Friday, March 03, 2006

The Highest Form of Art

The naked truth about art

Joan Altabe – Bradenton Herald

February 26, 2006

SARASOTA, FL -- Too bad Ginger White, a Bradenton figure artist and director of the Anna Maria Island Art League, found it necessary to go to Sarasota to exhibit her work.

White experienced censorship at the Manatee County Public Library in Holmes Beach last year and had to relocate her work to the Digital 3 Gallery in Sarasota. Chalk drawings, which included bared breasts, were taken from view at the library because they were said to be too near the children's section.

As if children haven't seen breasts since birth. As if children think of nudity in the same way adults do.

Not that there isn't such a thing as indecent art. I don't know why more visitors to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., aren't appalled by the display of Benvenuto Cellini's "Virtue Overcoming Vice," which shows a nude man being whipped by a nude woman.

Then there's the bevy of bared breasts in the Ringling Museum collection, some decidedly sexually loaded. I'm thinking of "Bathsheba at her Bath" by Domenico Gargiulo and "Eros Revealing a Sleeping Venus to a Bashful Satyr" by Guissepe Bartolomeo Chiari.

Skittishness about nudity is not new, of course. Before the 20th century, women who wanted to study art were kept from drawing unclad models for fear it wasn't ladylike. Even as late as the 19th century, students in the women's modeling class at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art modeled from cows.

Yet, the nude has been a main subject of art since pre-history. Through the ages, the human figure rendered in the altogether has stood for many states of mind, including patriotism. Eugene Delacroix's celebrated painting "Liberty Leading the People," which ended up on a French postage stamp, depicts a bare-breasted female raising the tricolor of the French flag in battle. The uncovered breast was intended as a reminder that Liberty is the mother of France.

Nudes have also been used in religious works, like Michelangelo's painted Christ surrounded by nude saints above the Sistine Chapel altar wall. You can see a clear feeding of the infant Jesus in Jusepe de Ribera's "Madonna and Child" at the Ringling Museum.

Nude females in art are part of the collective mind. Who doesn't know the Venus de Milo? Even having lost arms to time, the Greek goddess of love and beauty is considered the ideal woman.

All of which makes the concern about White's figure art silly.

If unclothed figures are OK for a great church, a European government and publicly funded museums, why isn't it OK for a public library?

The answer may lie in the warring of two old ideals that continue to hold us: The Renaissance ideal, which says bodies stand for truth and beauty, and the Medieval ideal, which says bodies stand for shame.

By craving the security of the medieval tradition and ignoring that of the Renaissance, we keep alive a belief system best illustrated in a 1473 painting. "The Martydom of Saint Agatha" pictures men mutilating the breasts of a female in the belief that the female is a sexual temptation and must be crushed.

Apparently the crushing goes on.

Joan Altabe, a local writer and arts and architecture expert, appears Sundays in the Herald. She is also the author of the book, "Art Behind the Scenes: One Hundred Masters In and Out of Their Studios" ($14.95, Windstorm Creative, 2005). She can be reached at



Blogger XSuzanne said...

Being an art student and young I think I have a pretty good insight into this situation. I agree that there is a big difference between a naked figure and one that is "nude". But I have to say that I don't agree that it was okay for Ginger White to display her art at a public library. I feel that because it is a public building she has no right to force this art onto children. If people wish to view her work, then they should visit he gallery. The library had every right to censor her work. The only reason children do not see breasts the same way adults do is the parents have the responsability to teach thier children all those meanings. White is not their parents and her work should not be the thing to do it. The National Gallery of Art clearly has art in it and if someone chooses to visit they will see art that they don't like. But children go to a library to play ont he computer and read books, not look at naked people.
I just feel that art has it's freedoms and today artists have as much liberty as could be given, but parents and children should also have the freedom to visit the library without seeing nudes. To see the diverse collection of all art types, those that want to can go to the gallery. If this artist feels that the human body is beautiful and should not be covered up in shame then why isn't there pictures of nude men? Obviously they are aware of the climate and that a nude male is not acceptable but a nude female is. The artist cannot argue it both ways. Either she should display beautiful obsucred or clothes figures (of both sexes) in public forum, or full nude figures (also of both genders)in a private or semi-private gallery.

8:49 AM  

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