My visit to Paris and London left me with an understanding of the weight of tradition. Both Paris and London take their art very seriously. Unfortunately Australia still struggles with the arts. The reason is at once simple and complex. The high arts were linked with the aristocracy. Only the rich could afford to buy paintings, attend the opera or attend a play. Only the rich could afford an education; to go to university to study Latin and the classics; to take the Grand Tour through Europe. What did the poor know of these things? Deep in the heart of the Australian psyche is a rebellion against the old elitism and therefore a deep suspicion of the arts as an indulgence of the elites. So when the outcry against Bill Henson reached fever pitch, we began to hear the same old complaints; that those who defended Henson came from the ‘elites’ who were out of touch with the ‘ordinary’, ‘everyday’ ‘man in the street’.

The sculpture gallery at Chatham, ancestral home of the Duke of Devonshire

This is in itself a form of elitism and simple bigotry. The art-world answered this criticism a long time ago and there was a concerted and successful effort to bring art to the masses. Many of the major galleries in Australia are free, yet the average price for an AFL game is $30. There are Australians who have never set foot in an art gallery; who still feel intimidated by art. In contrast the Paris and London galleries are always crowded, with a high percentage of school children. In part this is a failure of our education system, something the major art institutions are desperately trying to fix. But it is hard to fight a deeply entrenched prejudice. And it is a prejudice.

A deeper look reveals deeper divisions. The educated elites embraced the classical tradition. They were taught Latin and the classics. The establishment churches, the Catholic and High Anglican, had similar educations and tolerated the explorations of artists, even commissioning works of controversial painters and sculptors. At this level there was a fusion of Christianity and classicism. It is however, with the more radical Protestant churches that we find varying degrees of objection to the classical tradition and specifically to art. 

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4 Responses to The Nude: Tradition, Elitism and Its Opponents

  1. Pip Starr says:

    America and Australia seem to have a similar history with regard to art for its own sake, as we both come from a Puritan heritage. One can tell this by the rather anemic quality of American art up until the late Victorian/Gilded Age era, which is when we finally blossomed culturally. By the early 20th century we could stand up with Europe as a cultural superpower, so to speak, but unfortunately we bucked/bypassed a lot of European tradition at that time and went over to futurism, abstract expressionism and the like, and so we missed out on a lot of the best parts of art history. Anyway, the average American is every bit as ignorant of art as the average Australian, if not more so.

    • Ray says:

      Both America and Australia have a tradition of artists travelling to Europe to get an art education. Americans to Paris and Australians to London.

  2. Ron says:

    I’m beginning to acquire a taste for worms and here Ray offers us another can:
    I may have mentioned this on another post, but I was impressed by a comment by Fran Lebowitz about Americans admiring the wrong elites. They seem intimidated by intellectual elites and worship the financial elites, who through their ruthless acquisition of wealth are far from enlightened. The neo-conservatives have actually managed to create hostility toward intellectuals in the US. The irony is that these are the people most able to solve society’s most intractable problems.
    I know I will never see it in print, but when I see narrow-minded comments about art, I always want to say: “It is unfortunate that [the critic] is so spiritually dead that he/she cannot appreciate the obvious sublime beauty of the work.” The elephant in the room that no one seems to be talking about is that the naked child is a kind of art in itself, depicting the noblest aspects of the human form, both physically and psychologically. On the other hand, it would be foolish to idealize the child form too much. Children may play angels in our art, but they are not angels in real life.
    The superfluous pursuits mentioned by Marlowe also accounts for the notion that the purpose of sex is strictly reproductive and the religious conservatives frown on any extraneous uses. The logic goes: Since children are not sexually mature, they are not sexual.
    The Protestant movements did indeed have a dearth of fine art, except perhaps for organ music in Germany. Kenneth Clark made this important point in his series ‘Civilisation’. There are a multitude of historical examples of iconoclasm during religious reformations as well and they tend to regard the human form in art as idolatry and so generally objectionable, nude or not. An amusing counterpoint to this is that many human beings do have a sentimental need for images to help concretize their spiritual belief system and so “graven images” always return. The crucifix is perhaps the most ubiquitous example today.
    Comedian Bill Hicks did an excellent piece on pornography and sexual thoughts. He makes the obvious point that we are putting the cart before the horse on this issue: “Pornography does not cause sexual thoughts; we have sexual thoughts and therefore there is pornography.”
    I have to admit that seeing my first child nude (a Sturges photo) was personally a shock. The problem is that insufficiently educated people come to wrong conclusions about what that implies. I have done considerable personal exploration since then and understand the physical and personality characteristics of children have an evolutionary function of protection. Very often, that manifests itself in a natural inclination to hold, caress or kiss a child. These intimate and nurturant actions can also be misunderstood as sexual as well. Misguided or not, everyone is claiming to protect the children. That is not necessarily deceitful, simply that people are misunderstanding their own impulses and the particular cultural propaganda in our society exacerbates it.
    Regarding sex and class, I recall an interesting statistic brought to light by sex researcher Alfred Kinsey’s team: It seems that a person of lower class is more likely to engage in intercourse with their clothes on and those who through education move up in class begin to embrace a more “decadent” style of love-making.
    One of the more difficult truths to untangle is the rhetoric of politicians. A fair amount of conservative businessmen and politicians are actually well-educated. When someone like Rudd makes a public statement like those regarding Hensen and Papapetrou, does he really believe what he is saying or is he just playing to his lower class voting constituency?

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