Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The documentary record and the rights of the living

Earlier this week, the New York Times published an article by Kate Taylor that I was certain would spark intense discussion in the archival blogosphere and on various listservs, but it seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle. I suspect that it was overlooked because it was posted on the front page of the Times late at night (we information-junkie insomniacs know that the Times posts lots of new stories on its Web site at or shortly after midnight) but very quickly disappeared into a less-than-prominent portion of the Arts section -- which, given the complex ethical issues it raises, is a shame.

New York University (NYU) has just purchased the personal papers of influential proto-Pop artist Larry Rivers. Rivers's connections to a host of significant New York literary and artistic figures are amply documented in his correspondence and other materials, and it's no surprise that NYU sought to acquire them. However, the collection also includes a series of films and videos comprising a project Rivers called Growing: every six months, Rivers filmed his pubescent daughters -- topless or naked -- and asked them invasive questions about their physical development. Emma Tamburlini, Rivers's younger daughter, asserts that she was pressured into participating in the project and that her experiences inflicted lasting psychological harm.

Tamburlini, who unsuccessfully sought to persuade the foundation that controlled her father's artistic estate to return the films to her, is now asking NYU to do the same. NYU has indicated that it would be willing to restrict access to the films for the duration of her lifetime and that it is willing to discuss the matter further, but the thought of the films' survival clearly agonizes her: "I don’t want [them] out there in the world . . . . It just makes it worse.” Moreover, her mother, who believes that Rivers was simply documenting his daughters' development, believes that Rivers wanted his daughters to have the films.

What a tangled mess. I have deep sympathy for Emma Tamburlini, who was profoundly affected by the filming and is by no means the first relative of a noteworthy person to feel that the archival record compromises her privacy or who wishes to destroy particularly painful materials: Stephen Joyce, who controls the literary estate of James Joyce, has become a zealous, litigious guardian of his family's privacy and freely admits that he has destroyed letters written by a mentally ill relative, and many other people who control access to collections of personal papers have used that control to safeguard their privacy.

Moreover, the films themselves are profoundly unsettling. The 70's were a different time, but Rivers himself stated that the project raised eyebrows even then and that his daughters were less than enthusiastic about participating in it. Taylor, who viewed at least some of the Growing footage, notes that Tamburlini and her sister looked "self-conscious" and that Tamburlini rarely spoke on film. As Tracy Clark-Flory wrote in Salon and Iris Carmon pointed out on Jezebel, Rivers's insistence upon filming his daughters unclothed and their lack of ability to give meaningful consent to being filmed both give one pause. Rivers's films may well be art, but they may also meet the legal definition of child pornography in some states.

At the same time, I understand NYU's position. NYU clearly values the intellectual content of the collection and is professionally obligated to care for it responsibly. Moreover, judging from Taylor's article, the Larry Rivers Foundation had complete legal control of Rivers' papers, and Rivers's widow and daughters were not involved in the negotiations that led to NYU's purchase of the collection. Turning over the films, disturbing as they are, to someone who has no legal claim to them may open the door to all kinds of similar requests -- and, in the process, expose NYU to charges of inconsistency or caprice.

I also have a fair amount of professional sympathy for my NYU colleagues, who are trying to untangle these difficult issues in the midst of a public uproar: the Growing films have been the subject of media attention, and several of the many, many readers who commented on Carmon's Jezebel post indicated that they had contacted NYU's director of libraries and head of special collections and provided information that would enable other readers to do the same. I'm sure that many of the people who contacted the director and head of special collections explained their concerns in a calm and carefully thought-out manner, but I'm equally certain that a few people didn't.

I honestly don't know precisely what should be done with the Growing films. I hope that NYU and Tamburlini can reach some sort of agreement concerning long-term access restrictions; most of us try to discourage donors and other interested parties to from imposing decades- or century-long access restrictions, but withholding access to these films until, say, 2110, might be the best solution for which anyone can hope. However, I recognize that the two parties may have irreconcilable differences and that that the films' content may complicate matters further. I do know that I'm glad that I'm not involved in the decision-making process -- and that I'll be keeping close watch on future developments.


Kim said...

I was also surprised not to see it covered more widely. (This, and Maine's new law on government/rare documents, although I guess that genuinely wasn't covered in any high profile media, and isn't nearly so juicy.)

I think the content/provenance of this material does kind of place it in a gray area, legally. I feel uncomfortable with the idea of it staying at NYU, but I understand their reluctance to set this precedent. All I know for sure is that I'm really, really glad I'm not in charge of deciding this.

Larry Cebula said...

Thanks for drawing our attention to this case. I think that the films should be destroyed. When human decency and our self-serving professional ethics collide it is the later that should give way.

records management said...

Its really shame that these things happening and people are aware still not doing anything against them.These films should be destroyed and NYU should take strict actions against such things.An agreement should be drawn between NYu and those who are involved.