Last night I watched yet another wonderful piece on HBO entitled Sexual Intelligence which was narrated by the gorgeous Kim Cattrall of “Sex and the City” distinction. The program was well produced, featuring a lovely and talented leading lady who is a compelling actress as well as an excellent narrator. Watching this thoughtful piece, it brought to mind so many things; particularly the taboos currently existent in our culture which discourage and sometimes even specifically prohibit the examination/exploration/enjoyment/appreciation of the human body itself and most particularly of certain of its’ verboten parts.
As a passionate teacher of this particular subject, a lover of the human figure, of artwork, which, throughout the ages has portrayed such gorgeous and expressive imagery, and as an artist who produces such work myself, I have an intimate and entirely biased relationship with the topic.
Perhaps as fallout, this afternoon, I found myself thinking about an incident that happened about 10 or so years ago in the small town of Weaverville California where my husband and I keep a house and some properties. For several years there, I taught Figure Drawing for a local college.
During this time, an artist who practiced figure painting had come to the area as a new and aspiring resident. She sought to introduce herself to the community via a showing of her work and was granted a one-woman show by the local arts council. It was to be held at the county’s brand new public library, where an “art gallery” of sorts had been designed into the foyer, complete with lovely open, whitish walls and track lighting which when illuminated, generated enough heat to roast a truck load of turkeys.
Unfortunately, this poor woman had recently finished a series of figure painting courses at a nearby California State University acknowledged generally for its’ party rating (very high) and thereby customarily shunned for its’ academic rating (very low) and so delivered the fruits of her recent labors; a collection of amateurish, traditional and academic nude figure canvases to the library gallery for a show. Overall, the paintings were not flawed, neither were they an inspiration for the genre. Nevertheless, the local county arts council approved the artwork for aesthetic content and it was hung in the library’s foyer art gallery.
Alas, this particular public library is frequented mainly by students of K-12 age, seeking a place to go after school. And it is a handy place to use a public restroom, as well. Regrettably, on the way to public restrooms, several of these unsuspecting young students passed the nude images, which were on display in the foyer. They saw crotches and penises and bare buttocks.
“Porno” is a Greek word meaning whore. Having no frame of reference (as there is not a single qualified art program in the county’s k-12 curricula), the children thought they had encountered something forbidden and lewd in the foyer of the public library that day; pornography. The paintings created quite a raucus reaction. Of course, these youngsters went right home and told their mostly Christian, high school educated parents, who rushed to the library (many for the first time ever) and discovered that, yes indeed, there was a whole collection of painted images on display containing completely nude human beings and having no leaves to cover those areas where the private parts were concerned. Being a righteous Christian community populated with an overabundance of scantily educated citizens, the county’s folk came to the obvious conclusion: dirty, dirty images! Certainly, all agreed these paintings contained images which were x-rated and improper material for viewing by young children.
And so the academic nudes, painted by an adult university art student and hung in the county’s public library became scandalous. The poor woman whose artwork was at the crux (sorry) of this issue was unceremoniously raked over the coals and humiliated repeatedly and publicly. The work was clearly obscene. The show was disgusting. Letters and articles were written in the county’s only local newspaper, and the ABC affiliate from Redding California, KCRA also came to shoot footage and do a special report for prime time local television. Outrage sizzled throughout the community.
What a terrible debacle!
Nudes in public!
However from the bad there always emerges good and it got me thinking of an incongruity that seems even more paradoxical; the very same populace which finds the content of nude figure painting so deeply offensive, also has an insatiable obsession for artwork that represents the imagery of flowers. The very same folks who shun and condemn human sexual imagery as being vulgar, also embrace (and dare I say it?) worship the more subtle symbols of the very same genus when presented in a sugar coated and diluted conformity. Or “conformat”, as I like to call it. Does this not suggest that there is a cultural need for the expression of this undercurrent and force in human behavior? That all people recognize it, feel it and need to articulate it? As well, does this also not suggest that the visual language has simply been modified to fit the contemporary and provincial cultural ability to perceive and appreciate certain levels of idiom and communication?
There is a point where much of this stuff collides/coincides with the other in an uncharted territory of mutual acceptance. Oddly, the inoffensive, yet intelligent image resolution to this conundrum lies in the content of the artwork of Georgia O’Keefe. Everyone seems to agree that Ms. O’Keefe’s work is suitable, though it is extremely intellectual imagery and certainly spills boldly into the province of the phallic. Yet, no one from either side of the spectrum finds it offensive; neither too pedantic, nor too bawdy. And yet I would venture to say that Georgia O’Keefe painted for no one except herself. Her work follows no method or model, although there were many dictums among the artistic elite floating in the rare air of the arty influential with whom she consorted in New York City (Stieglitz and his friends). She would visit him in NYC and then retire to her studio in New Mexico to work, explore her own voice without the interruption of the artistic manifestos clearly dictating both content and technique in those times. The imagery in her work was unlike any other at the time. Though now trivialized and overexploited in some quarters, it is still quite remarkable.
Now comes the hard part and the reason that so many ultimately give up when it comes to fulfilling the calling of art. An artist is responsible for finding his/her own path. Each of us must seek an individual way. And that is a no small feat, a demanding requirement, a huge undertaking and a daunting prerequisite.
As I am always saying to my students, listen to your own voice; follow it thoughtfully and diligently to conclusion. There is no better artistic guidance for authenticity. Sadly, if it were actually heeded, such advice would put art schools out of business in no time. All of the answers, all of the information, every single thing that we need to be an authentic designer… all of this substance is already within each of us. Therefore, the best possible instruction an art teacher can provide to the learner, is the wisdom and assistance to help each student find his/her own voice and then learn to trust and follow it.
Is there really something so wrong with artistic thoughtfulness and/or sexual intelligence? Kim and I both would have to say, absolutely not. None of it comes easily and all of it requires extremely hard work of a very personal nature. We simply need a common language and for that we ought to say grazie mille, Georgia.
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