Censorship is in the news again. Milan #Art dealer Hamilton Moura Filho posted a Caravaggio painting of a nude Cupid on Facebook, which ruled it a violation of community standards only to rescind the ruling. This was the second time the art dealer faced down Facebook with the same result -- the first time with painter Gustave Courbet’s close-up of a woman’s genitalia. Clearly the site struggles with what is or isn’t acceptable for public consumption.
This column routinely argues against censoring nudity in art in the public square. An incident concerning sculptor C. Paul Jennewein’s bare-breasted female figure “The Spirit of Justice,” long-standing in the U.S. Justice Department Great Hall, comes to mind. In 1986, John Ashcroft, then U.S. Attorney General, camouflaged the statue because a breast came into view behind him during a televised news conference. This brought snickers (from me, too), but the tittering was unthinking. My explanation begins with the art dealer telling Facebook that its censorship was “an outrage against history and culture.” Is he right? Do Facebook’s community standards violate art history? Let’s talk history.
Consider what might have possessed Courbet to paint “The Origin of the World” -- a close-up of a woman’s sex organ as a stand-alone subject? Consider the time. He did it after the French Revolution when a new liberal spirit was in the air. Unlike the liberalism that the French Revolution brought about, our recent election suggests that the U.S. is not even a little bit liberal. And whether we like it or not, that difference needs to be taken into account when judging “community standards.” Now consider all the nudity in ancient Greek and old Roman sculpture. The unclad figure was not a big deal back then. After all, they played their Olympic Games without a stitch and to large crowds. As well, in the Renaissance, the time of re-birth of the ancient culture, it was no surprise that the townies in Florence chose to install Michelangelo’s let-it-al-hang-out “David” in front of their city hall. Until our spectator sports are played without clothing, the sight of undressed people in art will probably continue to raise eyebrows.
Baring the soul
For those who think of art as a remote subject, what is their context on seeing exposed flesh in painting and sculpture? Likely they link nudity with something experienced behind closed doors like sex. How else to account for the Motion Picture Association of America stamping movies that show nudity with an R-rating? But while nudity is linked with sex in our day, art history demonstrates that people of the past saw it as a state of mind, an emblem of the spirit, not sex. One look at all the paintings of bared flesh that fill the walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, including that of a totally exposed Adam, tells us that. The art dealer is mistaken. Facebook’s actions aren’t an outrage against history, they’re a reflection of our time. #Buzz