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Published in the Columbia Daily Tribune 26 February 2006


The Lowest Common Denominator

"It's for the good of the children."  "Think of the children."  "You have to protect the children."

OK, I don't have kids (a decision made in early adulthood due to a genetic disease which runs in my family).  So, I don't understand what it is to be a parent.  And I won't pretend to.

I do understand that most parents reasonably want to protect their children from threats, physical, emotional, and moral.  Some people choose to raise their children insulated from as many of the temptations of the world as possible, in accord with their religious or moral belief.  That's fine.  But it shouldn't give them the right to dictate to everyone else how to raise their own children.  Or to tell me how to live my life because I might in some way expose their kid to something that they object to.

Because that is the current justification for many of the objections raised against art which is deemed to be "offensive" or "inappropriate."  Yes, I'm talking about what happened in Fulton, where three parents objected to the High School production of the play Grease for inappropriate content.  But I'm also talking about parents who don't want museums to have nudes on display for the public to see.  And those who think that even private businesses shouldn't be able to show/sell items which offend their sensibilities.

When I had Legacy Art, we did a show with the theme of "Erotica," and we got some interesting reactions.  Taking into consideration a respect for the sensibilities of others, we arranged the show in such a fashion that it was not visible unless one entered a special area at the rear of the gallery.  At the entrances to that area were signs announcing the show, cautioning patrons what was inside, and restricting entrance to those who were 18 or older.  And I or my staff also verbally reiterated this to each patron.  Most people loved the show.  Still, we had people who would come in, walk straight to the back of the gallery where the show was, and then announce how "offended" they were that we would have such work on display where "children" could see it.  None of these were people who were regular patrons, by the way.

The postcard for the show was designed as though it were a plain brown envelope with the word "Erotica" stamped on it.  I thought it was funny, and in no way could be construed as offensive, since there was nothing on the postcard except the word "Erotica."  However, even that got some people bent out of shape, and I got calls from people accusing me of sending such trash to their home where, yup, their kids might see it.  I have to wonder whether these people go through and cut out the words in the dictionary which offend them.

Art doesn't need to be offensive to be art.  And I've seen a lot of offensive stuff which didn't have the slightest artistic quality.  But sometimes art will push the boundaries of what is considered good taste in order to get its emotional message across, and may even be characterized as obscene or offensive by many people.  Depending on societal norms, this can range from having a teenager smoke or drink in a play, having two men kissing in a movie, portraying sexuality in a painting, putting a plastic crucifix in a jar of urine, or characterizing the Prophet in a cartoon.  In each case, in each of these works of art, someone has been offended - though many others aren't bothered at all, and enjoyed the work of art for what it was.

Sure, your beliefs are sacred to you, but so are the beliefs of others to them.  You want to be offended by something, that's your prerogative.  You want to protect your children from exposure to all the evils in the world, then lock them in the basement until they're 18.  But you do not have the right to force the rest of us to accede to your beliefs, just because you are trying to "protect the children."  To do so will sap any life or energy from all art, as we race to the lowest common denominator of what will offend no one.


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all work © James T. Downey, 1993-present
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