Female nudity in art offends, excites throughout history

Sculptures of Aphrodite of Knidos now stand gracefully and innocuously in places like the Vatican and the Louvre. The statues are modeled off Aphrodites on Roman coins, which are themselves reproductions of the original. In the 6th century B.C.E., gymnasia, where men exercised in the nude, cropped up throughout Greece. The Panhellenic sanctuaries at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea and Isthmia became centers of athletic competition between citystates. The society highly revered athletes. Statues and poems were dedicated to victors. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Athletics in Ancient Greece,” 10.2002). Correspondingly at this time, Greek vase painters started to distinguish between nude and clothed figures and associated nudity with heroism and divinity (Ancient World Magazine, “‘Heroic’ nudity?: Naked men in ancient Greek art,” 01.30.2018). Male subjects dominated heroic nudity— marble men with perfect, lithe, semi-divine bodies. Though they were idealized forms, male heroic nudes maintained their dignity and a modest air: sculptors made genitalia small on purpose, for a well-endowed man was a barbaric one. Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, explained “Greek nudity is a sign…of moral virtue among the social elite of male citizens” (Daily Mail, “Why are Greek statues always NAKED?,” 03.25.2015).

Around 330 BCE, Praxiteles of Athens boldly made the Knidian Aphrodite, the first life-size nude sculpture of the female form. Praxiteles’ sculptures are pretty, and have been recognized as such since ancient times. The writer Diodorus sang his praises in the 1st century B.C.E.: “He informed his marble figures with the passions of the soul.” Pliny the Elder, a Roman author and philosopher, considered the Knidian the best statue in the world (Encyclopædia Britannica, “Praxiteles,” 02.09.2018).

Still, public female nudity was unheard of in Greece. His Aphrodite didn’t resemble the females of ancient Near Eastern art either, whose sculptors emphasized their fertility using imagery, including bulging breasts and bellies, and large pubic areas. Her proportions were, for the times, perfect: less exaggerated as she modestly covered her body with one hand. She was seductive, but Praxiteles suggests an eroticism rather than making her body more bulbous and her pose more open, or covering her up totally like earlier Greek artists. Western depictions of nude women since have maintained a similar tone, creating images that are suggestive, seductive and not overtly sexual, while remaining packed with erotic possibility. Subjects may face the spectator or expose their chest or butt but, meekly, refuse to meet their eyes.

Around a year ago, Mateo Rueda, a parttime teacher at Lincoln Elementary in Hyrum, UT, was fired for showing his fifthand sixth-graders nude art. Rueda used Phaidon’s postcard set “The Art Box” to teach color theory. Some of the kids got upset over the nude paintings in the collection. Take François Boucher’s “Odalisque,” which depicts a woman, supposedly the painter’s own madame, reclining on her stomach, bottom up. She is placid and smiles serenely. Her torso is covered with a sheet. Like many rococo works, “Odalisque” is a little raunchy but lightheartedly, prettily so. (“Odalisque,” like the Knidian Aphrodite, is in the Louvre.) After taking away the pictures, Rueda told the class, “Art can be uncomfortable sometimes, but there should be no shame about nude artwork that is inherently beautiful and is seen in museums worldwide.” (It’s Nice That, “School teacher fired for showing nude paintings in an art lesson,” 01.05.2018).

Parents complained to the Cache County School District. One called the sheriff and accused the teacher of showing pornographic material. No one filed charges, but the school fired him over the uproar. Lincoln Elementary principal Jeni Buist destroyed the postcard collection and apologized (People, “Utah Art Teacher Fired for Unintentionally Sharing Classical Nude Paintings Speaks Out,” 01.04.2018).

For decades now, artists have drawn naked people and genitalia, and even gone nude themselves without charges of pornography. Except in very conservative circles–Hyrum is predominantly Mormon—nudes are generally not deemed too explicit to be valuable, even if they’re female. Perhaps parents were agitated over Mr. Rueda’s approach because pictures like “Odalisque” are so realistic; students stared at a round, exhaustive rendering of Boucher’s wife’s bottom. When the Gagosian Gallery in London received Takashi Murakami’s giant gold penis statue and larger-than-life sculptures of hentai girls, viewers nodded thoughtfully and called the exhibition satire rather than porn. Still, we cannot place the nude male figure and the nude female on the same timeline.

They have received different treatment from Western artists since their birth, and this disparity remains in the mainstream art world and in viewers’ psyches. Would parents have reacted this way over a postcard of Michelangelo’s “David,” or “Perseus with the Head of Medusa,” or yet another naked marble man in a history museum? While classical artists deified or heroized the naked male body, which is now a mark of high art and an integral part of any art history course, the naked woman has always been exceedingly human—the mothers and fertility figures of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Western coquettes. Their nudity feels more salacious and, in turn, more censor-able.

When Yoko Ono performed her “Cut Piece” at Carnegie Hall, in which she sat motionless and invited spectators to cut away her clothes, one of them snipped at her blouse and bra, wearing a leery smile. While Murakami’s nudity has always been cartoonish, Ono’s was even more realistic—and more sexual to audience members—than the Boucher, though the piece wasn’t supposed to be (Ono said it was about “giving and taking” and stemmed from Buddhist influences). Likewise, Mr. Rueda was only trying to teach color theory. What is so threatening about a real naked woman? Why is Aphrodite more pornographic than David or Perseus?

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