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Stephen Colbert lampoons mainstream media’s penchant for censoring art

"Reclining Nude," created in 1917 to 1918 by Amedeo Modigliani.

“Reclining Nude,” created in 1917 to 1918 by Amedeo Modigliani.

(Associated Press)

The $170.4-million sale at auction of Amedeo Modigliani’s 1917 painting “Nu Couche” (Reclining Nude) has been the talk of the art world this week.

The nine-figure price tag makes the piece the second-highest-paid-for work of art at auction after Pablo Picasso’s “Les Femmes D’Alger” (Women of Algiers), which sold for $179.4 million in May.

But many mainstream news organizations have been unable to show an uncensored picture of the painting. This point was made by Stephen Colbert during “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” on Thursday night in a segment titled “What Is Art? Follow-Up: What Is Porn?”

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“This isn’t the first time the news has de-titillated art,” Colbert announces, adding that when the Picasso earned its record price, certain organizations, including Fox News, had to blur all “eight and a half boobs” in the painting.

“Where do we draw the line between art and pornography?” Colbert asks. “And what if that line looks like a butt crack?”

The rest of the segment concerned what Colbert deemed the “arbitrary” rules employed by CBS when it comes to what can and cannot be shown on the network.

For example, it’s perfectly fine to show the entirety of a Georgia O’Keefe flower painting, which Colbert says is much more graphic in nature than the Modigliani. Also acceptable: Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” which depicts the nude goddess on a shell, with her hands modestly placed over one breast and her groin.

When it comes to Michelangelo’s famous statue of David, CBS allows an image of the statue to be shown at a distance for a total of two seconds, which Colbert does.

“We’re all safe now,” he says after the image has flashed off the screen. “I just pray to God no one invents a way to pause TV.”

(At The Times, decisions to publish works of art that include nudity are made on a case-by-case basis, but the work is never cropped or blurred to obscure body parts: The work either runs as is or editors can decline to publish it. At the same time, works of art featuring nudity are given more leeway than nudity in news photos, movies or television.)

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Those desiring to see the Modigliani painting in its entirety need to have "$170 million or the Internet,” Colbert said.

Twitter: @jessicagelt

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