I Know It When I See It: Scrimshaw and Whale Bone Porn

by Jason Smythe

Scrimshaw 1

Scrimshaw: A Whaler’s Return, courtesy of the Vancouver Maritime Museum

I will freely admit to loving The Simpsons far too much and loving how perfectly the show has managed to satirize mob mentality and political and cultural conservatism over the years.  The perfect example of this is the character of Helen Lovejoy and her catchphrase “won’t someone please think of the children?,” which she shrieks almost anytime something that could be considered mildly offensive or controversial is made accessible to the public or considered politically in order to create moral panic amongst the people of Springfield.  Vancouver recently experienced its own bout of Helen Lovejoyism when Ann Pimentel  raised concerns about the Vancouver Maritime Museum’s newest exhibit, Tattoo and Scrimshaw: The Art of the Sailor, claiming the scrimshaw was inappropriate for young children and should be removed because “no one was thinking of the children!” (Author’s note: she never said this—she only implied it.)  However, this whole kerfuffle raises three questions: 1) what the hell is scrimshaw? 2) just how pornographic/disturbing are these images? and 3) should art ever be censored?

Scrimshaw, scrimmy, or -58, as some people call it, are etchings on hard surfaces culled from sea creatures, and the pieces the museum has on display are exquisite.  But, are these pieces as pornographic and disturbing as Ann Lovejoy-Pimentel claims? This is something that is purely subjective, but in my opinion they are neither pornographic nor disturbing. But this raises another question: how do we define pornography? I think the late, great Justice Potter Stewart in Jacobellis v. Ohio summed it up best when he said “I know it when I see it.” (Author’s note: I used to go to law school. Sorry.)  Applying the “I know it when I see it” principle, I fail to see how any of the scrimshaw on display can be considered pornographic.  In one of the etchings a whaler and his child both suck on his wife’s breasts, and we can tell by the way her legs have been pried open that he is penetrating her, but we don’t actually see the penetration—it is left to our imagination.  In one of the other etchings we see a nude woman lying on her back with her legs spread open, and a whaler kneeling a few feet away with his hand firmly grasping his erect penis, with the caption “A Whaler’s Dream” just above his head.  Again, this is neither pornographic nor disturbing because it is just the human body—any sexual acts these two fictitious characters may become involved in is left to our imaginations.  At the end of the day what these images all convey is the inexorable lust and loneliness these men felt while on the high seas for months-on-end, and the purpose of this display is not to offend us, but to give us a glimpse into the minds of the artists, and it is beautiful.

Scrimshaw 2

Scrimshaw: The Kiss, courtesy of the Vancouver Maritime Museum

Based on the previous paragraph I think it is fairly obvious that I do not think this exhibit should be censored at all. But does that mean that art should never be censored? Again, this is subjective, but I believe that we should never censor art.  The reason I say this is because there is a simple and elegant way to warn people if there is a chance that a reasonable person may get offended, and that is to put up a sign. We do it when we mop floors so people don’t slip, so why not adopt the same approach for art instead of removing it from public display? The Vancouver Maritime Museum and I are clearly soul-mates, because right next to the display there is a sign that tells all patrons to “hide your eyes,” since the display is not intended for children.  I feel like this would work for most things people may find offensive: put a sign next to it, give people fair warning of what they are about to see, and then let them make their own decision based on their own beliefs, which Simpsons character they most resemble—whatever works for them. So, the next time someone shrieks “won’t somebody please think of the children?” tell them to take a deep breath, and then tell them about how the Vancouver Maritime Museum has thought about the children, and that they should check out this exhibit. They will not be disappointed.

Tattoo and Scrimshaw: The Art of the Sailor runs to mid-October.

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