuted, fined and imprisoned. A good portion of my work is sexually explicit: male nudes and sexually explicit text, language and video, not necessarily female nudes except for brief clips in Desperado. So if a child came to my website, because the child would be able to access my work without age verification, I would be liable for causing “harm to minors.”
F: But female nudes are okay for kids to look at?
B: No, not necessarily. For the DOJ (Department Of Justice), no representation of sexuality is okay for kids to look at, but I think the idea of male sexuality much more than female sexuality, is such a taboo culturally. You’ll never see even a flaccid a penis on commercial TV, and because an erection is an indication of being sexually excited, the aroused penis is considered pornographic, and there is an erection on my site. What the DOJ lawyers were saying was that I didn’t have to worry about this because I was an artist and my site was not for any kind of commercial gain. I told them that wasn’t true because I‘m hoping to sell my work and the site is also a vehicle for getting lectures and shows. It’s definitely a commercial venue. All artists have that in mind when they put up a website. The judge agreed, but the strangest thing was to see my work in a courtroom and to watch people, especially the DOJ lawyers, respond to it.
The first thing the ACLU showed was excerpts from Steven X and Barbara C. There was total silence in the courtroom. I was told later that people were just aghast at what they were hearing. It’s two talking heads, so it’s not anything visual, just what the heads are saying. It’s about a pedophilic encounter between a 40-year-old man and a 12-year-old girl, so whether it’s visual images or audio or text, it would be covered by COPA. COPA was an outgrowth of the Communications Decency Act which was overturned as being unconstitutional in the late ‘90s. So after that, there were a number of attempts to write legislation that would control sexual content on the internet.
F: Now that you’ve been involved in this, do you feel like you’re part of a crusade?
B: Yeah. To save artists’ asses. I think the Internet is going to become increasingly restrictive as more of these regulatory constraints are attempted. I think [as] it becomes more privatized or corporatized or however you want to look at what’s going to happen. It’s not going to be as free as it was and you’re going to have to pay for a lot more than you ever had to pay for before.
F: No more free porn?
B: Not if the white house, the attorney general, and the DOJ have their way.
F: Heaven forbid we let poor people on the Internet.
B: Exactly. I guess I have always felt like some sort of crusader. The politics of the body, gender, sexuality – the war continues! You really believe a battle has been won, and then something else comes up and you think, “God when is it all going to end?” It’s not.
I’m glad to be in involved in it at this level, because it seems to validate something, not about my work necessarily, but that American culture continues to have a schizophrenic problem with sex. They’re trying to protect children from pornography when that’s not what they need to be protected from. They need to be protected from their parents, who don’t remember what it’s like to be a child, to be curious, and to want information, and they need to be protected from a fearful educational system that refuses to give them the information they need.
The ACLU lawyers [asked] if I thought my work should be unavailable to children. I said yes, but that parents should oversee what their kids are looking at and explain it to them. It’s not that there’s anything so horrible about most of the sexual stuff that’s on the Internet. However, for kids, it needs to be explained in a very matter-of-fact, non-hysterical, non-judgmental way. There’s a lot of really extreme pornography out there [but] it’s hard to access freely.
F: So do you think if a kid were to stumble upon your site, that many American parents could explain to their child what they’re seeing there?
B: I don’t know, probably not, but that’s not my problem. That’s where that idea of responsibility comes in. I’m taking responsibility for my ideas. I don’t think, even if a child sees my website, that they’ll be harmed by what they see or hear.
After Steven X and Barb C, women would come up to me and say, “Oh my God, that’s my childhood right there, I can’t believe that I’m actually hearing that somebody else had those experiences.” So it’s not like these things don’t happen, and that children don’t have a sexuality of their own. It’s that parents are afraid. I mean, somebody said to me, “Why would you let your child go on the Internet alone without supervision, to begin with?” If you don’t want the child to see something you put controls on it so they don’t see it.
It’s sort of like saying, “Go ahead [to your child], you can go out in public, and don’t worry about anything, just come home at ten o’clock.” You can’t just let your kid roam freely on the Internet if you don’t want your kid to see certain things or be affected by certain things. It’s like a baby-sitting device, like television. It’s not like parents can control that, but they need to be a little bit more open with their kids, be a little less worried about telling them about sex and sexuality. This culture isn’t set up to understand anything about sex. Sex education is not a part of public school anymore
Why would you think that kids would have safe sex if kids don’t know how to think about it, or [don’t have] access safe sex supplies? It’s baffling to me that somehow people seem to have a mind-erase about being a child, being an adolescent, you know, a young adult. When they have their children, they’re just “no that didn’t happen. I have no idea.”
F: I just saw an Oprah about a woman who wouldn’t let her daughter touch “her parts.” She was horrified that her daughter might get some pleasure from that.
B: It’s embarrassing because kids don’t have boundaries and they’ll do anywhere, and they don’t have any shame about it until their parents make them ashamed about sex and their bodies. I have a number of friends, who they’ll say “It is kind of freaky when you watch your kid masturbate. They’ll just start, watching television, sitting around or whatever.” But they’ll say, “It’s ok for you to do that, but it’s probably better to do that in your room.” That’s right. You don’t say, “You can’t do it. It’s bad. It’s wrong.” That, more than anything, fucks up a kid. I think parents need to be trained more than their kids do.
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