Damned in the USA

Paul Yule's simple talking-head documentary, made for England's Channel Four in 1991, was attacked in court by the Reverend Donald Wildmon, who called it “blasphemous and obscene”; Wildmon unsuccessfully tried to get it barred from the U.S. and sued the film's producers for $8 million, which is why it was a little late reaching our shores. The film was supposedly lethal because it presents both sides of the then-ongoing art-censorship debates and actually lets us see contested Robert Mapplethorpe photographs and Andres Serrano's Piss Christ and hear 2 Live Crew music so we can make up our own minds about them. What it doesn't do, alas, is present both sides of the debate on federal arts funding—an understandable omission considering the English audience the film was originally made for, like most audiences in the world, values art and education enough to dismiss out of hand the “con” position as it's routinely expressed in this country, which usually defines federal support of business as “freedom” and federal support of art as “enslavement,” without worrying about who's being freed and who's being enslaved. (Only in America, it seems, can such a debate happily ignore what the rest of the world thinks about the subject.) Without being especially brilliant or original, this film remains compulsively watchable simply because it clarifies what people are willing to do in order to limit our cultural choices.

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