It’s always a carnivalesque affair when a piece of art is slandered as pornography. Artists, critics, moralists—all have an opinion and are none too shy about sharing. But the reactions of the past week or so, after one of Nan Goldin’s photographs was seized from a British gallery where it was being shown, were noteworthy.
The usual heated indignation and strident protests about such effrontery were nowhere to be found. In fact, a couple commentators seemed to assert that the charges wouldn’t have been made in the first place if the artwork had been better.
I don’t claim any expertise about pornography. But I do know what art is, and Nan Goldin’s work more than qualifies.
Her snapshot aesthetic has invigorated documentary photography, and her use of slide projections as an art form is nothing short of groundbreaking. The inclusion of her work in innovative exhibitions like "SlideShow" at the Baltimore Museum of Art and "East Village USA" at the New Museum of Contemporary Art is proof. As a 20th-century artist, she stands shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Smithson, Basquiat, Haring and Koons.
Her mid-career retrospective at the Whitney in 1997 showed work devoted to subject matters—AIDS victims, the 1970s and 80s drug culture, transgender relationships, domestic abuse—that society wouldn’t even discuss, let alone see as art. Coupled with an incredible formal ability, it is really no surprise that Goldin was the 2007 recipient of the Hasselblad Award in photography.
Even a quick glance at Goldin’s accomplishments is enough to show how much she has done for photography as a genre. That’s why it is so disconcerting to see members of the art community casting aspersions at one of their own. Insinuating that an artist’s skill is a mitigating factor in the “what is art" controversy is imprudent, but forgetting that the power and purpose of artists is forever tied to free expression, not ability, borders on self-annihilation.