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Monday, May 6, 2013

That fine line between art and erotica

Hermaphrodite, Mateo Bonarelli, 1652, Prado

“Son of Hermes and Aphrodite, Hermaphrodite was a singularly handsome youth. According to Ovid (Metamorphoses 4, 285 ff.) Salmacis, the nymph from a lake in Caria, was enthralled by his beauty and passionately embraced him while he was bathing. Their two bodies merged as one, with double gender.

“This sculpture, commissioned by Velasquez in Italy for the decoration of Madrid's Alcázar Palace, is a copy of the classic marble from the Borghese Collection in Rome, now in the Louvre Museum. The high technical quality of this piece makes it a masterwork that surpasses the original.” (From the Prado website)

 I watched this news story about a kerfuffle about nude photographs in a gallery window in Belfast, ME last week. The culture snob in me would have liked to believe that it was a small-town issue, except that a proposal for a show of my nudes was summarily rejected at the same time by a local college gallery because they have a no-nudity policy.

Despite what the photographer says on the video, there is no clear line between art and pornography, because there have always been painters whose primary goal was to titillate, and because sexuality is part of our humanity. It cannot be simply excised from the model or the process.

Consider the dancing girls in this fragment from ancient Thebes (c. 1350 BC). One presumes that the serving girls and dancers are naked for Nabamun’s amusement in the afterlife, but it is not overtly sexual.
A feast for Nebamun, the top half of a scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun, Thebes, Egypt, Late 18th Dynasty, around 1350 BC, The British Museum

Compare that to the Ephebe of Marathon, which is a sculpture of a boy (perhaps the god Hermes). The school of Praxiteles was interested in presenting a new view of the gods: more accessible, naturalistic, humanistic. These sculptors were perhaps even more interested in the aesthetic issues of contrapposto, which basically means putting the model’s weight on one foot. (This is a convention we use to this day.) I can’t even figure out how to frame the question of whether the Ephebe was intended to be erotic; their social, religious, and cultural milieu didn’t make the same distinctions we do.

Ephebe of Marathon, School of Praxiteles, c. 325-300 BCE, National Archaeological Museum of Athens

Then there’s Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (which in addition to being an exquisite drawing, has to be one of the most enduring bits of graphic design in the history of art). Here, I think the intention is quite clear: Da Vinci is attempting to write a canon of measurement for the human body.

Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1490, Gallerie dell'Accademia


SqUaNg said...
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SqUaNg said...

I had to edit one of the sentences...

There is also the consideration of whether or not Graffiti is art when the public and private boundaries are breached (in terms of titillating art). There are many people who think that certain types of graffiti are a form of art because there is aesthetic value in which we attribute to the artist's talent. But the act of creating graffiti in itself is inherently violent. It forces the viewer to see an image in a space that is deemed "neutral". In theory I completely disagree with graffiti because it represents a form of disrespect for privacy, community, and it is a violation against the choice of what things we want to see. The implications are also unpleasant when there is graffiti.Gut then there is thoughtful graffiti which I occasionally see which puts me in a state of awe. (this happened to me today)