The Naked Past
In making a comparison in how the ancients see the world when matched up with modern views – nudity would certainly make the list. We (modern folk) are basically uncomfortable with it. Nudity for the ancients was a depiction of heroism. No where is this seen more than a statue that was carved of our founding father George Washington. He was shown nude, depicted like the ancient hero, and its reception was anything but gracious. I saw this statue at the Smithsonian years ago. The original viewers (back in the 1880s) sarcastically dubbed it: “Washington in the bath.” It isn’t hard to see a certain deification in how Washington is depicted – however one can see why. He laid down his power much like the ancient Cinncinatus who went back to his plow. Note * King George III met an American living in London. He was supposed to have asked what Washington’s intentions were now the war was over. The American said that he had heard Washington planned on retiring back to his farm. George said “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” The Horatio Greenough’s 1840 statue (which certainly has classical influence) had some issues in finding a home. It got moved about in various parks and finally made it inside out of the cold. The curators probably thought ‘old George’ needed a certain amount of privacy, and were concerned that he might catch a cold (joke). Anyway, school children were known to ask embarrassing questions. “Why is Washington naked, Daddy?”
Nudity in government has always been a touchy subject. Former Attorney General John Ashcroft (though sources denied it) got fed up giving his briefings in front of the naked breast of The Spirit of Liberty. Curtains were eventually added, hiding the naked goddess. I am not sure if it was to protect the propriety of the Goddess Liberty or to save the attorney general from embarrassment.
I came across the following video on YouTube. The title “None of That” depicts an over zealous nun protecting the ‘public morals.’ It comes from the Ringling College of Art and Design. Watch the film, it is a marvelous film…however, reality is far more interesting – watch the film and afterwards let me tell you about Sister Wendy.
Sister Wendy has produced a series of documentaries for the BBC on the History of Art. For someone who is on record as a hermit and ‘consecrated virgin’ (yes an official designation) she would be the first to say that she has no issues with the nude form. One can imagine that she was a great believer in the adage: “…as God made us.” The cartoon None of That does not depict the very real intellectual appreciation of this nun and noted art historian. Sister Wendy who earned top honors at Oxford University is nothing like the nun depicted in the animated cartoon. You are more likely to find Sister Wendy leading a tour through the museum, rather than covering exposed ‘naughty bits’. She would smile and explain every detail, unfazed by naked breast or buttock, totally at peace that those depicted in their nakedness is truly “…as God made us.” If by chance she caught the nun adding the black censored panels (as in the cartoon) I am sure a fight would have ensued.
Nudity is part of western culture. I don’t mean to say we don’t have our limits. We still mark off where and when it should be displayed, but the nude form has its roots in our classical past. I still remember driving down Wisconsin Avenue in D.C. to see a man being led away in cuffs by the cops. He was nude and his only article of clothing was his protest sign. Our boundaries are tested in protest, in fashion, and sometimes for the only purpose of shock (remember ‘streaking’ at football games?). At risk of sounding like a puritan “There is a place for everything, and everything in its place.” However, when I start to cringe is when we cover up who we are, or what we were for the sensibilities of others. Nudity is a fact, it is inescapable part of our classical and religious past. Are we so separated from our naked ‘classical’ past that we must do the following? Note the photo below.