CENSORED! Nudes and the Immediacy of Art

by Liz

So, this showed up on the walls of our campus a while back:

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They are re-painting the walls of our building and after laying down a few stripes of primer before going home for the day, some artist-hopeful sketched this exceptionally flexible lady up on the wall, complete with frame. My co-worker found it and showed it to me, hence the hastily-snapped cell phone photo. We had a good giggle over the blatant ignorance of normal anatomy and range of motion, but we agreed that it wasn’t terrible (“Look how nice her butt is. That man has seen plenty of butts in his lifetime.”). It reminded me quite a bit of the Grand Odalisque by Ingres with a 1940s pin-up face.

The Grand Odalisque by Ingres, circa 1814
Again, the blatant misunderstanding of how the female back functions…

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World War II Pin-up Painted on a Plane

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Once we’d had a good giggle and snapped a few grainy pictures, I thought little of it. Soon enough it was going to be covered over by more primer and then paint. I’ve seen this sort of ephemeral art before in buildings undergoing restoration. It’s a small tradition in the house-painter’s world to doodle or sign names before covering it all with two coats of paint. What’s the harm?

However, the administration of the building found out about the spontaneous art and wasn’t pleased. The words were something along the lines of “inappropriate for an academic institution.” The nude sketch was reported and ungraciously sprayed over with whatever spray paint was lying around. I’m not much of a house painter, but as a painter in the artistic sense, I know that some paints do not cover others well. The haphazard spray paint may actually do more harm than good, requiring more primer and paint to cover than the sexy graphite sketch would have.

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Was the nude really so ignominious?  The female form is widely admired, coveted, sexualized, demonized, and given every treatment from veneration to damnation.  True, the graphite portrayal was not the most flattering nor respectful of women’s “academic mind,” but how is it any different from the other nudes painted throughout history?

Such a small incident would have passed my notice if it had not been for a related incident that had occurred only weeks before. Our department had been granted permission to make a promotional video advertising our services, like workshops, tutoring, and computers. The majority of the room is exceptionally institutional looking, i.e. bare. The back nook, however, is decorated with posters of famous art. As the video administrator was doing a walk through, he spotted a small 8″x 8″ poster utterly unsuitable for an academic institution:

Leda Atomica by Salvador Dali, circa 1949

He ordered it to be taken down entirely. I protested. Not only is this a work with great artistic significance by a well-respected artist, the poster itself was so small and placed so low that, unless the camera was pointed directly at it, it would be impossible to see, much less discern that there was a nude woman.

Still, I was ordered to “fix the problem.” I reluctantly promised to do so and did:

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The posters are all laminated, so I used a whiteboard marker to sketch a bathing suit over her “offending” body. The marker is completely erasable, so the art itself is not directly damaged, just shamed. I have to wonder how Dali’s “The Lugubrious Game” would go over. If male scat goes uncensored but a female nude is, what sort of statement does that make about society?

When asked why I didn’t just remove the painting, I explained that modern classrooms are bare and uninspiring as it is– few if any windows, little color, concrete walls– and art is a human tradition born alongside music and fire. I consider it a vital part of culture. I cannot justify removing something widely agreed to be inspiring in order to make a room more “academic.” Academia was born of art and without it, academia is conceit without the poetry.

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The Three Graces Roman, Imperial period, second century A.D.
You can remove the heads from the Three Graces and they are still the Three Graces. Remove their bodies, however, and they are just three heads.

Now there are lines to be drawn, especially in a small, conservative community college environments. The naked human body is highly controversial and many people are upset by it, so I can understand that administrators would rather not deal with nude art at all. If it isn’t there to begin with, no complaints can be filed about it. People are far more likely to protest the presence of nudes rather than the lack of nudes around campus! Some nudes, while still academic, would not be suitable for uncontextualized display in college common areas. For example, I would not post a large images of Grecian brothel frescoes in the public spaces around a college campus. However, I would not attempt to eradicate them from existence since they have anthropological significance. They would be completely justified in a human sexuality, psychology, architecture, or art history class. To be offended by nude art but not the theories of Freud is hypocritical. It is decidedly unacademic to omit things not to our individual tastes. Encountering and reacting to new things–good, bad, or ugly–is the very definition of learning. If a student limits their encounters to the things they already accepted and know, they are not a student.

But back to the nude on the wall. Why was she deemed unsuitable and “unacademic?” Most obviously she was created without permission on school property, amounting to little more than graffiti and so was covered as offensive graffiti would be. However, if she was not a nude, but a portrait delicately drawn, perhaps of a sister or celebrity, would she have been thus condemned? More likely she would have been noticed and positively complimented upon, admired for the skill of the rendering before being painted over with little comment. Could it then be inferred that her amateur nature and generic sexual subject matter are what condemned her to censorship? Perhaps.

The most likely culprit is her immediacy. Art, especially nude art, is notorious for being condemned when it is first presented. She’s a modern woman, not some long-distant ancestor put to memory. She’s too close to us and her proximate sexuality makes us uncomfortable. The humanity is too fresh and unnervingly direct. I once heard that art is like wine: it’s not fine art until it has fermented a while in our collective conscience. The crudeness of her figure, twisted repose, and nudity are not yet treasured like a Picasso because she has not yet aged into acceptance.

Nude with Picasso by her feet by Pablo Picasso, circa 1903

Does she present any significant addition to the world of art that, when covered over, is defeated? No. I do not think so. In four days she would have disappeared from view under layers of “Institutional Ivory #8.” She was destined to be hidden; the only change in her fate is that it came a few days early. That brings us to the ultimate question, then:

If she fails to present any lingering, significant addition to culture, is she art?

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Untitled (Nude in a Desert Landscape), circa 2013

She is not meticulously studied like an anatomical Leonardo da Vinci, aesthetically pleasing like a Grecian goddess, disarmingly intimate like Degas’ bathers, or socially charged like Manet’s “Olympia.” She doesn’t offer anything other than a twisted spine, an overtly perky breast, and luscious buttocks. She is an excellent case study of sexuality, and to some degree, lighthearted humor. I found her to be a delightfully cheeky addition to my otherwise mundane day at the office. Her appealing, unintentional humor is worthy of Banksy. To others, she is offensive. Art is entirely subjective and offers every viewer the right to choose what is and isn’t within the confines of their individual definition of art. It is ultimate free will. I do not quibble with them for disliking something I found entertaining. They had every right to remove her (she was vandalism after all).

My only argument against her removal would be the reasoning that prompted the censorship of the graphite sketch and Leda Atomica: Because they are nude, they are not fit for display in an academic environment. This logic is disturbing. Colleges should facilitate higher learning, which requires exposing people to knowledge and patterns of thought they would never encounter elsewhere. Art is an intrinsic part–indeed one of the founding principles–of academics. And for the ultimate expression of artistic expression, nothing is so iconic as the female nude. I am not suggesting that it is acceptable to judge women by their bodies alone. These female nudes are not brazenly pornographic nor are they something to be ashamed of. There are models of breasts, vaginas, and penises strewn about anatomy labs across the country, but they are not so censored. We are all adults here. We are not ignorant that women have breasts or buttocks (indeed, I see plenty of them hanging out of crop tops and short shorts in the least artistic way possible during nearly every class session). A corridor in a hallway may not be a place to post frivolous nudes, but to remove respected pieces of art with artistic and academic value just because it potentially offends someone undermines the exchange of knowledge. Do we censor something just because it makes us uncomfortable? Do we forget that women have bodies? Do we forget that humans are hardwired for sexuality? Do we suppress years of collective artistic record in favor of a vanilla past that we’ve carefully covered over with Institutional Ivory #8 all for the sake of never offending a mysterious someone? Controversy breeds argument, debate, creativity, passion, and discovery– the very lifeblood of cognition. Perhaps it’s time for all those naked ladies to teach us a lesson in learning!

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