This week, the sleepy town of Tipton, Iowa got an abrupt awakening when local art gallery owner Hugh Stumbo displayed a provocative painting in his streetside window. In the foreground is a nude woman from the neck down, her nether regions obscured by a large gun; in the background, a cheery man toting two fresh fish poses in front of a small church. Stumbo suspected it would be controversial, but not the chief of police calling to inform him that Mayor Shirley Kepford wanted it taken down, citing a concern for citizens getting an eyeful while walking down Main Street in the impending town anniversary celebration.
For now, the offending portion has been covered by cloth, but Mayor Kepford's justifications are similarly obscured. She admitted she could not find a city ordinance requiring the censorship. That is understandable, because there isn't one: the closest is Section 5-2-8(2) of Tipton's municipal code, which says it can be a public nuisance for a building to sell "lewd or immoral … pictures." However, there's no indication Stumbo was soliciting bids for this lone piece. As for "lewd" or "immoral," that definition falls to Iowa Code 2015's criteria for obscenity, which supersede any municipal regulations (Section 728.11).
But the Code comes up similarly short: Section 278.1(5) defines obscene material in relevant part as "depicting or describing the genitals . . . [and] which the average person, taking the material as a whole and applying contemporary community standards with respect to what is suitable material for minors, would find . . . lacks serious . . . political or artistic value.” The meaning of art is by definition subjective, but those values are present in Stumbo’s intended message: a jarring but symbolic juxtaposition of coarseness and calmness. As Stumbo explains, “[o]n the one hand you had flower children, and sex, and violence, mainly in the urban areas. Then you had Tipton: simple, God-fearing, fishing people." If anything, then, the image connotes hometown pride, albeit abstractly. The faceless woman is not engaged in a sexual act, and is clearly an adult; distributed en masse to children, the image could be actionable, but by standing in a gallery window alongside other works, it is hardly a corrupting influence worth covering up.
Whether to celebrate the human form or critique our foibles and fetishes, nudity without pornographic intent has been a part of artwork for centuries. Stumbo's gallery may be a private business, but the message of his work still finds sufficient protection in both Iowa state law and the First Amendment.