Today, the National Coalition Against Censorship is urging the Tennessee Arts Commission to reconsider its apparent policy of banning all artwork containing nude figures from the TAC Gallery located in Nashville. The Tennessee Arts Commission and its gallery are funded by the State of Tennessee and the National Endowment for the Arts.
The NCAC was made aware of the TAC's policy after the Gallery accepted an exhibition proposal from artist Ernie Sandidge in November 2001. Neither the initial call for submissions nor Sandidge's letter of acceptance from the TAC mentioned any content restrictions on artwork. However, Sandidge was later informed of the alleged policy, after he submitted his work, via a phone call from a TAC official. Despite repeated requests from the artist and the NCAC, the Tennessee Arts Commission refuses to produce the policy in question.
According to Svetlana Mintcheva, Arts Advocacy Coordinator at NCAC, "the nude has historically been a central subject of art. A practice of excluding nudes would effectively ban Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Manet, Picasso, and many other classical and modern artists from the TAC Gallery." Added Mintcheva, "the TAC's alleged policy is ridiculously short-sighted and does a great disservice to not only artists but also the many art-lovers in Tennessee."
Here is our letter to the Tennesse Arts Commission:
Mr. Rich Boyd
401 Charlotte Avenue
Nashville, TN 37243-0780
Dear Mr. Boyd,
We are writing to urge you to reconsider the overbroad and ill-conceived policy of the Tennessee Arts Commission to exhibit no nude figures in its Gallery.
The case, which alerted us to the situation, was, as you are aware, Ernie Sandidge's exhibition proposal. TAC accepted the proposal with an official letter signed by Timothy Weber, Director of Visual Arts, Crafts, and Media, dated November 20, 2001. Neither the letter, nor the initial call for submissions mentioned any content restrictions. The artist was informed of the no-nudity policy of the Gallery in a phone conversation with Mr. Weber only at a later date. This requirement surprised and dismayed Mr. Sandidge, as his work happens to contain a large number of nudes—and this was reflected in the sample slides he sent with the initial submission.
In response to the artist's request for a copy of the policy, you sent him a letter stating that the gallery is a "limited public forum with restrictions on the selection of the works exhibited." This explanation, however, does not justify the "no nudes" policy. Limited public forums are defined as "public property which the state has opened for use by the public as a place for expressive activity" and are treated substantially the same as traditional public forums (Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263 (1981)). Any restrictions must be reasonable, content-neutral and narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest. Now what could the compelling interest be in banning nudes?
In a similar case, an exhibit of Robyn Bellospirito's work was cancelled in 1993 for violating the Manhasset (NY) library's "no nudes" policy. Bellospirito won a victory for artists and for freedom of expression after she sued the library for deprivation of her First Amendment rights. Federal district court judge Thomas Platt ruled that the library had created a display area which constituted a "limited public forum," and that the state lacked a compelling interest in suppressing nudity. His ruling caused the library director to reschedule the show. Without going into legal intricacies as to the kind of forum the TAC gallery represents, the important question remains: what public interest could possibly be served by excluding nudes?
Banning nudes from view is a concession to the beliefs and moral views of a small group of people who believe that the human body should not be seen uncovered. The large and diverse American public as a whole does not share that belief. The Supreme Court of the United States has repeatedly declared that simple representations of nudity are a constitutionally protected form of artistic expression. A policy excluding nudes suppresses expression that a large part of the public values and appreciates, so that some few would not be offended in their beliefs.
The nude has historically been one of the central subjects of art. Excluding nudes would place a ban on Praxiteles, Michelangelo, Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Renoir, Manet, Picasso, and so many other classical and modern artists. The beauty of the human body has inspired painters, photographers, sculptors and choreographers for many centuries.
TAC's ban on all nudes is not only ridiculously provincial but also dangerous. The irrational policy to exclude nudes from the gallery casts a chill on creativity. It forces artists who want their work to be viewed there to restrict the subjects they depict, thus censoring themselves.
Excluding all nudes promotes the viewpoint that the human body is an object of shame that should remain hidden from sight. While we need to respect the right of people to hold a variety of religious and moral beliefs, the government should not embrace the beliefs of one group to the disadvantage of everyone else. The Supreme Court has repeatedly asserted that the First Amendment bars government officials from censoring works because somebody finds them offensive, sacrilegious, morally improper or otherwise disagreeable.
We strongly urge you and the Tennessee Arts Commission to reconsider the no-nudes policy in view of the interest of the public you serve.
We are looking forward to your response.
Arts Advocacy Project Coordinator