Art or Obscenity? Love! Valour! Compassion! and Nudity in Grand Rapids

A production of Terrence McNally’s play Love! Valour! Compassion! at the Actors’ Theatre in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has drawn criticism for its onstage nudity, raising questions about public financing of artistic pursuits. Actors’ Theatre, although an independent organization, reportedly received $19,000 in funding from the public Grand Rapids Community College and the group performs at GRCC’s Spectrum Theatre. The play, according to a favorable local review, “follows a group of eight homosexual males” who discuss AIDS, infidelity, and “other ‘real people’ situations.” At least one character is nude for “a good portion of the play.” 

The problem, according to some, is that GRCC is endorsing nudity as entertainment, with taxpayer money. Concerned citizen Joan Ridderbos, who reportedly did not see the play but did hear about it from friends at church, made the complaint to a meeting of the board of trustees. Trustee Richard Ryskamp agreed, having previously accused GRCC funding of being used to “mock Jesus Christ” and “popularize homosexual conduct.” One suspects the upset is about something more than nudity on stage. 

500px-Titian_Venus_Mirror_(furs)The Grand Rapids controversy and its articulation in concern about nude entertainment highlights another controversy discussed in Dressing Constitutionally. In 1975, the Supreme Court decided Southeastern Promotions Ltd. v. Conrad, a case about the musical Hair, which also features onstage nudity. As discussed in the book, it is clear that a production of Love! Valour! Compassion! is protected by the First Amendment. The GRCC’s budget, however, is fair game for the political process, and concerned citizens may attempt to censor the stage through a denial of funding, recalling efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to defund the National Endowment for the Arts and NEA v. Finley.

Trustee Ryskamp, meanwhile, noting that artistic abilities are not “the issue,” has declined an invitation to see the Actors’ Theatre’s next production: Venus in Fur.

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