**Victory! San Bernardino County Restores Artwork! NCAC congratulates artists, community members, and ACLU for defending First Amendment principles** Read the whole story in the San Bernardino Sun.
This past September, NCAC received a call from an artist outraged at the removal of three paintings from the Hispanic National Heritage Art Exhibition at the San Bernardino County Government Center. Apparently some visitor to the space found the works (shown here) “offensive.”
We immediately sent a letter – co-signed by the Southern California ACLU affiliate – informing County officials that the free speech clause in the First Amendment bars them from arbitrarily imposing their prejudices on a curated exhibition. As we said in the letter: ”In removing the work the Government Center is not only violating the free speech rights of the artist and the exhibiting organization, but is also exposing the county to legal liability.”
This intransigence left those of us who care for artistic freedom with the only option of filing a lawsuit. So on November 22, 2013 the ACLU of Southern California and firm of Jenner and Block, LLC jointly filed a suit for violating the free speech rights of Efren Montiel Jimenez, two of whose paintings were removed from the exhibition. In similar cases, public officials have immediately responded and restored artwork to display. Not so in San Bernardino.
The lawsuit means that the frivolous and arbitrary decision of some county officials may now lead to costly litigation. County officials not only removed the work in total disregard of artistic freedom, but refused to take into account a history of cases where similar actions have been found to violate the constitution. Who will foot the cost of a lawsuit: taxpayers. We hope those taxpayers hold officials accountable for exposing the County to unnecessary lawsuits.
But what is in a nude?
Simple nudity is fully protected by the Constitution, as the Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed. Nevertheless, nudes are perhaps the most frequently suppressed category of art in the United States. This may be one feature that makes this country’s censorship mores unique (religious and political controversies abound elsewhere). Controversy regularly accompanies the display of nudes in a public space that is not solely dedicated to art, be it a library, town hall, or county center.
The acceptability of nudes is to a high degree a question of location or, one may say, a form of keeping up appearances. The “sex sells” philosophy of advertising is pervasive but never explicit (sexual innuendo can be easily denied), porn and sexual subcultures are relegated to the private sphere and, in the context of specialized art institutions, the risqué character of the body has long become a rather tired cliché. Yet, in spaces that do double duty as exhibition venues and educational art centers or other public purpose buildings, even the most abstract or stylized suggestion of a nude body can be considered off limits.
Whatever the deep reasons for the exacerbated sensitivity to nudes in public spaces may be – whether it be the country’s religious past, the obsessive discomfort with the body characterizing its dominant religious traditions, the guilt associated with the nation’s insatiable consumption of porn, or the combination of these factors – the most frequent overt justification for the removal of nudes is the claim that children may happen to see them.
It seems that this fear is strongest in cases where children – and their parents – may encounter nudes inadvertently, for instance in the hallway of an arts center offering drawing classes. Yet, no harm has befallen children visiting large museums, where nudes are ubiquitous, nor has anyone even made an argument that children may be subjected to any specific harm by seeing a nude. In spite of that, time and again, the potential presence of children is used as a justification for the removal of nudes and few challenge the reasoning behind such an argument. Perhaps it is not any actual harm to the children that makes adults try to shield them from representations of the human body, perhaps adults are protecting themselves from the embarrassment they feel when seeing a nude in the company of children. The strong reaction to representations of nudes is much more understandable as a result of adults’ unease at the erotic interest that a nude may arouse in themselves, than as a result of the effect of nudes on children.