Did you catch the latest contretemps over funding for the arts?
It happened so fast you might have missed it: The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities briefly announced that to receive grants this year, artists and writers would have to agree not to be lewd or political or sexist. This condition was rescinded almost immediately when artists and writers figuratively took up torches and pitchforks, pointing out that this requirement was (1) unconstitutional, (2) dumb and (3) profoundly uncool. The commission denied being old and stodgy and out of it but ruefully admitted that the requirement had “not been exactly the cat’s pajamas.”
Kidding. But they did rescind it.
I figured this was a weird outlier in the world of the arts, but I was wrong. A spokesperson for the National Coalition Against Censorship told me these issues arise when some local government discovers a fuddy old statute giving it the power to constrain art, and tries to apply it. They always lose — the whole point of art is to challenge norms — but it’s a constant threat.
For the benefit of would-be municipal censors, I’d like to illustrate how bad an idea this is.
Dear M. Courbet:
We at the Musee d’Orsay are in receipt of your latest painting, “The Origin of the World,” which depicts a nude woman on a bed focused squarely on her unmentionable parts.
While we appreciate that this work deftly explores the nexus between art and pornography, we find the image, shall we say, needlessly provocative.
Accordingly, we request a small and nearly insignificant alteration: Swaddle the young lady in Dr. Denton one-piece pajamas, with a saucy little trap door on the behind, like Swee’Pea or Dennis the Menace. ...
Dear Mr. Joyce:
We are in receipt of your manuscript for “Ulysses,” and love it! We have one minor request.
Please consider having Molly end more decorously with: “And yes I said yes I will Yes … No.”
Dear Mr. Eliot:
Fabulous poem, that Prufrock thing. We believe, however, that the bourgeoisie might make a vulgar assumption about your meaning in a certain line. This is easily resolved.
We have an issue with the line: “Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? ... I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.” Let’s run it through your typewriter again.
A humble suggestion: “Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a Pez? ... I have heard the mermaids sing ‘La Marseillaise.’ ”
Dear M. Duchamp:
The urinal. Very clever. A bit too déclassé for our audience, however. We love the concept, but how about making it a toaster? ...
Dear Robert Mills, architect and designer, the Washington Monument:
We LOVE your design and are prepared to generously endow this project, with one small caveat. We think many people might make an unfortunate inference about what you were suggesting with the size and distinctive shape of your monument.
We’d like to suggest a simple solution, with its roots in classical art: Perhaps a gigantic fig leaf covering the obelisk?
Dear M. Picasso:
The Museum of Modern Art is delighted to exhibit your 1937 mural, “Guernica,” but we are afraid we must insist on a small change for American audiences. The scene depicted — of the aerial bombardment of a small Spanish town — seems unnecessarily violent. This can be ameliorated by the strategic placement of a reassuring figure.
Accordingly, we ask that you alter the appearance of the horse. Where now he appears to be screaming in agony, he should instead be a dead ringer for the beloved Mr. Ed. ...
Email Gene Weingarten at email@example.com.
Find chats and updates at washingtonpost.com/magazine.