The Rokeby Venus by Diego Velazquez (photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis)
Artillery Row

Prudes against nudes

Feminist protests put a puritanical limit on the aesthetic quality of nudity

Art gallery sitters can breathe a sigh of relief: PornHub’s guided tour of erotic art will be coming to an end for certain institutions. No longer will volunteer security staff have to worry about whether the bloke with the headphones in front of Botticelli is deep in transcendental thought, or getting titillated by former porn star and politician Ilona Staller’s guided tour of why “art can definitely be considered porn”.

The porn site’s latest project Classic Nudes, an interactive guide which is part gimmick, part attempt to “help museums recover from the financial toll of the pandemic” has been criticised by museums for breaching intellectual property rights. Florence’s Uffizi Gallery and Paris’ Louvre both threatened legal action, claiming that the site had no right to use paintings without paying for the privilege. PornHub has even had to remove video interpretations of the paintings, involving porn stars posing as Venus. The National Gallery took a more democratic if blushing response, stating that works were publicly available and it would not take any action that either condemns or “raises awareness of this project”.

Whatever you think about pornography, particularly the grotesque and extreme stuff that ends up on PornHub, the site’s claims to want to indulge in the erotic side of high art poses an interesting question: have we become prudish about art’s sensuality? 

So much of the recent discussion about the depiction of nudes in art particularly the female nude has been coloured by a suspicion of sexual attraction. Paintings created by notorious lotharios like Picasso, or Gaugin’s exploitative depiction of Tahitian women, are deemed questionable in the context of modern feminist campaigns like #MeToo. 

The Guerrilla Girls charge artists with consuming women rather than portraying them

Back in 2018, Sonia Boyce caused a stir by removing John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs from the Manchester Art Gallery in order to start a “conversation” about how to “talk about the collection in ways which are relevant in the 21st century”. Boyce’s stunt claimed that Waterhouse’s beautiful naked women existed “in a world full of intertwined issues of gender, race, sexuality and class”, asking viewers to “challenge the Victorian fantasy” of the female nude as “passive decorative form” or “femme fatale”.

Boyce rightly received an onslaught of criticism from visitors to the gallery and art critics alike. But there have been a spate of cancellations and complaints since the hashtag revolution hit the news in 2017. 

The same year that Manchester hid away its bathing nudes, protesters in Warsaw stormed the Raster Gallery to protest against Japanese erotic photographer Nobuyoshi Araki’s work. The “Bison Ladies” claimed to be acting on behalf of Araki’s long-time model and muse, Kaori, who had accused the artist of emotional abuse (not sexual harassment) during their sixteen years of working together. Rather than focusing on Kaori’s claims of professional mistreatment (sometimes not being paid and often being denied privacy), the protesters claimed that the real problem with Araki’s work was that he indulged in “visions of women” that were “provocative and violent”. 

As well as problems with showing female flesh, there are also objections to the way in which galleries describe the nudes that they exhibit. The Guerrilla Girls, famed for challenging the inequity of female artist’s representation in galleries, have released a new exhibition this summer called “The Male Graze”. In it, they charge artists like Picasso, Freud and Hoffman with consuming women rather than portraying them. As part of their billboard campaign, the group suggest alternative wall labels for museums to use, including one for Rembrandt’s “A Woman In Bed” which criticises him for tax evasion, cheating, slander and being cruel to his former mistress and model Geertje. 

Sometimes, feminist interventions backfire. A piece by the artist Rakel McMahon of cartoonish spread legs in high heels straddling a park gate in Glasgow (where a young woman was allegedly raped in February this year) was removed after online complaints. McMahon defended her piece by arguing that the work was in fact a criticism of victim blaming, “trying to point out that we should not assume anything, not by how people are dressed, short skirts or high heels”.

Debate and discussion about the context of works of art is always a good thing particularly for understanding the motives behind the creation of a piece. But there is something unnervingly prudish about the modern aversion to female nudes in galleries. Rather than simply criticising male artists for their personal perversions and bad behaviour, the opposition to sexualised depictions of women often leak into an aversion to flesh itself. 

If we take Hannah Gadsby’s line, that Western art is “just the history of men painting women as if they’re flesh vases for their dick flowers”, we put a crude and puritanical limit on the aesthetic quality of nudity — male or female. Is Francisco Goya’s La maja desnuda just another chauvinistic commission for a rich man created by an artist with a penchant for younger women, or is it a celebration of the confident female body in a protest against stifling social norms? (Indeed, the painting was allegedly seized by officers from the Spanish Inquisition for its scandalous portrayal of nudity and pubic hair.)

Like all good art, it too was attacked — with a meat cleaver

More often than not, feminist campaigners now seem to want to argue that a woman’s body should be valued for its use, rather than its beauty. The Free The Nipple campaign against online censorship focused on women’s breasts as life-giving producers of milk, rather than celebrating the freedom of women’s bodies to express sexuality and attraction. Pedro Almodóvar’s new film Madres Paralelas had its poster censored by Instagram for depicting a lactating nipple; the social-media platform recently apologised for censoring the “clear artistic context” of the poster.

Fans of Almodóvar’s films understand well that the brilliance of his work involves celebrating and subverting the sexualisation of women — including the short film, “Shrinking Lover”, in Hable Con Ella in which a shrunken man climbs into his lover’s vagina. The poster for Madres Paralelas is not supposed to be an artistic comment about the stigma around breastfeeding; it’s unashamedly and indifferently sexy.

The reason why we hang so many female nudes in galleries is not because the Met or any other institution is populated with sexists reflecting society’s issue with women’s bodies, but because great art has the ability to transcend political and historical context. The Rokeby Venus by Diego Velázquez is both beautiful and melancholy, capturing something about the mystery and fleeting nature of supple youthfulness. Like all good art, it too was attacked — with a meat cleaver in 1914, by the Suffragette Slasher Mary in protest of Emmeline Pankhurst’s arrest — for “the way men visitors gaped at it all day long”. 

Perhaps it takes a project on a porn site to remind us that our contemporary aversion to nudity in public galleries has less to do with a political correction of the sexism of the past, and more to do with our contemporary puritanical approach to the aesthetic worth of naked bodies.

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