Due to complaints and misinterpretation as child pornography, the city of West Hollywood, California, forced the removal of three photographs by local female artist Brooke Mason from a Woman’s History Month-themed city-wide exhibition. The removal of the pieces has not only gotten the community up in arms, but has raised free speech concerns.
In celebration of Women’s History Month and local artists, West Hollywood planned several diverse exhibits to be on display throughout the city during the month of March. From a street pole banner display depicting notable women to a mini-film festival showcasing short films by women directors, the goal was for women artists, activists, and leaders to come together and freely celebrate their history and perspectives.
The self-proclaimed “Creative City” wasn’t being all that receptive to creativity, though, when they required the removal of several photographs by the professional West Hollywood-based photographer Brooke Mason from two of the planned exhibits over content concerns and policy violation. A total of three photographs were removed from the two exhibits, “Exposed” and “Out and About.”
One photograph, entitled “Glass Ceiling” depicted a nude woman sitting on a glass tabletop with a nude man as its base. The second, “Voyeur,” showed a young woman with exposed breasts interpretably being watched from inside a building behind shear curtains. And the third, “Soar” portrayed a young topless woman — one city officials initially believed to be underage — in a ballet-like mid-air jump.
After a city employee complained that at least one of the two pieces were too “explicit,” notification from city art’s administrator Andrew Campbell was sent to Mason stating that Mason’s nudes were too nude and violated a city policy that only allowed the depiction of nude women from the waist up. As such, the pieces would need to be removed. In response to Campbell’s comments, Mason countered, “I don’t know where you are going with this. Are you trying to say it’s too sexual?”
Despite confirmation that the model in “Soar” was indeed over the age of 18, the city wouldn’t back down, though, and threatened to outright cancel at least one of the exhibits if the photographs weren’t removed. “While the Commission actively supports the presentation of provocative and challenging work, it also understands that these works must be presented with care and consideration,” said Maribel Louie, manager of the city’s Arts and Economic Development Division. “The nerve,” Mason commented. “Just because a woman has small breasts, she’s a child? And she believes that I make child pornography?”
West Hollywood isn’t the first to misinterpret art as pornography, and more alarmingly as child pornography. This is an ongoing debate in Japan and around the world about Japanese manga. Moreover, school newspapers, libraries, and even national treasures have become the victims of oversensitive and often contradictory consideration of art as pornography. Perceptions of the line between what is fine art and what is obscene is quickly and dangerously becoming blurred, leading to violations of the First Amendment and unjust censorship, like in the case of West Hollywood.
The community and free speech advocates were not silent about the situation. The National Coalition Against Censorship submitted a letter to the city, urging them to reinstate the pieces, and other artists have pointed out to the city to see the double-standard that they are propagating.
In what seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to a few subjective comments, city officials did come forth after the exhibition to apologize, summing the whole case up to what Council member John Duran called an “error.” Mayor Lindsey Horvath also commented that, “At no time did I ask to have any of the pieces in any of the exhibits taken down, nor do I find any of the work (including Brooke’s) to be offensive.” Adding:
I find it very empowering, and I think that the unfortunate series of events has created an opportunity for a discussion about society’s standards with regard to the female body and [its relationship to] art.
You can view the images that were removed on NCAC’s website here (NSFW).
Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!