- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 27, 2000

See if you can guess what the following photos have in common: naked young girls and a woman standing on a rock, all of them urinating; a man performing oral sex on a woman; and a man shaving off a woman's pubic hair. Yes, that's right, it's art, the kind of creative work that only dullards could fail to appreciate. For failing to welcome such genius to government property, Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore is now under attack from more enlightened arts critics. "We have a governor who seems to be totally insensitive to and unappreciative of the arts," a photography curator at a Norfolk museum told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The controversy began after a lecture at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond earlier this month by the photographer Sally Mann. One of the persons attending the event sent Mr. Gilmore an anonymous complaint describing the images above and suggested that they were "totally inappropriate" for a state-sponsored show. The show turned out to be privately sponsored, but it was nonetheless held on state property. In a letter to the museum last week, the governor said he was concerned that the location implied the show had Virginia's imprimatur when in fact the state neither supports nor condones such displays.

"As stewards of the taxpayer's money," the governor wrote, "you and your staff must be cognizant of your responsibility to uphold community standards of decency in all of your endeavors. Outrageous displays that push the envelope of decency and challenge the values of our society are simply unacceptable, regardless of the stature of the artist." Museum officials responded that they had no warning of the photos and that they would establish guidelines to clarify what was appropriate for museum display and what wasn't.

Naturally the controversy didn't end there. A spokesman for the Virginia American Civil Liberties Union, Kent Willis, complained Mr. Gilmore's actions show a "profound lack of understanding of art." One of the functions of art, he explained, is "to push the envelope and challenge the values of society." A Catholic University political scientist accused Mr. Gilmore of "censorship" and "micromanagement."

Mrs. Mann's lawyer, Richard Sauber, defended the show. First, he told Stephen Dinan of The Washington Times, there was no "sexual content" to the photos of the urinating woman and children. As for the photos of the man and woman having sex, they were simply of Mrs. Mann and her husband. "[A]ny person," he said, "can walk into any 7-Eleven in the commonwealth and find pictures far more explicit."

It says something about modern artistic standards that 7-Elevens and pornographic magazines have become the official benchmark for what constitutes artistic achievement. Apparently, as long as it doesn't have to be stored in a plain brown wrapper behind the magazine rack, it's fit for public exhibit. As long as it shocks the public conscience, it's halfway to the National Gallery of Art. Forgive the governor if he thinks the arts community should aim a little higher.

At this point in such controversies, the usual procedure is to embark on a lengthy and typically futile effort to define "art." So long as artists insist on government support, they run the risk that politicians and taxpayers will disagree with them about the merits of their work. An alternative arrangement both sides should consider is simply to get the government out of the arts business altogether. If artists want to shock the public conscience or inspire it, let them do it on their own nickel. Consider it the art of compromise.

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