Porn Again

IT USED TO be that makers of sexually provocative art only had to worry about losing their NEA funding. In Gary Butzer's case the stakes are higher. Butzer is a Minnesota artist who, while conducting research for an arts grant, may have added a child pornography charge to his vitae.

The 50-ish Butzer lives with his mother in his childhood home in the small town of Morton. If you've driven out Highway 19, you're sure to have seen one of his hundreds of murals--Redwood Falls, New Prague, and numerous other towns in the region sport his work on their public buildings. Over his lifetime in Morton, he's accumulated the familiar credentials of a self-supporting artist: grade-school residencies, private art classes, a board membership on the Southwest Minnesota Arts & Humanities Council.

Recently, he says, he's been struck by the level of sexual confusion and dysfunction in the culture at large, and conceived of an art project exploring the issues. He submitted a grant proposal to Intermedia Arts, along with two other local artists, to create a "prison cell housing our sexual inhibitions." But researching the grant was where the trouble began.

"We wanted to get an idea of just how bad it was out there," Butzer explains. So he began to mail order the seamiest hardcore porn he could find from "specialty" tabloids devoted to esoteric adult tastes. "I'd reached a point where I'd given up my exploration of bestiality, homosexuality, sadomasochism," Butzer says, when he saw an ad in the back of one publication, which "looked like it was for child pornography." In fact, the ad was placed by an officer of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

At the same time Butzer was researching the "unhealthy" aspects of sexuality, he began making films in his basement studio with his 26-year-old collaborator, Nancy Seger, intended to represent healthy sexuality. These films, one of which features Butzer and Seger painting each other's genitals with acrylic paints, would be used along with the pornography in the final installation in such a way that viewers would "get a sense of struggle toward wholeness, balance, and health." The tentative title of the project: In House Arrest.

But after an exchange of letters, money, and child porn between Butzer and postal inspectors, the artist may face an arrest of a more literal sort. The day that Butzer picked up his child-porn video from the post office, five postal inspectors, along with the local police chief and a county deputy, came knocking on his door. They handcuffed Butzer and, after sending his 70-year-old mother to a neighbor's, searched his home for five hours.

So far no charges have been filed. But Butzer fears the arrest itself could spell the end of his good standing in the small town of Morton. A couple days after the incident, he went into the town cafe and was met at the door by the owner. "I didn't have the chance to utter a word," he recalls. "She said, 'Get out! Everyone knows about you and little girls.' Now that really hurt."

 
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