Reflections on a Nude

August 17, 1993

Carroll County Recreation Director Richard J. Soisson had it right. "What we're doing is trying to liven up the hallway," he said of artwork hanging in the Carroll County Office Building in Westminster, near the desk where residents come to pay their tax bills.

But not too lively or too provocative, added the official, who oversees the Carroll County Arts Council that arranges the rotating monthly exhibits by local artists. So Mr. Soisson asked artist Thomas J. Sterner to remove from the display his witty nude painting, "Art Censors Art." The controversy and possible sexual titillation were considered inappropriate for the public and county office employees.

Mr. Sterner, a member of the Carroll County Artists Guild that is part of the arts council, responded by removing all of his 22 works. "The intent of my artwork is to make people think and make them laugh, not to upset them," the Westminster painter explained. "There are no hard feelings on my part."

Both the artist and county officials tried to downplay the censorship angle of the decision. The county offices are not an art gallery, Mr. Soisson emphasized, noting that the offered exhibits should be better screened by the arts council in the future to avoid possible controversy.

While the majority of Carroll County's citizens could probably conduct their business in the government office building without much interest in or reaction to the painting, others may have found the nude offensive or suggestive or sexually provocative. Perhaps it was not the best place to hang the painting. The work's playful suggestion of censorship (a placid landscape was draped around the nude's hips) became ironically self-fulfilling in this instance.

Of larger concern is the intimation of Carroll County officials that this nude work of art is somehow comparable to a sexually suggestive female "pin-up" picture, that its presence could be considered sexual harassment by female employees. It makes us wonder what type of sensitivity or sexual harassment courses county employees recently completed.

The question of sensitivity should be raised. But a mature, understanding response would have rejected the idea that this work was demeaning to females or intentionally erotic. Reports of giggles and mock shock by employees underline our concern about the real impact of their training.

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