We Accomplished More When Everybody Was Naked (in Art)
Amy Otto recently argued in The Federalist that "Men Did Greater Things When It Was Harder to See Boobs." Expressed in amusingly colloquial terms, this is a variant on a fairly standard social conservative outlook in which sexuality is viewed as a kind of dangerous or dissipating force that needs to be sublimated and redirected to constructive ends. If it isn't, that raises the prospect, as she puts it, of "many men who would have spent their twenties working hard if given the right social incentives instead spending that time watching the unrated version of 'Blurred Lines' one too many times."
With all due respect to a fellow Federalist contributor, I could not disagree more.
To be sure, there's a valid point in there, and I'll get to what it is. It is actually a very interesting point and tells us a lot about what we have to do to reform our culture. But it's not what Amy Otto thinks it is.
What struck me most about the Otto Boob Hypothesis is how wrong it is from a historical perspective and particularly from the perspective of the history of art. I'm sure she has already been spammed with numerous examples to demonstrate how easy it was to see breasts depicted in public art throughout history. Here are just a few tasteful highlights.
Let's start with the Winged Victory of Samothrace.
It was a common Ancient Greek convention to show the female form draped with a layer of cloth. But it's a bit like the wet sari scene in a Bollywood musical: it complies with the conventions of propriety, but still doesn't leave much to the imagination. The Greek goddess of victory is very clearly depicted with full, round, ample breasts. She was an ideal figure of feminine strength and vitality who would certainly have reminded the men of Samothrace what they were fighting for.
There were very notable exceptions to that convention about the cloth, particularly for a culture that believed in a goddess of love—and by love, they meant sexual love. Hence the Venus de Milo, which is very specifically about the graceful beauty and sensuality of the nude female body.
But female nudity was not reserved only for overtly sexualized figures. It was also used to represent the highest esthetic ideals—as in the case of the Three Graces. The "graces" were allegorical figures representing characteristics that are described (among many alternative translations) as "beauty," "charm," and "joy." They were sensual nude figures used to convey the heights of cultural refinement in the Classical world. Here's a Roman version now displayed prominently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Middle Ages, by contrast, were a time when it was probably harder, on average, to catch a glimpse of a breast. If you did see one in art, it may well have looked like this.
Which is to say, not very appealing. This time period was also a definite low point on the scale of overall human achievement—a clear blow to the Otto Hypothesis.
Even worse for that theory, Classical traditions were revived in full with the cultural resurgence of the Renaissance. Sandro Botticelli returned to the subject of Venus, for example, with only a little more regard for modesty.
By the 19th century, high culture was positively mad for the female nude in art. Antonio Canova returned to the subject of the Three Graces.
Exposure to the female breast is not compatible with doing great things? Tell that to Liberty Leading the People.
In America, female nudes became objects of public fascination, as with Augustus Saint-Gaudens's Diana.
This filtered down to popular culture by way of illustrators like Alphonse Mucha, in magazine covers:
And in ads for cutting-edge printing technology (which is what the fellow in the background is operating):
And artists were not just obsessed with the female nude. They arguably placed even more importance on naked men. Michelangelo's David shows off a beautiful male torso and a good deal else.
You could even see this sort of thing displayed pretty prominently at the Vatican.
If it was pretty easy to see breasts in art for most of human history, it was just as easy to see a penis.
Amy Otto demurs that this may have been the case, but that making such works of art required a great deal of skill and effort. To make them, yes, but not to view them. These works were not just hidden away in galleries and private homes. They were quite often prominent public works displayed in town squares and even in churches.
Michelangelo's David originally stood in the square outside the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of government in Florence, where it had an important political meaning, representing the city's cantankerous independence. Saint-Gaudens made his Diana to adorn the top of Madison Square Garden.
To be sure, this was often a source of controversy in its own day. One Vatican official complained about the nude figures adorning the Sistine Chapel—and Michelangelo retaliated by painting him into the Last Judgment, where he is assigned a particularly horrific punishment. Anthony Comstock and his New York Society for the Suppression of Vice campaigned against the Saint-Gaudens Diana. But all of this goes to show that there is little that is substantively new today, and we didn't need the Internet or smartphone apps to see (or be shocked by) the naked human form.
The wider point is that the depiction of naked people coincided directly with eras in which the dominant culture of the day was building empires and monuments, inventing (or rediscovering) all of the arts and sciences, and—later on—building vast networks of commerce and industry. Not to mention overthrowing tyrannical systems of government and inventing from scratch the principles of human liberty and free government.
We might look at this long history and far more accurately conclude that both men and women accomplished a lot more when everybody was naked—or at least when they were naked in our art.
So far we've been looking at high art, which forms a pretty strong contrast to the esthetic standards of today. But nudity was even more common, and a good deal cruder, in lower forms of art.
There is a kind of survival bias that can distort our view of history. The past always tends to look more elevated and sophisticated than today because the great paintings and sculptures are mostly what survives and gets put in museums and featured in educational documentaries narrated by professors with British accents. But the naughty bits and dirty postcards aren't considered appropriate for a general audience, so we end up getting the impression that they just didn't exist. It's like how the Baby Boomers think of the 1950s as an era when all references to sex were militantly hidden away, not realizing that it seemed that way to them because they were five years old and the adults never talked about that sort of thing in front of them.
Every era has had its crudely sexualized low culture, complete with access to images of naked bodies, not to mention the real thing. (I could link to plenty of examples to back this up, but they are a good deal less tasteful.) I don't think our era is remotely new in that respect. The problem today is that it seem as if low culture is all we have.
The real issue is the death of the highbrow. The problem isn't that we have lowbrow popular culture; it's that we have nothing else. It's not that we have Beyonce; it's that we don't have Beethoven. It's not that we have Kim Kardashian; it's that we don't have the Three Graces, or their modern equivalent.
Our culture still offers the same old low end of popular culture, the same dirty postcards, only more and (arguably) more extreme. But what has really changed is that there is no high culture.
In the high culture of previous eras, the nude body is not exactly de-sexualized; even when the theme is not sexual, there is a palpable sensuality to it. But it is elevated and given esthetic significance. It is used as the expression of an ideal.
The way we view the naked human body reflects our view of human nature itself. We portray our bodies in ways that are crude or refined depending on whether we view our souls as crude or refined. And we do the same with the sensuality and the sexual capacity of our bodies. We can view sex and the nude body as a dangerous temptation that draws us away from higher ideals and down into the muck—or we can make it part of those higher ideals. We can make it an expression of a wider lust for life, an expression of the same spirit of aspiration that drives all of our other achievements.
We were great when everybody was naked in our art because nude figures represented this spirit of aspiration and idealism, and this is what needs to be reclaimed in the culture now. The issue isn't the quantity of female breasts (or any other body part) but the quality of our souls.
Thanks to my wife, Sherri Tracinski, for her expertise on the history of art, her advice on the selection and analysis of these examples, and her judgment about what constitutes a beautiful male torso.