Sex

Nude or Lewd?

The appearance of a naked six-year-old on a magazine cover Down Under has rekindled the age-old debate about artistic nudity vs. pornography.

Large_alg_freud
Lucien Freud's "Benefits Supervisor Sleeping" (1995).

It's time for another round of my favorite game: "Imagine If This Happened in America"! I like to play it whenever something happens overseas that would make America's moral compass go completely haywire. I played a solid couple of rounds last year when Segolène Royale, an unmarried mother of four, nearly beat out Nicolas Sarkozy in the French presidential elections last year, having recently taken her long-term partner's job at the helm of France's Socialist Party. So many things about that situation made me ask, half gleefully and half sadly, "Can you imagine this ever happening in America?"
         
Recently, my homeland Australia has been providing some excellent fodder for the game: In late May, Australian authorities seized a number of artworks depicting naked children from the museum where their exhibit was planned. The artist, Bill Henson, was threatened with prosecution for child pornography for the images, which featured children younger than 12.
         
A month later, Art Monthly Australia magazine, in a statement against censorship, has put a naked six-year-old girl on the cover of its latest issue that, between the covers, is also one of their most nudity-heavy yet. Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister, who opposed the original exhibition, has also come out against the magazine, stressing the protection of children from predation and exploitation. In response, the girl whose image appears on that magazine, now 11, says she is offended by the PM's remarks about the photograph of her.
         
You can imagine how things would play out if this happened in the United States: there would be vehement defense of First Amendment rights, followed by the pornography debate (again), then Helen Lovejoy-esque cries of "Somebody think of the children!" followed by numerous, probably naked protests from the art community—the more outrageous the better. And in true American fashion, the media would be there to monitor every salacious moment, because this situation is pure gold: a back-and-forth, he-said-she-said journalistic feeding frenzy which brings together some of the greatest components of sensationalist journalism: nudity, innocent children, and powerful men. Put these three things together, in any conceivable combination, and you have yourself a very eye-catching headline.
         
One of the proponents of the "art" point of view—that is, one of the people who thinks that the images in the exhibit and on the cover of the magazine have genuine artistic value—has publicly questioned why people are equating nudity with sexuality, especially in a six-year-old.
         
So my question is, does nudity equal sexuality?

There are certainly many situations in which nakedness doesn't immediately bring sex to mind: illness and medicine, for example, often require the body to be exposed, evoking not sexual thoughts but death and of suffering. The exception to this, historically speaking, seems to have been tuberculosis, or "consumption,” which was romanticized as the disease of bohemian artists. The reality, of course, is that no amount of oil painting or Puccini can make coughing up blood sexy, and there seem to be no modern day equivalent diseases that are believed to make the sufferer more beautiful. Today, the presence of illness or injury tends to take the sex out of nudity.
         
When we think about nudity in art, there are numerous situations in which either the experiences of painting, being painted, or viewing paintings are not sexual ones. Peter Paul Rubens, for example, painted most of his celebrated female nudes from male models, since it was not acceptable for women to pose nude at the time. Given that Rubens was married to a woman, we can assume that the experience of painting male nudes was not a sexual one for him, but rather, an exercise of genuine artistic value.

When I considered posing nude for a life drawing class one summer, the experience was not intended as a sexual one, but rather as an exercise in feeling comfortable in my own skin. To be at ease naked in a room full of strangers, I thought, as they focused on the parts of my body I had come to think of as flaws, would require real confidence and self-assurance, and would test just how far along I was on the long, hard road to loving my body. But my friends, family and boyfriend saw it otherwise: they were uncomfortable with the idea of other people seeing—no, studying—parts of me that were usually kept private, revealed only to a sexual partner or a bikini waxer.
         
Finally, as I walked through the Metropolitan Museum of Art this weekend, I couldn't help but notice that many of the nudes were not at all sexual. Many of Rubens' works, for example, depict child nudity but aren’t meant to be interpreted erotically, but rather as a symbol of innocence and purity, the very things that the "child protection" proponents in Australia are striving to ensure. There are countless other depictions in that museum of the naked human body as grotesque and sexless, or of human sexuality as base, animal and ugly, suggesting that nakedness isn't necessarily always erotic.

I don't want to attempt to decide what constitutes art and what constitutes pornography, nor weigh in on whether censorship of potentially obscene art ought to be permitted in a democracy that assures free speech. The Henson scandal, if we must call it that, demonstrates the enormous power of the naked body. Free speech, artistic expression and happy naked five-year-olds on beaches everywhere find themselves viewed in a new light today as a result of the Henson affair, and it's all because of the naked human body and the way we look at it. We are the ones who decide which body parts are private and which are public, we decide who may go without a shirt in public when it gets hot and who may not, and we decide at what age a swimsuit becomes a necessity. The decisions our culture makes about where and when nudity is acceptable seem endless. As a result, the naked body wields enormous power over us: this week, the naked body of one six-year-old girl inspired artists, shocked and sickened communities and mobilized police, while down the road at the local swimming pool, other similarly undressed girls caused no such stir.

DISCUSSION
  • Go to comment.
    Jul 11, 2008, 09:33AM
    Oh, please. An innocent picture of a naked six-year-old is not pornography. What about the cover of Nirvana's Nevermind? A baby, yes, but I'm actually surprised that America's hopelessly puritanical society didn't have that banned. Where do you draw the line? Remember, this is the country that banned Lady Chatterly's Lover and tormented Lenny Bruce, much to its disgrace. I certainly don't advocate suggestive or lewd pictures of kids on magazines or tv or the Internet, and pedophilia isn't a problem to be taken lightly, but let the public decide whether they want to buy such a magazine or visit a museum.
  • Go to comment.
    Jul 11, 2008, 10:00AM
    Wait, your local swimming pool is also a nudist colony? Sorry, I enjoyed this article immensely, but your last line didn't quite make it off the runway. Minors in bathing suits (regardless if they're bikinis or onesies) do not child pornography make. This article made me think about hyper-sexualized/erotic advertising and its negative impacts on social perceptions and expectations. But more to the point, a private space of art (say, a gallery or a museum) is different than a magazine on the 7-11 rack in terms of viewing access. The same people who protested the magazine's blatant antagonism might not be so stuffy if they were in the MoMA. Think about it: Jeff Koons' pornography series was exhibited in art spaces, while Hustler and Playboy are covered up on magazine racks.
  • Go to comment.
    Jul 11, 2008, 10:09AM
    Just so everyone knows what we're talking about, here's the cover in question:
  • Go to comment.
    Jul 11, 2008, 10:12AM
    Good points, AS, although I wonder if Jeff Koons' cheesy artwork could be shown in cities other than New York or L.A. without a ridiculous stir. As for advertising, people can click off commercials, ignore ads in magazines or on the web. And I don't really buy the idea that "hyper-sexualized/erotic" ads are massively bad for society. In what way?
  • Go to comment.
    Jul 11, 2008, 01:34PM
    Ah, I, too, did a little leaping sans looking. What I meant was something along lines of the boilerplate notion that there's so much sex involved in advertising, which touches on a slew of issues ranging from eating disorders to identity problems. Pedophilia is a grave problem, but admittedly not a relatively widespread one. Pencil thin models and/or plastic surgery and/or luxury materialism etc etc are, while not nearly as extreme as pedophilia, much more widespread and insidious. I just think of communities losing their shit over a magazine cover as they let their kids watch "Live Free or Die Hard" or read Maxims or—am I sounding like a crotchety old man yet? I'm not even 25.
  • Go to comment.
    Jul 11, 2008, 02:42PM
    Maybe not crotchety, but certainly cranky. That's why you don't like the cool Tigers at Comerica Park. But in all seriousness, you're right about hypocrisy involved, whether it's the U.S. or Australia, where the "offensive" magazine cover came out. There's a ton of garbage on the tube, or videogames or in ads that the same would-be censors condone while going nuts over innocent images such as the one depicted above. I wonder how those Coppertone ads with the little girl having her tush exposed got past the morality cops. And those started in the McCarthy 50s!
  • Go to comment.
    Jul 12, 2008, 04:26AM
    Bravo to Chole Angyal for bringing up again the puritanical views of so many Americans (and, apparently Australians). You'd think, with the United States facing so many economic and real social problems, the question of "what is art" would be a very low priority.
  • Go to comment.
    Jul 16, 2008, 08:44PM
    Update: The Classification Board's has approved the image as appropriate for publication. "The board reviewed the entire July edition of Art Monthly magazine, and gave it an Unrestricted: M rating, which means it is suitable for publication, though discretion is advised for people under the age of 15". (www.smh.com.au)
  • Go to comment.
    Aug 20, 2008, 06:55PM
    so i'm slightly offended that you think jeff koons is cheesy. I think he is interesting and amusing, though at many times not very original, other times he's fantastically brilliant. I just went to the met yesterday to see his few installations on the roof. I guess i'm not asking for anything but your consideration at my comments, Christian.
  • Go to comment.
    Aug 20, 2008, 07:56PM
    I don't think you should be offended, Marilyn. It's Koons' work I was referring to, and he couldn't care less what I think, or other detractors of his art think. I've seen his stuff at shows, and think he's a great opportunist, great at getting publicity and great at marketing. As for his art, it's cheesy; sure, kitsch for kitsch's sake, but a fifth-rate Warhol.
  • Go to comment.
    Aug 20, 2008, 08:14PM
    I would say second-rate Warhol. His sculptures are sumptuous and seductive. And I think Koons is the necessary corollary to Warhol. He took Warhol to his logical extreme.
  • Go to comment.
    Aug 21, 2008, 08:34AM
    You're being too kind, atomculture. Koons, to his credit, capitalized on the sensationalism that Warhol started (whether it was the films with Joe D'Allesandro, Interview magazine or his Polaroid collection) and took full advantage of a culture that was more open to obscenity. I don't think the sculptures of Koons and his onetime Italian wife were at all seductive or sumptuous, but rather 3-D Hustler mag. He's more serious than a Mark Kostabi, but doesn't even belong in a conversation with Warhol.
Add a comment
Register to leave a comment