The Fine Art Exemption

The media news for penises.

The cover of yesterday’s New York Times Magazine, illustrating a story about Michelangelo’s David:

Shocking! A penis in the NYT! The word penis, quite a lot, but photographs, sculptures, drawings, etc. of penises, no. They would be at the very least crude, tasteless, and offensive, at the worst dangerous, because viewing them (so the story goes) is by its very nature damaging to sensitive people: to women in general, to children in general, hence especially to girls.

There is a customary Fine Art Exemption to the general ban on penises (or accurate representations of them)  in “family publications” (where the sensitive might come across them). This clause exempts penises in fine art, especially of high reputation and considerable age, where fine art is

creative art, especially visual art, whose products are to be appreciated primarily or solely for their imaginative, aesthetic, or intellectual content (NOAD2)

I’ve always found the FAE baffling, at least in its application to children.

According to the FAE for adults, a particular work with a representation of a penis in it can be acceptable if its maker intended to create something “imaginative, aesthetic, or intellectual” in content, if it has been received as such by (educated) audiences, and if it’s survived the test of time in the eyes of art critics and historians. (Tough tests to apply in actual practice, a point I’ll take up below.)

But in general, children have no access to the intentions of artists, the reception of their works by (appropriate) audiences, or the place of these works in the history of art. For kids, it looks pretty much like a dick is a dick and always carries with it the danger of damaging sensitive psyches. So as a “family newspaper” the New York Times should refuse, period, to publish a representation of a penis, just as it refuses (or at least maintains it aims to refuse)  to print the words fuck and shit, no matter  what the intentions of the writer or speaker, no matter how (educated) audiences receive this material, and no matter what place it has in literary history and criticism. The Times recognizes no FAE for vocabulary; a fuck is a fuck, no matter what.

Trying to apply the FAE is a constant headache for me, since I deal with all sorts of material with images of penises in it. As a rule of thumb, I assume that photography never ever counts as Fine Art for the purposes of WordPress, Facebook, and Google+; and that work by living, or recently living, artists doesn’t count as Fine Art for these purposes either. Beyond that, there are any number of gray areas, having to do with less than realistic representations, with scientific illustrations, with savage, satirical, homoerotically tinged, grotesque, or deliberately provocative material, with phallic objects that present the organ in realistic detail, with rape images (even by Great Artists), and so on. David gets a nod, and so do cherubs, but beyond that I just don’t know. I post a lot of really racy images on this blog, but not if they have actual cocks in them, or very realistic simulacra; such images must go on AZBlogX, where viewers under 18 are (in principle) banned (can any rational person imagine that these bans work, or in fact that they make any sense?). Ah well, one soldiers on, metaphorical penis in hand.

2 Responses to “The Fine Art Exemption”

  1. TommyBoy Says:

    I recall photos of people with genitals in National Geographic – but only for ‘primitive’ people. Not high art, but pseudo-scientific, I suppose.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Nice observation. Yes, there was an exception for “primitive” peoples. It was often suggested that this was because such peoples were viewed as equivalent to animals, and animals are of course photographed naked.

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