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Regular contributor ("Carson City Limits" and other content) for Random Lengths (circulation 56,000) in San Pedro, CA, 2001-present. Manga reviewer: LA Alternative (circulation 150,000), 2005-2006. Some manga reviews also ran in NY Press around this time. Entertainment reporting: Music Connection (circulation 75,000), 1983-1906. Travel writing: Oakland Tribune (1998) and Life After 50 (2006). Other bylines: Goldmine, Star Hits, Los Angeles Reader, Los Angeles Times, Long Beach Press Telegram, Blade, BAM, Daily Breeze, LA Weekly. Specializations include community news reporting, writing reviews (book, theater, concert, film, music), copywriting, resumes, editing, travel writing, publicity, screenwriting, lecturing, and content development. Education: B. A. Theater Arts, UCLA. Post-grad work, Education, Chapman University.

Friday, June 10, 2011

USE AND ABUSE OF NUDITY IN ART

USE AND ABUSE OF NUDITY IN ART:
Freedom of Expression for Women and Gays

By Lyn Jensen

With the Republicans wielding political power in Congress, the debate about what constitutes art vs. pornography is coming back for another round. Such controversy between public ethics and private art must delve into the social and psychological forces behind nudes in art. That has traditionally been oriented towards female nudity but with talk about so-called "gay" art entering the picture, male nudes are now being scrutinized, too.

In the book and the resulting TV documentary, Ways of Seeing, both classics in their respective media, art critic John Berger discusses the question of whether a painting of a nude body can be art or simply titillation, and what attempting to answer this question says about modern society in general.

Berger's thesis is that the obsession with the female nude in classical art is a symptom of white males' obsession with power. During the historical period that many classical nude masterpieces were created, Europeans (especially) lusted for power and the possession of objects, including slaves and women, who at the time were both property. Men who may have felt inferior in political and economic affairs could still take comfort from a feeling of sexual superiority over women.

Berger's argument extends to the use of the word "nude" in an art context, as opposed to "naked." To be naked means to be undressed but to be seen as nude has a special meaning--to be portrayed as an undressed object in a painting or statue (or more recently, photograph). Such an undressed object, a sight for a viewer, has no identity apart from whatever a viewer imposes upon it. It's like a costume but it cannot be taken off or changed.

Although study of art labeled by modern eyes as "gay" has altered the debate somewhat, major classical nude paintings often exclude male subjects for a reason--to exclude any competition for the nude female object in the painting. These classical paintings pose women in a way that enables maximum display of the female body. The subject or subjects are painted so their eyes appear to make contact with the observer--exactly like the skin models in modern-day men's magazines. It can therefore be concluded that these nude portraits were created for the exact same purpose as today's nude magazine centerfolds.

When male subjects are used in nude art, other factors become involved in the debate. In paintings of female nudes that include male subjects as well, the males are often clothed and looking at the unclothed female(s). Berger singles out paintings of the Biblical story of Susannah and the elders as an example. When a nude male is the principal subject, however, modern-day eyes often label the work 'gay," a factor Berger does not address.

What Berger argues, however, is not that nude paintings or pictures are always the same as today's commercial pornography. He singles out a few exceptions in classical painting. In these pictures the subjects are exposed naturally, not for display, and their expressions do not appear to make eye contact with the viewer. Berger argues that these paintings serve another purpose, one in which the subject has an identity not dependent upon the viewer. These few works were created to make a more realistic comment upon the human condition, to the point where an observer may not even notice the nudity at first.

Applying Berger's observations to paintings of male subjects results in some provocative conclusions. The 1898 oil painting "Salutat" by the American artist Thomas Eakins portrays a male boxer saluting his adoring male fans, looking upon him the way the elders look at Susannah in Berger’s examples. It was included in a recent National Portrait Gallery exhibit of art identified as “gay” or “homosexual.” Some Republicans in Congress objected to taxpayers’ money being spent on such an exhibit.

However, identifying the Eakins work as “gay” or “homosexual” is not the same as labeling it pornographic. It’s intended as a work of realism, not titillation. The boxer is not entirely nude, and his back is to the viewer, so the painting is not appearing to make eye contact with the observer the way a magazine centerfold does. The subject has an identity apart from the viewer.

Will the white males of today's Republican party—or today’s Democratic party, for that matter--find any distinction between female or male nudity as art, and female or male nudity as exploitation, as Berger has done? Some of today's politicians are once again trying to define common ground by maintaining that all artists have the right to artistic expression but that the US government has the right to not support the exploitation of the human body with taxpayers' dollars. One cannot advocate human freedom without questioning whether certain creative artistic works reduce humans to mere objects. The outcome of that debate holds a great deal at stake for both women’s and gays’ freedom of expression.

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