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Jabari Asim

Sanitizing Art

By Jabari Asim
Monday, April 25, 2005; 11:10 AM

WASHINGTON -- Art often provokes intense reactions in viewers, from undisguised awe to righteous indignation to gut-wrenching indigestion. In 1999, when he was mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani famously threatened to withhold funding from the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The reason? The museum was hosting an exhibition that turned Hizzoner's tummy. Among the offensive creations was Chris Ofili's portrait of the Virgin Mary, which included elephant dung. Giuliani had only read a description of the painting in the show catalog -- enough, he said, to convince him that it was "sick stuff."

Giuliani comes off as a milquetoast compared to Lazlo Toth. On May 21, 1972, Toth entered St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and did a John Henry on Michelangelo's Vatican Pieta.

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The sculpture, a masterful rendering of the Virgin Mary holding the fallen Christ in her arms, is one of the world's most admired works of art. Toth took a hammer to it 15 times, severing the Virgin's arm at the elbow, removing part of her nose and damaging one eyelid. Skilled restorers quickly set about repairing it and achieved remarkable results. The sculpture looked fine when I saw it a few years later, although I had to look at it from behind a rope and through bulletproof glass.

What if Toth had simply purchased a replica of the sculpture in a curio shop, then took it home to wreck it behind closed doors? That way, he could have removed the parts he found offensive and left the original as the artist intended. Everyone would be satisfied and no one would be hurt. No harm, no foul, right?

A similar issue has arisen in the world of motion pictures, where a new industry has sprung up to offer custom-edited films to movie fans who desire them. Called "sanitizers," these entrepreneurs remove potentially offensive scenes from movies that have been released on DVD, then resell them at a $6 or $7 markup. No Hollywood-style editing machines are needed for this kind of doctoring; you or I could do it with the help of software and a decent computer.

As reported in The Washington Post, many sanitizers suggest that their protection of family values and willingness to satisfy customers' needs should allay any qualms about artistic purity. Ray Lines, who has altered "Saving Private Ryan" by removing Steven Spielberg's lauded depiction of the D-Day landing at Omaha Beach, scoffed at the director's claims of artistic control. "Spielberg says no one has the right to impose their truth on top of his," Lines said. "My response to that is, he's the god of truth? We just want to watch a movie without sex and nudity."

Bridgett Davis, an English professor at Baruch College and the author of a successful novel called "Shifting Through Neutral," said, "It would just kill me if someone touched my film in that way." Davis first came to my attention as the director of "Naked Acts," an independent film released in 1996. After Davis began to screen "Naked Acts" at various film venues, seldom would a day pass without my in-box overflowing with testimonials from friends. The Village Voice praised it too, noting that the film "ranges cannily across a number of issues: images of black women on film, weight loss, the peculiar way sex appeal can be both a weapon and weakness."

"In needing to grapple with all those issues," she told me, "I have a scene in which the main actress is nude, not in a sexual way or to titillate the audience. We're watching her come to terms with her own physical beauty. To take that scene out would totally change the story, not only dilute it but poison it. It would suggest that the point I'm making is wrong."

Davis wrote, directed and distributed her movie herself, a difficult process that enabled her to fulfill her needs as both a creative artist and as a viewer looking for a particular kind of film. The experiences of Davis and other artists provide instructive examples for sanitizers and their customers. Toni Morrison has said that she writes novels that she wants to read. Similarly, Miles Davis said he played music that he wanted to listen to. What's stopping dissatisfied viewers from making films they want to see? The electronics store adjacent to my office is advertising a five-in-one video kit for $129.99, roughly the cost of six or seven DVDs. With the price of technology continuing to drop, anyone can sit in the director's chair.

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