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Was this Italian gallery right in removing the Chapman brothers' work?

Posted by James Cartwright,

This week editor James Cartwright wonders whether it was right to remove the Chapman Brothers’ controversial sculpture Piggyback from a Roman gallery or whether it’s an affront to creative freedoms. As ever your comments are welcome below…

This week Piggyback, a 1998 work of art by the British artists Jake and Dinos Chpaman was removed from display at the MAXXI gallery in Rome. It depicts two adolescent girls sat on each other’s shoulders, one with a penis protruding from her mouth, and is part of a series of similar sculptures on children created by the Chapmans over a number of years.

Piggyback was donated to the museum on 2010 when its previous owner Claudia Gian Ferrari passed away, and has been on display since December 2013. But on Saturday the museum took the decision to remove the artwork following a request from the Italian Observatory on the Rights of the Child. They claim to have received numerous complaints from gallery visitors who object to the explicit nature of the sculpture and its supposed promotion of “paedo-pornographic material."

“This is not about an attack on the freedom of artistic expression,” said observatory president Antonio Marziale, “but to avoid promoting depictions with a clear paedopornographic context behind the art.” Context seems to be exactly what Marziale is missing.

Before I start ranting it’s important to note that I’m not a staunch supporter of the Chapman Brothers. I appreciate some of their work, find a lot of it tedious, and was bored to tears by the overblown response to Jake Chapman’s assertion the other week that taking children to art galleries was a “waste of time.” Calm down middle classes of Middle England, his whole intention is to piss you off! But in light of this recent incident I feel bound to defend them both.

Provocative or otherwise it’s important that the Chapman brothers’ work is appreciated in context. Piggyback is shocking to look at, but I don’t think for a second that its intention is to promote paedophilia to a fine art audience. First and foremost it’s a satirical work, but removing it from a gallery suggests its motivations are the same as the very thing it seeks to satirise – that its purpose is arousal and not provocation, that we should accept it instead of question it, and that there is no distinction between representation and reality.

This is a dangerous stance to support, not simply because it threatens creative freedoms, but because it whitewashes the issue and closes down debate. Piggyback is nothing if not shocking, but its power lies in its ability to shock; we look at the sculpture, are moved to disgust and prompted to consider the commodification of child sexuality and the exploitation of minors worldwide. In this sense Piggyback is a powerful piece of anti-paedopornographic propaganda, lampooning a world that allows the abuse of its children. To cover it up may be more convenient to the Observatory’s ideals, but Marziale and the Chapman’s motivations are the same.

If Marziale really wants us to “remember the vile phenomenon” of child pornography then he ought to be sending us all to look at Piggyback. The emotions it provokes may cause us discomfort, but that discomfort reminds us of the rights of our children. “Everyone must agree to promote a culture which is opposed to paedophilia,” says Marziale. But banishing works of art that seek to promote that very culture probably isn’t the best way to go about it.

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Posted by James Cartwright

James started out as an intern in 2011 and is now one of our two editors. He oversees Printed Pages magazine and content wise has a special interest in graphic design and illustration. He also runs our online shop Company of Parrots and is a regular on our Studio Audience podcast.

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