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Morals Versus Art: Censorship, The Politics of Interpretation, and the Victorian Nude

Nicola Beisel
American Sociological Review
Vol. 58, No. 2 (Apr., 1993), pp. 145-162
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2095963
Page Count: 18
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Morals Versus Art: Censorship, The Politics of Interpretation, and the Victorian Nude
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Abstract

Censorship raises the question of how an object is deemed art or obscenity. Although sociologists have studied how cultural objects are interpreted according to the cultural frameworks of the larger society, little has been written on what makes one interpretation more compelling than another. I analyze the controversy that arose in New York City in the late nineteenth century when an eminent art dealer was arrested by Anthony Comstock, leader of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, for selling photographic reproductions of nude paintings. I contend that arguments draw on cultural schemas that constitute, and are in turn constituted by, social structures. Simultaneously, powerful interpretations construct an appealing identity for adherents to the arguments. While Comstock had been supported by New York's upper class when he claimed that pornography threatened elite children, the arrest of a leading art dealer for selling the photographs cast doubt on the moral purity of the upper class itself.

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