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In mid-November, 2001, a sculpture called Corpus Mobilis, of three swimmers, was unveiled outside a sports complex in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada.

The swimmers, sculpted in bronze by local artist and art-gallery director Michael Burtch, were nude. They were taken down shortly thereafter. Officially, the city objected to the "form" of the sculpture -- that it was in three pieces, separate from each other and the building -- and to the fact that, city councillors said, it didn't look the way they expected it to. Apparently the city bureaucrats' request to Burtch that he recast the statues with clothes on them was accidental or imaginary.

The mayor of Sault Ste. Marie, John Rowswell, asked for public comment on the sculpture, which was overwhelmingly positive, coming from across Ontario and even the rest of Canada. "Give us our nekkid swimmers back!" was the general sentiment.

The nekkid swimmers were subsequently restored; in 2003, Burtch was given an arts award by the City of Sault Ste. Marie.

What's interesting about the controversy is that it misses the question of whether the sculpture is any good or not. This is, of course, a subjective judgment, but the three swimmers do seem pretty small and somehow tawdry. They aren't heroic representations of ancient athletes in a modern setting, competing nude to demonstrate their commitment and lack of reliance on technological aid. They're just naked -- more like skinny-dippers than Spartans.

The controversy over the nudity obscures the question of artistic merit behind the furor over censorship, which is a shame.

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