Last week, the Manchester Art Gallery took down a 19th-century image because it depicted nudity. The naked truth applying our rules to the past is censorship. Nothing more.
So there we were again: outrage, indignation, self-righteousness. This time it was somebody called Clare Gannaway, the curator of contemporary art at the Manchester Art Gallery. She had taken it upon herself to remove JW Waterhouse’s 1896 painting Hylas and the Nymphs. Not because it wasn’t very good (which it isn’t), but because she felt “a sense of embarrassment that we haven’t dealt with it sooner.” With the #MeToo movement in full swing, she wanted to “prompt conversation” about nudity in art and whether we could still accept naked women’s bodies on display. The Guardian’s art critic, Jonathan Jones, was quick to take Gannaway up on her “conversation”. After calling it “censorship” and a “crass gesture” he wondered who was going to be next. Titian, Velasquez, Picasso? This is “just the spectre of an oppressive past wearing new clothes,” he wrote. Jones, of course, is absolutely right. But just in case his “oppressive past” remark presumed more historical knowledge than you’ve got at your fingertips, let me give you a potted history about nudes in art, and the censorship they endured.
As long as there has been art (and there was art before there was almost anything else) people have been sculpting, painting, drawing naked people. Famous is this little figurine of the Venus of Willendorf, made approximately 28,000 BCE.
Clear case of abuse of power, isn’t it? Misogynist caveman, sexist pig. How dare he objectify women, or even goddesses, because that is what this is, this way? Retrospectively castrate him, I say. Sorry, I was getting carried away there for a moment. Until the Middle Ages, there were no problems with nudes in art.
Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans portrayed little else. They were trying to understand the human form, talk about fertility, Gods, sexuality, warriors, heroes and relationships that way. Women and men got this treatment, which is why you could be forgiven for thinking that all the Caesars were running around naked all the time.
Then the Christian Church intervened. With its emphasis on chastity and fear of sexuality (and the power of women), it banned all flesh. Although that is not completely true. Interestingly enough, the only one who could be portrayed naked was Christ. On the cross and as baby Jesus. And in many, many paintings of the baby, somebody, often his mother or grandmother, was touching his penis. Strange people, those Christians, right? After the stranglehold of the Church was broken a little during the Renaissance, naked was back with a vengeance. As Michelangelo said, “what spirit is so empty and blind that it cannot recognise the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful than the garment with which it is clothed?”
So everybody did it. Nudes were used to tell Biblical stories, talk about Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, and after a while, even normal people were depicted naked. And that tradition continued in modern art. Don’t think, by the way, that only women were baring their all. Men and women sculptors and painters also directed their gaze towards men. Here are a few examples. This is the famous Lucian Freud:
And here are two feminist painters, Alice Neel and Sylvia Sleigh:
Almost as long as there have been nudes in art, there has been backlash. At the moment it seems to come from slightly misdirected women, but they are only the last in a long line of critics. A few weeks ago, for instance, there were some issues in Brazil, where Evangelical Christians managed to close down an exhibition of gay art and almost managed to do the same with an exhibition on the history of sexuality in the country’s biggest museum, the Sao Paulo Museum of Modern Art. Displaying pictures of naked people, they said, was the same as “promoting paedophilia, blasphemy and bestiality.” (Maybe we have found the ideal country for Cory Bernardi to move to?).
But women curators and Evangelical Christians are only footnotes in the history of angst about nudes in art, and art in general. We all know, I hope, the story of the Protestant Iconoclasm, where the followers of Calvin and Luther went around Europe smashing stained glass windows and sculptures of saints, because they believed that God didn’t want anything depicted, especially not the sacred. A few years ago, the Taliban did the same, and in early 2015, ISIS destroyed most of the museum in Mosul and bulldozed Nimrud for very similar reasons. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution there was a call to “sweep away all monsters and demons,” which led to the destruction of thousands of paintings and books. The Nazis, of course, famously burned thousands of pieces of what they called “entartete kunst” or “degenerate art” – mostly Cubist and Surrealist pieces by people like Matisse, Picasso, Chagal and Van Gogh. This is Hitler, being guided around the exhibition on degenerate art the Nazis organised in 1937.
Art, at its best, asks questions, and shows us the world we live in. Obviously, we are not always happy with that world, or with the questions we are confronted with. That is absolutely fine. Religion, especially, has taught us that the human form, in its unclothed version, is dirty and scary, because it leads us to sexual thoughts. And sex is enjoyment and therefore bad. If you want to believe that, that is fine too. Silly, but fine. Nothing wrong with puritanism, right? It founded the land of the free, didn’t it?
What is really, really not fine, is censorship. If you don’t want to see something, go right ahead and turn your head away. But don’t force me to do the same. Let me figure out my own morals, my own ethical guidelines, my own personal conscience. Do not, at any time, think you can force your truth on me, in any way. Censorship, as we know, or should know, is a sliding scale. Once you put one step on that road, you will be censored, at one point in the future, yourself. If you don’t want to listen to what people have got to say, one day nobody will listen to you anymore. People have died to preserve freedom of speech. Throughout history. Let’s not forget them and stamp on their graves.