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Pixelating David?

Michelangelo's David with pixelation effect, Florence, Italy
David's Renaissance manhood...on the FCC's hit list?
By Rick Steves • August 2004

Coming down the home stretch on the production of our latest TV series, our shows are under review while public television executives consider the nudity shown in the paintings we feature. Suddenly, it seems, Titian’s Venus in Madrid’s Prado museum may be too racy for the American public…and too risky for a TV station to air.

Compared to Europe, America has long been laughable in its modesty. Only Americans are biking into trees as they explore Europe’s parks — littered with topless sunbathers. But things have really gotten serious with a new FCC ruling making too much flesh on TV a very expensive proposition.

This has been brought on by the highly politicized atmosphere in our country and the outcry after recent antics by the Irish musician Bono, Janet Jackson, and Howard Stern. After Bono was given a Golden Globe award he exclaimed with delight, “This is fxxkin’ brilliant.” Janet Jackson had her now infamous “wardrobe malfunction.” And Howard Stern continues to do his best to be crude on the radio.

“Decency proponents” complained that fines for these transgressions have been inconsequential. Consequently, congress approved a ten-fold increase, raising fines from $27,000 per incident to $275,000 (with many conservative congressmen pushing for even higher fines). Any station airing anything potentially dangerous can be made to pay dearly if some of its viewers feel offended enough.

As public broadcasting (its network and several hundred individual stations) lacks the resources to survive a major fine, it needs to be particularly careful in this regard. One of PBS’s new shows (Cop Shop, starring Richard Dreyfuss), has already bleeped out previously acceptable bits of street language.

Context used to matter. Bono’s used the “f” word as an adjective (not the much more sinister verb). This was permissible under the old standard. It is after all — as any traveler knows — about the most common adjective in the Irish dialect of English. But new standards have changed that.

The issue of classical art — a nude David for instance — seems OK for now. But, these days, the power of America’s moral guard should not be underestimated-especially with an administration quick to do what it can to “shore up” its moralistic base. This has a chilling effect: To be safe, producers are more likely to avoid ideas, words, or images that could offend American conservatives.

Those of us who produce broadcast material on a shoestring (like me and public broadcasting in general) have to ponder: Should we put a digital fig leaf on David’s full-frontal nudity? Fuzz out Venus’s short hairs and Titian’s titties? Bleep Bocaccio’s bawdy language? Can I only film the three graces from the waist up? Will Raphael’s randy cupids be labeled “child pornography” and Bernini’s Rape of Proserpine as “S&M”?

Through the ages, Europe’s history has been scarred with sword of censorship: During the Inquisition, the Spanish king kept Titian’s Venus out of public view — while burning those with similar “transgressions.” Savonarola’s moral vigilantes burst into people’s home gathering up anything too fleshy to stoke his “bonfires of the vanities.” And in London’s Victoria and Albert museum today’s tourists laugh in front of the case holding the plaster fig leaf which once hung on Queen Victoria’s otherwise perfect copy of Michelangelo’s David.

I now have to wonder if future tourists might look back at the first decade of the 21st century as equally absurd. And historians will rightly attribute this sudden spasm of Puritanism to the electorate. My partners in public television and I now have to wonder if we can show Venus’s breast. Can we risk the possibility of a $275,000 fine…and is that per nipple?