Searching for Obscene Art

Does Inappropriate Art Lurk in South County Buildings?

ART LURKS: I spent one recent morning prowling around to see if any more supposedly “obscene” art lurks in county buildings.

As you may have heard, Bob Nelson, chief of staff for North County Supervisor Peter Adam, decided that a painting in an exhibit at the county’s Betteravia Government Center in Santa Maria was “obscene” and inappropriate.

Barney Brantingham

So he took it down and stashed it in a closet, okayed by his boss, but not by the County Arts Commission. That was a no-no. Then a fuss began.

The piece was put back up, then relocated in a “discreet” location where I guess no one was supposed to notice it. Meetings were held, censorship charged, denied, and some quasi-compromise reached. At last report, the piece remains banished by the Arts Commission to a spot near the bathrooms.

No one’s naked in Steve Olson’s painting, or having sex, or even looking like they want to. In fact, there are no people. Mainly, it’s large words, “BUY SEXUAL,” apparently referring to society’s commodification of sex, using it to sell stuff.

In my check for “obscene” art hanging in county premises down in the more liberal South Coast, wandering the County Courthouse’s tiled corridors, the only obvious crime I found was one against history. The landing of explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo is celebrated in garish colors up in the famed Mural Room.

Cabrillo is shown leading as tough-looking a band of conquistadoras you ever saw, greeted suspiciously by a band of Chumash. No bare breasts that I noticed, by the way.

History is as hazy about it as what obscenity on walls might consist of, but Cabrillo apparently never actually landed in what is now Santa Barbara. In a skirmish with the Indians, he apparently broke his leg on one of the Channel Islands. It got infected, and he died.

Next stop in my obscenity hunt: the County Administration Building across the street. The Channing Peake Gallery is featuring the work of Ray Strong. I thought I might strike gold there.

My eye fell on Bob DeBris’s “Iowa Beanfield.” It shows carousel horses prancing through a bean field. Hmm. Certainly nothing to cause a problem in Santa Maria.

Up on the Fourth Floor, none of the supervisors were in, so I couldn’t check their offices for obscenity. But I couldn’t help noticing Channing Peake’s “Arroyo,” a large painting consisting of multicolor speckles.

I suppose there are those who would sneer at it as (ugh!) “modern art.” One hater was Adolf Hitler, a failed art student before he turned to mass murder and waged war against what he called “degenerate art.”

In 1937 the Nazis staged an art exhibit presenting 650 works confiscated from German museums. It included artists like Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, and Marc Chagall. Thousands more paintings were seized, deemed degenerate, not reflecting true German ideals. Many were sold (the Nazis needed the money), others burned. “Degenerate” artists were deemed persona non grata in HitlerLand.

Over in France, critics got very huffy in 1865 when Edouard Manet unveiled “Olympia,” featuring a bold-looking, un-demure nude. It was condemned as “obscene” and “vulgar.” Same with his “Luncheon on the Grass” (1863), showing a nude seated with two fully dressed men. (No sex.)

The uproar soon subsided, and now both have honored places in Paris’s Musée d’Orsay. (They’re not loaned for the Santa Maria show, by the way.)

So-called “modern art” still takes its lumps and laughs, one of my favorites being Salvador Dali’s famous but much ridiculed “The Persistence of Memory,” in which melting clocks droop. (Also not in Santa Maria.)

By the end of the morning, my eyes were glazing over. Paintings became a blur. Good art, bad, so-so, or obscene? Who was I to get hung up about it? I found no obvious obscenity, but I badly needed coffee.

MURDER AT CAFÉ NOIR: Susie and David Couch are back, and they haven’t changed. Their first production, after losing their lease up at the Circle Bar B Ranch, is typically wacky. Murder at Café Noir, at the Timbers Events Center in Goleta, involves two corpses, Susie with a French accent, David playing at least three parts, a bizarre cast of characters, and a three-course dinner served in segments. The audience is asked to help solve the crimes. I found it all a bit wild, woolly, and woozy but fun. It runs through Sunday, September 27; phone (805) 705-9598.

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