There’s something not quite satisfying in Sean Thomas’s comment, in the Telegraph, on how the public has treated the painter Graham Ovenden. The living artist has one thing in common with the Baroque Italian painter Caravaggio: a month ago, Ovenden was found guilty of engaging his underage models in sexual acts; Caravaggio, by many reliable accounts, also recruited his young models as sexual mentees. Whereas the Tate, following the conviction, announced that they would be removing Ovenden’s paintings from public view, Caravaggio’s inescapably erotic portrait of a prepubescent youth, Victorious Cupid, is still hanging at a museum in Berlin.
At least rhetorically, Thomas asks if this is hypocrisy. “You see the dissonance,” he writes. “On the one hand we are horrified by the evils of pedophilia. Yet we queue to see blatantly pedophile art.”
It is as if he’s worried that a mature, educated public will be incapable of separating our feelings about a work of art from our objections about where it came from. Surely, Thomas knows we’ve been over this. For as long as the public has been able to talk about sexual abuse candidly, we’ve also been able to talk about the sexualization of children in other times and places. We know how common pederasty was in Ancient Greece, but we don’t pull statues of young boys from that epoch from the museum’s halls. At Michael Kimmelman‘s recommendation, we try to view Lewis Carroll’s photographs of children through a lens besides Freudian analysis. We also don’t burn 800-year-old Japanese paintings of sexually precocious boys, and we’re fine with leaving the Caravaggio paintings of prepubescents up on the walls.
Some cultural and historical relativism are put to use, but, for Thomas, that’s not enough. “Perhaps such art is acceptable if it is by dead people?” he asks. “But how dead do they have to be? Centuries? Decades? Weeks? Will Graham Ovenden go back in the Tate, as soon as he passes away?”
I’m sure that this, too, is rhetorical. Yes, it seems odd to place a date on when we can see a work of art differently, but of course, time alone doesn’t seem like the only factor involved.
One aspect that Thomas fails to mention is empathy. That Ovenden’s models lived in present-day England isn’t as important as the fact that the public has heard their stories in such tragic detail. His paintings — no less overtly sexual than Caravaggio’s Victorious Cupid, Boy Bitten by a Lizard, or Boy With a Basket of Fruit — are of people we have heard from, albeit anonymously, in their own words.
This will never be true of Caravaggio’s models, who may have suffered just as much. While the facts of the Italian painter’s offenses are offered in varying degrees of detail (gleaned from letters that came to light centuries after Caravaggio’s fame was secure), we have far less to go on with regard to the youths he was involved with. Moreover, unlike Ovenden, who frequently titled his paintings with his models’ real names, Caravaggio’s subjects were either nameless or explicitly used to depict a mythological or allegorical figure.
All of this would change if we were to suddenly discover a journal or series of letters from Caravaggio’s models describing how terribly the painter treated them. Were this to happen, our historical distance from his figures would cease to matter so much, and our understanding of the paintings’ creepiness would cease to be something abstract and become very, very real. Time may not be a reliable index for how we can or should react to a work of art whose origin disturbs us. Time doesn’t always matter. But our capacity for empathy — regardless of the sexual norms of the day — always will.