Banned in Columbia

June 11, 1991

On the upper level of the Columbia Mall, near Hecht's, shoppers can view the First Annual Visual Arts competition of the Columbia Festival of the Arts. Ironically, with all the emphasis on creativity inherent in this much-touted event, something crucial is missing.

Organizers of the art exhibition, fearing some patrons might be offended, decided that no depictions of human nudity would be displayed. That, presumably, bans from the show not only some of the greatest works of art in human history, but also images of toddlers romping unclothed in the yard or, for that matter, photographs from just about any National Geographic magazine. This, of course, is absurd. But the fear of art is not. It is the logical extension of a national debate last year over whether five photographs contained in a traveling exhibit of the works of Robert Mapplethorpe were, in fact, obscene -- and whether there ought to be some way to screen artists for political correctness -- so that the National Endowment for the Arts could fund only those who passed moral muster.

Fortunately, the attempt to squelch expression ultimately failed. Nonetheless, as the Columbia exhibit makes plain -- the pressure put on those museums which chose to show the Mapplethorpe exhibit and on the politicians who defended the NEA and artistic freedom has had a very chilling effect indeed.

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