Monday, June 15, 2009

The Naked, the Nude, and the Pottery - Part 2

To oversimplify for the sake of argument, in our culture nudity can only be pornographic or artistic, and we frequently confuse the two.

Sally Mann and Jock Sturges have both been banned at various times, Mann for her photographs of her children playing naked in their mountain farm, Sturges for pictures of families and young people on nude beaches and communes. Janet Jackson is fined for an accidental titty on the Superbowl, the internet is filled with shots of celebrity “nipple slips” and “up-skirt” shots, and the rite of passage for every teenybopper female star is a nude or semi-nude photoshoot, which will inevitably be attended by hours of drummed-up controversy.

A few weeks ago, a fantastic incident – at the Cesar awards, France’s Oscars, a young French comedienne, in character as a ditsy starlet, came out to present an award with one of her breasts “accidentally” exposed. The Bristish actress Emma Thompson (the British having much the same cultural confusion as us – witness Benny Hill and Victorian prudery) came onstage and covered her up, obviously feeling terribly embarrassed for the girl.

The French must have thought that was hilarious – a comic satire of prurient media prudery aided and abetted by an unwitting (and surprising) prude.

Or consider an even more recent incident. Tom O’Bedlam, a pseudonym for an unknown spoken-word actor who posts himself reading his favorite poems on YouTube, had a posting removed because it included a nearly 100-year old photograph of a nude Sri Lankan girl to accompany a poem about the islands. YouTube’s explanation verged on the absurd – if a user flags a video, it is electronically scanned for “flesh tones” and other signs of nudity, and removed if it meets the criteria it is removed.

Obviously, this broad definition is designed to filter out pornography. But a computer program has no discernment and cannot distinguish between pornography and art, or between art and anthropology. Ralph Bakshi’s racist, misogynistic, and unapologetically pornographic cartoon adaptation of R. Crumb’s Fritz the Cat, however, is available in its entirety on YouTube. Enormous animated anthropomorphic animal penises and vaginas, apparently, don’t tip off YouTube’s filter.

But even when the filters are human, the criteria can be laughable. When we first posted, our hosting company took it down within 24 hours. The offending image was of a nude male figurine, obviously not real and even without a face. Turns out the hosting company was based in Utah, which has draconian Mormon-mandated anti-smut laws, and that no nudity whatsoever is permitted – even artistic, even historical. I angrily asked a customer service representative, “So if we took a vacation and took a picture of Michelangelo’s David, we couldn’t post it?” That’s right.

Obviously, we got a new hosting company.

Speaking of Michelangelo – when a dirty-minded cardinal expressed his disapproval of the nude saints in the Sistine Chapel’s Last Judgment, Michelangelo painted him into Hell, nude and sporting donkey’s ears - with a serpent biting his penis. That’s probably the most delicious revenge I can think of. Sadly, the church eventually had another artist paint clothes on the saints. But Mike still had his revenge hundreds of years later when the church paid millions of dollars to restore the painting to its original state.

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