Obscene? What's It Mean?

TO WIT

December 30, 1990|By Dave Barry

Obscenity. Pornography. Naked people thrusting their loins. Should these things be legal? What is obscenity? What is art? What exactly are "loins"? How come nobody ever calls the office and says, "I can't come to work today because I have a loinache"? These are some of the serious questions that we must ask ourselves, as Americans, if we are going to get away with writing columns about sex.

These issues are relevant right now because of the raging national debate over the National Endowment for the Arts, which was established to spend taxpayers' money on art, the theory being that if the taxpayers were allowed to keep their money, they'd just waste it on things they actually wanted. Because frankly, the average taxpayer is not a big voluntary supporter of the arts. The only art that the average taxpayer buys voluntarily either has a picture of Bart Simpson on it, or little suction cups on its feet so you can stick it onto a car window.

So if you left it up to the public, there would be hardly any art. Certainly there would be no big art, such as the modernistic sculptures that infest many public parks. You almost never hear members of the public saying, "Hey! Let's all voluntarily chip in and pay a sculptor upward of $100,000 to fill this park space with what appears to be the rusted remains of a helicopter crash!" It takes concerted government action to erect one of those babies.

The taxpayers also cannot be relied upon to support performing arts such as opera. As a taxpayer, I am forced to admit that I would rather undergo vasectomy via Weed Whacker than attend an opera. The one time I did sit through one, it lasted approximately as long as fourth grade and featured large men singing for 45 minutes in a foreign language merely to observe that the sun had risen.

My point is that the government supports the arts for the same reason that it purchases $400,000 fax machines and keeps dead radioactive beagles in freezers: Nobody else is willing to do it. The question is, should we carry this concept further? Should JTC the government require taxpayers not only to pay for art, but also to go and physically admire it? This program could be linked with the federal court system:

Judge: Mr. Johnson, you have been convicted of tax evasion, and I hereby sentence you to admire four hours of federally subsidized modern dance.

Defendant: No! Not modern dance!!

Judge: One more outburst like that, Mr. Johnson, and I'm going to order you to also watch the performance artist who protests apartheid using a bathtub full of rigatoni.

So federal art is good. But now we must grope with the troubling question: Should the government support smut? And how do we define "smut"? You can't just say it's naked people, because many famous works of art, such as the late Michelangelo's statue of David getting ready to fight Goliath, are not wearing a stitch of clothing. Which raises the question: Why would anybody go off to fight in the nude? Was it a tactic? Perhaps this explains why Goliath just stood there like a bozo and let himself get hit by a rock. "Hey!" he was probably thinking. "This guy is naked as a jaybird! What's he trying to Awwrrk."

Some people argue that a work is not pornographic as long as it has redeeming social value. But you can find people who will testify in court that almost anything has redeeming social value:

Prosecutor: So, Professor Weemer, you're saying that this video depicts an ecology theme?

Witness: Yes. The woman displays a lot of affection for the zucchini.

On the other end of the spectrum, some people think that just about everything is evil. For example, the Rev. Donald Wildmon, a leading anti-pornography crusader, once mounted a crusade against a Mighty Mouse cartoon. I swear I am not making this up. In this cartoon, Mighty Mouse took a whiff of something; the cartoon makers said it was clearly flower petals, but the Rev. Wildmon was convinced that Mighty Mouse was snorting cocaine.

Of course it's difficult to believe that Mighty Mouse, even if he is a cocaine user, would be stupid enough to snort it on camera. But, as parents, we have to ask ourselves: What if the Rev. Wildmon is right? And speaking of cartoon characters with apparent drug problems, how come Donald Duck has been going around for 50 years wearing a shirt but no pants? Flashing his loins! Right in front of Huey, Dewey and Louie, his so-called "nephews," if you get my drift! And consider this: If you call up the Walt Disney public relations department, they'll tell you that Mickey and Minnie Mouse are not married, despite having the same last name. Come to think of it, they also have "nephews."

My point is that the obscenity-art issue involves many complex questions, and we owe it to ourselves, as Americans, to give them some serious thought. You go first. *

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