PHOTO: Herbert Mitgang



Sunday, January 17, 2010

David and I

After many years of admiration for his work, my personal acquaintance with David Levine began over a case of censorship. In 1980 I used ten of his drawings of eminent scholars as illustrations in my book on Psychological Anthropology. Eight years later I added two more to an expanded edition, keeping the same twelve for a final revision in 1999 (Rethinking Psychological Anthropology, Waveland Press). These caricatures may have been the most notable features of the texts, and all of them had been seen by hundreds of thousands of viewers of The New York Review of Books.

Nevertheless, in 1999 I received a long letter from the Committee on the Status of Women in Anthropology insisting that I and my publisher Bowdlerize the drawing of Margaret Mead that preceded Chapter Four. It depicted the face of the aged Mead perched on a diminutive naked torso of a pubescent female. This group demanded that I delete or “crop” the drawing to make it less offensive to members of COSWA who felt that it “denigrated” Mead and might corrupt undergraduates. They also threatened to “air” their complaints if I did not comply

I replied that I was not about to censor Levine’s drawing and urged them to view it in the context of the other drawings as well as my praise for Mead’s contributions discussed in the rest of the book, including her well known and once controversial work on human sexuality. At the same time I wrote to David telling of my admiration and requesting a statement from him on the issue.

He replied with a letter (12/11/99) of support, stating that the reason for his drawing Mead “bare breasted” was to “even the playing field for all of those. . .women of color whose lack of sartorial cover were published in exotic travel articles (frequently by anthropologists).” The letter (now framed on my wall) included a drawing of himself, bare breasted!

His kindness did not end there. A few years later when my artist wife and I were visiting our daughter in Brooklyn he invited us for brunch and, later, to tour his studio where we saw his wall of framed caricatures and many of his wonderful paintings. This is one of our most precious memories.

The controversy did not end there. Despite my warnings about the precedent such censorship might set, my publisher wanted to “settle” and even recommended a black bar across the drawing and the deletion of some sentences from the text. Some colleagues supported my position but others recommended changes. Final, I told the publisher to leave that page blank in the next printing. Though I regret not fighting further against foolish meddling I am delighted that these events brought me into personal contact with a fine artist and a good man.

Philip K. Bock <>
Emeritus Prof. Of Anthropology
University of New Mexico

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