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’.
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.
First, the Puritan religious view of the relationship between spirit and nature prevented them from recognizing art as a bridge between spirit and nature and so denied to art any ‘useful’ function. Secondly, Puritan secular habit frowned on the idea of spending money and energies on pursuits which their religious beliefs taught them were superfluous. (The Puritan Tradition in English Life, John Marlowe)
Simply put, the Protestant denominations had a greater appeal amongst the struggling working class who could not afford luxuries and so they readily accepted Protestant pragmatism and its rejection of art as an indulgence. This prejudice is always at its strongest where Protestantism is strongest.
This has a direct influence on attitudes to the nude in art.
The Renaissance saw a revival of the classical tradition of art in which the human form is idealised. The Reformation saw the creation of multiple religious reform movements that were deeply suspicious of the classical tradition. These two forces developed in parallel and there has always been tension. The religious voices that have been the loudest in their objection to the nude in art have always been the more puritanical, anti-establishment, Protestant denominations.
At the heart of the Puritan objection is the long discredited belief that nudity inspires sexual immorality. This is in direct conflict with the classical belief that one can view the nude with aesthetic detachment as a thing of Beauty.
It is still shocking to me that people still believe the nude inspires sexual immorality. What more evidence do they need? The world’s galleries all provide numerous examples of the nude. Do people walk out of these galleries in a state of sexual excitement unable to control their passions? Do men rape the nearest woman after visiting art galleries? Or do we understand that these are works of art which we should look at calmly and with a degree of respect, even reverence?
The key here is education, and it works both ways. If you have been raised within a puritanical religious sect, have been taught to associate nudity with sexual arousal and have had no exposure to art on grounds of indecency, then it is likely that you will be shocked and disturbed at viewing your first nude. But if you have been raised to appreciate art and your parents took you to galleries on a regular basis, then you will be unaffected by viewing nudes. This principle is so well understood that many European cities have statues of nudes in public places as part of monuments or as stand alone pieces. Except of course in those cities where the Puritan voice is still strong, for example the bible belt of America.
This all has direct bearing on the naked child in art because the classical tradition did not make a distinction between the aesthetic appeal of the naked child, adolescent or adult – except to add that they were not much interested in children in general. This is why you can visit the galleries of Europe or walk the city streets and see artwork depicting naked children. And the tradition of Western art and the institutions that developed to support it – galleries, art academies, art schools, a lively commercial trade – have all accepted the naked child as a legitimate subject of art.
This is not to say there has never been any controversy over the nude. There have been scandals. But in general the scandals of the past have been resolved in one way or another and the judgment of history now sits in our galleries or trades freely on the art market.
The problem is that there is a coalition of certain religious denominations and ‘art illiterate’ everyday people who remain deeply suspicious of the art world. They remain captive to the idea that the nude can cause people to act indecently, especially when it comes to images of naked children. Even people who accept that one can appreciate the adult nude from a purely aesthetic perspective somehow believe that viewing an image of naked child will inspire that same person to become a pedophile.
Of course, the objection to images of the naked child also has its roots in Protestantism and the passionately held belief that children are sexual innocents. But again, this objection falls back on the association of nudity with sex. According to this belief an image of a naked child is always sexual.
This is where we again come to two competing traditions, both with Christian origins. In one the naked child is the symbol par excellence of innocence and purity. In this view children exist in a state of pre-Fall innocence, and their nudity is a symbol of their pre-Fall lack of shame. This view actually finds it hard to believe that anyone might see the image of a naked child as anything but innocent. The second view associates nudity with sex and assumes that the person viewing the image must be having sexual thoughts about the child. Very often this is the view of self-appointed child advocacy groups with a well meaning desire to protect children from predatory adults. It’s unfortunate that these same groups are shockingly ignorant of the well established traditions of art and the demonstrable fact that the majority of people are not sexually disturbed by the nude in art, adult or child.
It shouldn’t be too shocking to discover that some people persist in believing things that are demonstrably false, especially if they are religious conservatives. After all, the more puritanical of the Protestant denominations are also more likely to believe in Creationism and therefore to disbelieve evolution.
No, what is truly shocking is that politicians pay heed to these complaints. When former prime minister Kevin Rudd joined the complaint against Bill Henson he did nothing other than treat the whole tradition of Western art with contempt. But then, Rudd, along with Hetty Johnston of Bravehearts, is a conservative Protestant from a notoriously puritanical state, the bible-belt of Australia, Queensland.
Art is one of the pillars of Western civilization. Who can ignore this obvious fact? And when a group who are in radical opposition to that tradition consistently attempt to attack that pillar, they actually risk undermining Western civilization itself.
If this makes me an elitist and in the true sense of the word, a conservative, then so be it. Better to live in a society inspired by the classical tradition than a narrow-minded theocracy.