In central Kansas an English teacher at my high school was fired in 1967 and run out of town for inviting me to bring one of my paintings of stylized nudes into his class to initiate a conversation about creativity. I wish I could show you the painting, but I don’t have it any longer. It was a pretty tame surrealistic adolescent composition – nothing too shocking. But a student complained to his mother. The painting was confiscated by the school board, and the poor teacher lost his job. He and his wife had to find a new job and a new place to live. I learned the hard way early in my career that nudity in art CAN hurt you.
Nevertheless, America was generally more tolerant about nudity in art during that time than now. When I was about to graduate from college in 1971, the Humanities Department asked me to produce three pen and ink book covers for three anthologies of readings entitled “Man and Mystery,” and “Life and Death,” and “Beauty and Ugliness.” For the first two book covers I produced compositions including nudes. The covers were accepted and published without question by ManchesterCollege, boasting 1,400 students, all of whom carried these books around campus. Today I am quite certain that almost no college in America would publish such covers. Times have changed. Attitudes about nudity in art and everything else have moved significantly to the right.
About a year ago before Robert and I closed our big art gallery downtown, a woman visited and commented on my 6 ft x 8 ft canvas of cubistically stylized nudes entitled “Fallen Angels.” She said, “Thank you for covering up the private parts.” I asked her if full nudity in such a painting would have offended her and she admitted that it would, because then it would be pornography. To her credit the woman stayed for a 10-minute discussion with me about nudity in art. I explained that we artists rarely ever see nudity in art as being pornographic, partly because it is so very difficult to do well. A perfectly painted hand or face or foot represents the greatest artistic challenge any artist can undertake. It is such a daunting task to paint or sculpt the entire nude form in an accurate and harmoniously balanced manner that many artists would not feel adequate to attempt it, even if nudity in art were embraced by today’s public.
After many months of arduous scientistic research and aesthetic effort, the last thing on an artist’s mind is any form of prurient thought generally. So, even if the work is deemed to be pornography, I assured my visitor, it is also very hard work. She thanked me for our discussion, but I could tell she was still glad for the lack of visible “private parts” on my big painting. What I did not tell her was that I have painted this canvas over a period of 30 years. In fact, it isn’t finished yet, and I may continue working on it forever. It has been in development through many changes in social attitudes toward nudity in art, and it has morphed accordingly. Two of the life-size figures have undergone sex change operations, and several sets of genitalia and nipples have been hidden by changing the positions of limbs and configurations of hair. I hope the painting has not lost its power because of this evolving modesty over the decades in response to the increasingly conservative values of the U.S.
Some people say they can easily tell the difference between pornography and art. I can’t. They say that pornography is sexually charged and titillating whereas art is not. I simply cannot agree. What about all of the very fine erotic art that has been produced throughout human history? Some of it is certainly beautiful and artful. And quite frankly most of the pornography I have seen is neither sexually charged nor titillating. It is mostly just boring. Then there are some very exciting works of art by very accomplished and talented fine artists who have taken on the thankless task of making fine art in the manner of pornography, but with an ironic, removed, humorous, or expanded sensibility. Of course, they usually get both praised and condemned for it, but always accused of doing it just for publicity or notoriety.
Jeff Koons undertook a pornographic fine art project, in the late 1980s. “Made in Heaven” is a series of very large oil-ink silk-screens on canvas, life-size ceramic sculptures, and a Murano Glassworks sculpture of Jeff Koons and his bride-to-be (now ex-wife) Italian porn star Ilona Staller, aka “La Cicciolina,” entangled in very explicit and literally graphic sexual activity. http://www.theworldsbestever.com/2010/10/14/installation-view-jeff-koons-made-in-heaven-series-major-paintings/ . There has been a raging debate ever since the series debut in 1990 at the Venice Biennale about whether these huge works are art or porn. Is a funny dirty joke, well-told by a world-class comedian, humor or smut? Is a steamy nude love scene in a great movie or book cinematic art or literature… or just pornography?
These kinds of questions and controversies were raised by Picasso’s revolutionary cubist canvas “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” when it was shown in 1907. Both the cubist style and the subject of his painting were shocking to society at that time. It was inconceivable in 1907 that any reputable artist would make fine art depicting a group of prostitutes whom he knew personally from his experiences at a local Barcelona brothel. Stylistically, Picasso’s canvas was so radically ahead of its time that most of the world still has not caught up to it 106 years later. Nevertheless, the revolutionary canvas is considered by art connoisseurs, teachers, critics, and artists everywhere to be one of the greatest single accomplishments by any artist in the history of art.
Michelangelo was no less a topic of controversy 500 years ago for his “Last Judgment” wall completed behind the Sistine Chapel alter in 1541, 20 years after the great master painted his magnificent frescos in the vault above. After Michelangelo died, the genitalia in “The Last Judgment” were painted over with drapery by the Mannerist artist Daniele da Volterra, when the Council of Trent condemned nudity in religious art. The Pope’s own Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena said of The Last Judgment, “It is mostly disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all these nude figures exposing themselves so shamefully.” From 1980 to 1994 about half of the “Fig Leaf Campaign” censorship was removed and Michelangelo’s great wall was partly restored by Frabrizio Mancinelli. Apparently half of it was still considered to be shameful.
Some artists like William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 – 1905) and Maxfield Parrish (1870 – 1966) lived during permissive enough times and worked in socially acceptable enough neo-classical styles that they were able to produce many beautiful nudes without much complaint or condemnation, and in fact managed to earn very respectable incomes and public acclaim during their lifetimes.
So then… what IS the difference between art and pornography? Like so many other questions about art, the answers have a great deal to do with the intentions of the artist, although the final judgments are made by the public. If the artist approaches an erotic or pornographic subject or certainly just nudity with the intention of making an object that is more than simply sexual, then in my book it is art. If the vision of the artist peers through a lens of irony, humor, idealism, heightened or altered reality, social commentary, formal abstraction or other clearly artistic sensibilities, then the art cannot be merely pornographic. It must be more. It is art.
Let us consider the rather extreme example of transvestite performance artist Leigh Bowery who used his own body as the medium for his shocking performance art about radical change. Sometimes he was entirely covered from head to toe in very elaborate and fascinating vestments with masks, stilts and props. At other times he was almost completely nude except for some bindings, clothespins, ropes and boots. His work was always jarring and disturbing. In one performance piece he was hung upside-down wearing only some boots and bindings on his genitalia. He was swung back and forth until he crashed through a plate glass window. The very great artist Lucian Freud painted many spectacular portraits of Leigh Bowery, completely nude and without any adornment of any kind. The canvases of Bowery’s large, corpulent, soft body are very powerful and revolutionary in their own right. No one could call them pornography. They are aesthetic explorations of profound sensitivity, insight and undeniable beauty.
On the other hand, When the darling of American kitsch, entrepreneurial art phenom Thomas Kinkade (1958 – 2012,) may he rest in peace, mass produced prints of his cloyingly saccharine paintings of cottages with heart-shaped windows in floral woodlands and told the world it was “art,” I personally found his contribution to art history to be much more pornographic than those of Jeff Koons, Michelangelo, Bowery, or Freud. Kinkade was so successful at mass marketing his printed reproductions and other licensed products through The Thomas Kinkade Company, that it is estimated that one in 20 American households owns a Kinkade product.
My apologies to 5% of the American public, including well-meaning, dear friends who adore Thomas Kinkade and collect his work, but I shall now have to confess that I think they are displaying pornography on their tidy livingroom walls. It is pornographic because it commercially monetizes the world’s prurient addiction to the lowest forms of materialism for pure financial gain, in the same way that pornography commercially monetizes the lowest forms of sex for the purpose of making mountains of money. Both strategies succeed wildly because both appeal to the lowest common denominator in human consciousness and culture and can be mass marketed. I do not wish to eradicate bad art or pornography. They have their places and uses in the world. I only ask that those who enjoy these lower forms stop censoring and vilifying fine art.
How does one develop the discrimination to recognize the distinctions among the definitions for art, eroticism and pornography? Education. Look at lots and lots of different kinds of art, erotic art, and pornography if you wish, with an open mind and an increasing understanding of the differences, no matter how subtle. Read about it. Watch documentaries. Talk with artists. Take seminars and courses. Art is just as rigorous and disciplined a field of endeavor as mathematics, agriculture, or music theory. It would be entirely presumptuous and impossible for most of us to comment upon a complicated new mathematical theory. Yet we often behave as if we were all born with advanced degrees in art and the God-given right to pass judgment on every object made by artists, without having the slightest idea of the intentions, research, and techniques involved, let alone the historic antecedents and cultural references represented in the work. Understanding of the complexities and motivations of any field of human endeavor begins with the humility to admit ignorance, and the willingness to suspend disbelief and revulsion until we know a great deal more. In fact, I have found that if the work of a particular artist really bothers me, it is a good idea to pay extra attention to understanding that body of work, because I usually discover eventually that there is something important there for my own personal growth. That’s why it bothered me. I guess I’d better take another look at Kinkade…
When it comes to questions about nudity, eroticism and pornography in art, I will have to defer to one of the greatest masters who ever lived. Michelangelo wrote, “What spirit is so empty and blind that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful than the garment with which it is clothed?” The answer to Michelangelo’s question is unfortunately that there are, in fact, too many spirits who are so empty these days that they cannot recognize the pure beauty of the human form in its original nakedness. Now might be a good time to focus on the honest truth of our nakedness — our ultimate vulnerability and dependency on a narrow band of survivable life sustaining conditions. It fundamentally behooves all of us to broaden our perspectives and learn to appreciate the exquisitely glorious beauty of the human life form as God created it, whether that form is young, perfect and desirable, or old fat and bald. Spirit is not pleased to be criticized and condemned when it dons any of its forms.