May 29, 2009

Censored at the Coffee Bar

It may be 2009 and those of us who live in urban centers may consider ourselves oh-so-sophisticated. But artistic portrayals of the human body still have the power to send us into a tizzy.

In recent months I've had the good fortune to hang my photography in downtown Toronto coffee shops. More than one chain in Canada's largest city makes its walls available to visual artists for weeks at a time. This is a wonderful thing. It would be a shame if such policies ended (which is why I'm not going to identify the corporate entity or the address of the shop in this case).

Earlier this month, one of my photos was removed from the wall by the manager of a store hosting my work. A male customer apparently complained that my 5x5-inch photo set into a 17x17-inch frame was something to which his two young sons shouldn't be exposed.

(It was hung at eye-level above a counter used by those adding cream and sugar to their beverages. Honestly, given its placement and size, it would have been difficult for a young child to see much of it.)

The photo was taken at a public beach earlier this year. The subject is male. He's wearing swimming trunks and has his back to the camera. Yes, that back is tanned, glistening, and has a lovely line to it. But when compared to Calvin Klein billboards, this image is tiny. When compared to many American Apparel ads, it's wholesome.

The shop's manager is youngish. Perhaps, had she been more experienced, she might have responded differently. But when confronted by a customer who asked how she'd feel if the photo were of a woman dressed only in her bikini bottom, she acquiesced to his demands for censorship rather than defend artistic expression.

I don't envy her. Her primary business is not running an art gallery. It's selling coffee. As a private business, the owners and managers of the shop have a perfect right to decide what hangs on their walls.

Yes, this shop is in an affluent part of town that's home to many different kinds of artists. But that's no guarantee that someone won't find a photograph of the human body so offensive they'll demand that their children be shielded from it.

The photo in question is available as free computer wallpaper: