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Just what are we being exposed to? Another view

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at al.martinez @latimes.com

EVER since the coverup of a bare breast at the Justice Department building in Washington, D.C., four years ago, America has gotten a little more prudish about nudity. Any nudity.

The breast belonged to a statue, Spirit of Justice, that stood in the department’s Great Hall, where U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, a staunch conservative, often held news conferences. The statue was concealed by drapes, presumably to avoid having the breast loom over Ashcroft every time he appeared on camera.

The episode builds upon the tradition of the late Republican Sen. Reed Smoot of Ogden, Utah, whose legacy of fighting obscenity in the early 1900s was immortalized by the poet Ogden Nash with, “Senator Smoot (Republican, Ut.) / Is planning a ban on smut. / Oh rooti-ti-toot for Smoot of Ut. / And his reverend occuput.”

This was followed some years later by the wry musical satirist Tom Lehrer observing in his tune “Smut”: “When properly viewed, everything’s lewd.”

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Never has this been truer than during halftime entertainment at the 2004 Super Bowl when Janet Jackson’s left breast was exposed on national television, allowing many their first glimpse of a mammary gland. The result was chaos. Housewives in Kansas fainted, old men suffered cardiac failure, dogs howled, and little children ran screaming from the living room.

Now that I have brought you through a brief history of smut, I turn to yet another incident that is making news, this time out of Texas, where an elementary school art teacher has been fired for exposing her students to moral filth.

That would be one Sydney McGee, who took fifth-graders from the suburb of Frisco to the Dallas Museum of Art, where, gasp, many of the students were witness to scenes of nudity that included both paintings and statues! Well, now. When a parent of one of the students complained, McGee was chewed out by the principal and subsequently canned by the Frisco school board after 28 years as a teacher.

I would like to make it perfectly clear that I am firmly opposed to teachers who, for reasons of their own, might remove their clothes in class and dance naked on their desktops while twirling their blackboard pointer sticks. I also shudder at the very notion of class trips to whorehouses or topless nightclubs. But art museums? I think the good people of Frisco, Texas, may have to rethink this.

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I have been to many art museums and galleries due to the fact that my wife, a good and decent woman, volunteers at both the Getty and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where there are nudes aplenty in various art representations, both classical and modern. In addition, we have been privileged to visit a good many foreign galleries, wherein nudity is not only displayed but celebrated.

My childhood, however, was never spent visiting art centers. I was forced to study the naked female anatomy by poring over photographs in National Geographic of tribal women in Africa wearing nothing more than a puzzled smile. An assortment of smutty men’s journals also contributed to my education, not to mention one or two filthy comic books that we fourth-grade guys had fun passing around until a teacher caught us at it.

The artwork that apparently offended the parent who complained about kids being exposed to obscenity was that of a Greek statue depicting a nude male with, well, his components showing. His head is missing, so one will never know whether his expression might or might not indicate lust, but the likelihood is that he was simply looking off to infinity and not thinking about a similarly unclad female, or another male for that matter.

Nudity in itself is far from being either obscene or pornographic. It’s what the nudes might be doing that could call into question the rectitude of the depiction. And it is also the sewage flowing in cyberspace that has even those less than puritanical up in arms. Although certainly not a prude, and no advocate of tampering with anyone’s 1st Amendment rights, I can well understand why someone might feel that advocating sex instead of baseball as a national pastime is taking the joys of rutting a little too far.

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But the true obscenity in our culture isn’t a statue from ancient Greece but rather a modern insensitivity to violence. The war in Iraq, with some exceptions, has been reduced to sound bites and political platitudes unless an incident beyond horrendous requires scant more time or details.

We accept murderous images in movies, on television and in electronic games with hardly a murmur of protest, despite images of blood and gore more graphic than a battlefield. We hide from violence on the streets not by demanding an end to it but by either moving into “safe” neighborhoods or gating ourselves in to seclude us from gangs that own the night.

I’d like to see the mothers of purity rise in roaring protest to what is truly hurting us most and leave the nudity of art to those unafraid of looking into a mirror.


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