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Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Naked Truth About Art

From the Bradenton Herald Today

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.

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