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A picture of ourselves offended

In his Edinburgh festival show, the comedian provocatively uses a picture of an art work that has been condemned as child pornography. Is standup the right arena for such a debate?

Warning: this blog contains spoilers for Sanderson Jones's comedy show Taking Liberties

"Do you want to see the picture of a naked 10-year-old girl?" comic Sanderson Jones cries. Almost as one, we cheer our assent. Confronted by the sight of Brooke Shields as a child standing nude in a bath and wearing makeup, there is a stunned silence. The man directly behind blurts out: "Oiled." Everyone is thrown by this, including Jones.

We are not a paedophile ring comparing holiday snaps, but an Edinburgh fringe audience watching Jones's standup show Taking Liberties. Jones, formerly the hirsute face of Ikea UK, has assembled an entertaining hour that questions the nature of offence and its impact upon civil liberties, gradually building from petty irritations to jokes about his dead mother, the Jean Charles de Menezes killing, to Guardian readers' ill-informed opinions on Islam. With some live Chat Roulette.

The Shields image, which is unveiled during the closing section of the show, is in fact a copy of artist Richard Prince's work Spiritual America, a photograph of a photograph taken by Garry Gross in 1975 for Playboy with the consent of Shields's mother. Condemned by some as child pornography, the image was removed from London's Tate Modern in October last year after police warned the gallery it might be breaking obscenity laws.

Jones's show contends that Spiritual America is an appropriate image to use in comedy, a catalyst for a debate about freedom of expression. But is standup an appropriate medium to debate the subject in such graphic fashion? There is a warning about an unspecified image at the top of the show. Yet how many in that room felt free to express their unwillingness to see it, whatever it may have been? Jones couldn't reveal his set-piece without undermining its impact, and few people want to be seen walking out of a gig so early.

So much of standup relies upon surprising, sometimes shocking the audience – as in Kim Noble's staggering, shocking 2009 fringe show, in which he projected video of himself masturbating into jars of vaginal cream, which he then seemed to put back on the supermarket shelf.

Unlike an image hanging sedately in the Tate Modern, approached deliberately and contemplatively, live comedy retains that sudden, explosive power – that visceral punch. It provokes honest, instinctive reaction, be that laughter, revulsion or simply a man blurting out "oiled". That makes it the perfect art form to explore offence and freedom of expression without any pre-conceived agendas. I wasn't offended, I was shocked. But I'm grateful standup still affords me freedom to be offended if I choose.

And yes, you might find the number of spoilers in this post offensive. But you haven't seen what Jones does with the image yet. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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