Category Archives: Art

Meanwhile in The New Yorker

This week’s New Yorker contains a cartoon showing a man looking at Internet porn as a way of celebrating the online filing of his income taxes. The drawing includes a computer monitor with a naked woman on all fours looking behind her as if for the partner who is standing just off the screen. It’s a pretty explicit drawing, and the caption makes it as clear as it needs to be. And this is not exceptionally racy for The New Yorker, in that naked women, and couples in bed seem to be staples of New Yorker cartoonists, but it is interesting that this one actually depicts pornography itself. And I think it raises some interesting questions.

When it comes to all things sexual-thus-potentially-dangerous-to-unsuspecting-readers-or-children, is it the things in themselves that are presumed to the be danger, or is it the representations of the things? In other words, is it the woman having sex for money and an audience, or is it the representation of the woman having sex for money and an audience that is understood to be the danger?

Because if it is the thing itself, then one would imagine that any representation that does not condemn the dangerous thing, or warn against it, would be equally harmful.

And if it is the representation that we claim is harmful, how important is the context to deciding whether or not harm is likely? For example, if the New Yorker cartoon was not in The New Yorker but was instead in Playboy, would it be seen as more harmful for being located in a context that is more overtly sexual? (I can’t tell you how many cartoons in The New Yorker include naked people, especially women, and especially showing their nipples, these days.) Does being in The New Yorker make the cartoon safer, or does the cartoon make The New Yorker potentially more dangerous? Certainly The New Yorker hangs out in many doctors office waiting rooms and other places where children could accidentally see the cartoon. And then, too, there it is right online, where any unsuspecting child could happen upon it.

I don’t raise this because I want to see The New Yorker begin to censor its cartoonists. Far from it! I want to see less censorship around all things sexual. I raise it only to point out that when it comes to portraying sex in the mainstream media — or media in general — there is a system of privilege. And as with so many systems of privilege, I think this one needs to be examined and, perhaps, dismantled.

I wonder what the Terms of Service of The New Yorker’s ISP say about nudity and sexually explicit content!

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Filed under Art, censorship, culture, feminism, moral panic, public discourse, sex, sex and the media

WordPress Terms of Service, Censorship and Community

I like WordPress. A lot. I like that it is based on an open source platform. I like that it is independent, that is, not owned by a monstrously large corporation. I like that as a community it is generally very open.

That is why I’m concerned about a storm that is brewing over issues of censorship and community control among we WordPress.com bloggers. The controversy began when Janie and Kate noticed that their blogs had disappeared from tag pages. I’m writing about it here because, predictably, it began with some beautiful, erotic, sexual content. (Their blogs do contain erotic content. That’s not all they contain, but they do contain that, so if you’re bothered by that kind of thing, don’t click those links.)

The WordPress Terms of Service — you read them, didn’t you? Certainly you got your treat, right? — makes the following things clear:

  1. WordPress (And Automattic, the hosting service) don’t screen content before it is posted. (TOS Item 3)
  2. Bloggers must agree not to post illegal content like spam, obscene material, fraud schemes, etc. (Note: there is in the law a significant difference between obscenity and indecency. Obscenity is not protected by the first amendment.) (TOS item 2)
  3. Automattic (the host of all our content) reserves its right to remove or refuse any content that, in its “reasonable opinion, violates any Automattic policy or is in any way harmful or objectionable.” (Note: Harmful or objectionable are certainly very subjective terms, but we did agree to this when we accepted the TOS and put up our blogs.) (TOS item 2)

The content that started the uproar was not removed from the site. Instead, it was subject to a policy not described in the TOS: “reporting as mature.”

WordPress users all have the ability to “report as mature” any blog that they think, for any reason, is not suitable for a non-mature audience. This is, also, incredibly subjective. (You can also report a blog as spam.). The drop down menu on the upper right of your window, the one that says “Blog info” has an item called “report as mature,” and another called “report as spam.” The TOS is silent about how this process works. Is a single report automatically enough to get one’s blog listed as “mature”? Is the “mature” label applied to the entire blog or just to the “mature” posts? Is there a review process, or is this simply an automatic function of some reader hitting the “report as mature” link? These things are not spelled out.

I first noticed the “report as mature” system a while back when reading a question about the “next blog” link — you can read through blogs by just clicking the “next blog” button, and this can, obviously, lead one to stumble randomly onto content one might find offensive. Since WordPress is open to kids, some community effort has been made to prevent kids from stumbling upon “mature” blogs by removing those “reported as mature” from the “next blog” rotation. That much seems logical, even if the need to protect people from such material is debatable. But the “report as mature” feature also had an illogical effect, as the two blogs whose authors started this new discussion so quickly noticed.

The illogical effect of being reported as mature is that one’s blog is apparently unlisted from the tag pages that would be surfed by people looking for mature content. Let me back up.

Bloggers categorize their posts with “tags.” Tags are categories that bloggers assign to their posts to help readers find specific kinds of material. WordPress has a system where posts are then collected on pages dedicated to specific tags. So when you surf the “Photography” tag page, you see all the recent posts tagged with the word “photography.” Likewise, if a post is tagged as “erotic” it shows up on the “erotic” tag page. The “erotic” tag page has lots of posts. It’s clearly a kind of material that lots of people write, and that many want to see. So, why remove a blog reported as mature from the tag page where it should logically be found? This doesn’t make sense at all.

Of course many posts have multiple tags. A photograph of a nude woman might be tagged “photography” and “erotic” and “art.” If WordPress is actively trying to “protect” unsuspecting viewers from stumbling across erotic material, would it be wise to remove a post tagged “erotic” from any other tag page, but leave it on the “erotic” tag page? Perhaps.

I’d love to see the answers to these questions spelled out in an updated Terms of Service. For some reason, the WordPress folks seem to think that if they spelled out the process, people would “game the system,” and the process would be ineffective. But given that this issue has come up before, and has not been clearly resolved, I’d encourage them to make the process clearer. In this blog I post a lot of material that I tag with ‘sex.’ Some might find it suitable only for “mature” readers. I’d like to know what happens – ahead of time! – if my blog is reported as “mature.”

In the meantime, if you want to be part of the discussion, check out this forum and participate. That’s how the public square works, right?

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Filed under activism, Art, censorship, community-building, Political Obscenity, public discourse, sex

Art Museums for Adults Only?

Sydney McGee, an art teacher in Frisco, Texas, a wealthy suburb of Dallas is losing her job. The reasons are not entirely clear, but her evaluations turned negative after a museum trip last spring in which students — fifth graders — did in fact see some sculptures, including some that were nudes, including one that was, reportedly, abstract. The New York Times reported on this yesterday, as did the Frisco Enterprise on Friday.

The district spokespeople give a different story than does the teacher, (as is often the case in discipline and dismissal cases) but a common element of both stories is that one parent complained after the Dallas Museum of Art trip last April, and the complaint had to do with the student having viewed “nude artwork.” The principal later talks about “abstract nude,” and the Times article mentions specifically Auguste Rodin’s “Shade” , Aristide Maillol’s “Flora” , and Arp’s “Star in a Dream,” which I can’t find (but you can click here for a page of Arp’s abstract work, to get a sense of it).

Before anybody gets all stereotypical about “The South,” let me tell you that Frisco is a wealthy suburb. When I say wealthy, I mean that according to the census bureau, in 2005 the median family income in Frisco was over 100,000. (So half of families had incomes above that!) It’s also a place with a pretty highly educated population. While the 2005 education numbers aren’t available, in 2000, half of the adult population had Bachelor degrees or better, and 12% had graduate or professional degrees. (If you want to make comparisons to the nation as a whole, in the US in 2000 only 24% of the adult population had Bachelor degrees or better, and only 9% had graduate or professional degrees.) Frisco residents tend to work in professional, management, sales and office occupations.

Whether they are frequent museum goers or not, I would have assumed the residents of Frisco are the types of people who see museums as places one goes to be exposed to “culture” and would think about nudes in a museum as entirely different than the otherwise presumably problematic representations of naked people one might find in the “lowbrow” mass media or in pornography. According to the reports so far, only one parent complained about the museum trip and, according to the district, the museum trip is only one reason why this teacher’s contract is not going to be renewed next year. (The other parts of the reason appear to do with her resisting being disciplined over — yes, in part — the museum trip.)

I would also have wanted to believe that the school principal cared enough about the education of children that she would talk to a parent making such a complaint and explain that it is healthy and important for children to be able to walk through an art museum, be exposed to the work presented there, and to discuss the work, it’s time period, and the context in which it was created. It sounds as if one of this principal’s complaints — and I’m admittedly reading between the lines here — is that the museum trip wasn’t planned well enough to avoid the children’s gazes falling on these nude sculptures in the first place.

I’m left bewildered that this has come up at all. There may well be more to this story, but it’s shocking to think that an art teacher could find herself in trouble for taking her students to an art museum. I don’t know how largely that one parent’s complaint figured into the trouble this teacher now finds herself in, but it strikes me as terrible that any parent, having signed a permission slip for a child to go to an art museum, would then be offended that said child saw, well, art.

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Filed under Art, Education, News and politics, public discourse, sexually oriented businesses