The Latest Trend in Art Censorship

Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam" may be good enough for the Sistine Chapel. But in some outlets of the midwestern chain store Hobby Lobby, Caravaggio's vision of Genesis is little more than sixteenth-century smut.Under a policy being tested by Hobby Lobby subsidiary Greco Products, catalog censors are affixing decals to any paintings, prints or drawings in fine art poster catalogs where the art work contains nudity.Enacted in recent weeks, the poster and picture frame subsidiary hopes to protect customers from potentially offensive works of art, according to spokes people for Hobby Lobby.Not surprisingly, the Greco/Hobby Lobby sticker squad is lavishing the most attention on the fleshy black and white photos of Robert Mapplethorpe and Herb Ritts.But the decal detachment is also concerned by such hardcore gems as "The Birth of Venus," in which the 15th-century Italian master Sandro Botticelli serves up the naked, flaxen-haired goddess on the half-shell."All the Renaissance classics, Michelangelo's 'David,' stuff from the Sistine Chapel, were covered up," complains Julie Shingledecker, a Springs resident who attempted to purchase one such illicit image on October 19. "They even had Picasso covered up. Heck, with Picasso you can't even tell what's what."Along with a friend from San Antonio, Shingledecker was shopping for a copy of "La Grande Dalisque," by 18th-century French painter J.A.D. Ingres. The somewhat risque, au natural portrait translates to "great prostitute," but the only skin showing is the madam's porcelain back, bare buns and shapely shoulder blades -- all of which are blotted out by decals.Nor were any gluey stickems spared on such porn peddlers as Dali, Raphael, Rodin, Matisse, Maratta, and Picasso. Even Raphael's line drawing of Michelangelo's famed sculpture "David" was a target. Raphael's red-chalk rendition of the marble hunk is festooned with silver decals that read: "Custom framed at Hobby Lobby creative center."Shingledecker says store staff told her the sticky skivvies were designed to protect young eyes. "But then I asked, 'Why do the stickers cover the ordering information? You can order these for me, right?' That's when a man behind the counter came up and said it was company policy not to order prints that have the stickers."A recent undercover visit by this reporter to a Colorado Springs Hobby Lobby branch proved that orders can be made with persistence. "We can do the orders, but the owners don't want to advertise the fact that they can order something that could be considered by some to be pornography," said the frame shop manager, who identified himself only as "Ted."A July 30 memo from the Oklahoma City headquarters seems to support that claim. Sent to at least four stores (Tulsa, Oklahoma; Midland, Texas; Overland Park, Kansas, and Colorado Springs,) the memo did not instruct staffers to thwart sales."Although many of these prints are considered works of art (emphasis theirs), we do not want to give the impression to our customers that we are selling and framing questionable prints," the memo reads.Nevertheless, the decals could dampen potential customer interest. To order "The Birth of Venus" and "The Creation of Adam," framing desk staff peeled off the decal with difficulty. Only then, were poster sizes, artist bios and cost codes revealed.Outraged by what she considers censorship, Shingledecker and her friend left the store. But spokespersons for Hobby Lobby deny the test plan constitutes censorship. "Not at all," says Bill Hane, director of advertising for Hobby Lobby. "In the first place, we're a private company....and it's our responsibility to look out for our customers as we understand them."Hane says Hobby Lobby strives to be a family friendly store and that the policy comes as Greco expands its art catalog offerings. "I don't object to classic works of art," Hanes added. "But there's a difference between art and eroticism. In some cases, the line is fine and blurred and apparently there was a strong feeling that line was being crossed, or that customers might think that line was crossed."While Hanes insisted that company founder David Green knew nothing of the policy, the store's history suggests the decals may also reflect a corporate religious agenda. Hobby Lobby's statement of purpose, for example, includes: "Honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles."Whatever the case, if the policy is enacted nationally, it could have a significant effect on availability of classic art in many midwestern cities. The $450-million-per-year chain has 110 stores in 11 states.Meanwhile, outraged civil libertarian groups say this is another example of a growing trend: censorship at the retail counter. In one recent case, dozens of music and department stores -- including Wal-Mart -- pulled an issue of Guitar Player magazine that showed two male members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers kissing on stage."There's nothing illegal about it, but it's a sad commentary on these companies' commitment to freedom of expression," says Matt Freeman, director for research for the civil libertarian group People for the American Way. "This is especially true for chain stores Wal-Mart, which control enormous portions of the retail market."

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