Pictures at an Exhibition: The Difference between Art and Pornography in an Immodest World

 Michelangelo’s David (1504)

This past week, the Jacksonville City Council President, Clay Yarborough, visited the Museum of Contemporary Art-Jacksonville. This was his reaction:

It stunned me to walk into a City-owned building and be greeted by a large picture of a naked woman, particularly because the tenant is receiving over $230,000 in General Fund taxpayer dollars through the Cultural Council this fiscal year. The picture is in plain view of anyone entering, including school children. This issue works against our efforts to promote a family-friendly Jacksonville and downtown. We are trying to promote a positive moral climate in our city and though some will defend the pornography by labeling it ‘art,’ we need boundaries in order to be healthy, especially where it concerns our children.

The image that bothered Mr. Yarborough was not from Hustler or Penthouse. Rather, it was that of an obviously pregnant woman reclining on a couch wearing nothing more than her birthday suit. It is but one of a series of photographs taken by artist Angela Strassheim, intended to illustrate transitional points in the lives of women.

MOCA refused to take the photograph down, while Mr. Yarborough’s plea to pull the plug on funding to the Cultural Council fell on deaf ears at the Office of Mayor Alvin Brown. If I were a cynic — which I’m not, but I know how to think like one when I want to — I’d suggest that this tempest in a teapot was a win-win for all concerned. Clay Yarborough’s outrage added to the esteem in which his socially conservative base of supporters hold him; Mayor Brown portrayed himself as a champion of the First Amendment; and I would bet that this brouhaha has yielded in the last week more visits to the museum than would otherwise have been the case.

I don’t share our City Council President’s opinion. Art has long claimed the human form as fair game for depiction; indeed, much of the Christian art of the Middle Ages depicted scantily clad individuals, bared breasts and all. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “pornography” is defined as, “Printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings (emphasis added).” Are human beings really incapable of anything but salacious thoughts when viewing art that includes nudity? If your answer is “yes”, say good-bye to painters like Goya, Titian, Cezanne, Picasso, Rubens, Manet and countless others. Indeed, by insisting that Strassheim’s photo was pornographic by definition, Mr. Yarborough unintentionally degraded women by seeing nothing more than a sex object.

The price for living in a blessedly open and free society is the willingness to tolerate specifically those expressions of speech, verbal or visual, with which we disagree. As the 18th century playwright and thinker, Francois-Marie Arouet — better known as Voltaire — once wrote, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” It is this which is the essence of free speech. As a parent living in an open society, it is my responsibility to know what my children are doing on their computer or watching on television; it is also my responsibility to know what they will see before I bring them to a museum. It is time-consuming and laborious work, often imperfectly performed because I’m only human and cannot always anticipate every curve-ball in advance. Still, this is the only way in which to navigate  between our responsibility as parents and our need to uphold the freedom which is our country’s greatest asset. Look, I may not approve of the drunkenness I sometimes see at sporting events, especially when I am present with my children, but I have no plans to lobby the city to cut off funding projects related to stadium improvements until the Jaguars or Suns ban the sale of alcohol.

Still, something Mr. Yarborough said does resonate with me, even though I disagree with the context in which it was said: “ . . . we need boundaries in order to be healthy . . .” (emphasis added). The fact is we live in a society that does not value tzni’ut, modesty. The issue is not about how we view art, but our own self-image. The problem is not at the Museum of Contemporary Art, but on highway billboards, internet websites, snapchat or instagram, and the glossy pages of magazines which objectify women — and sometimes men — in a fashion that degrades and diminishes them. The problem isn’t in the galleries, but in the clothing children, and sometimes their parents wear, clothing that is meant to distract and advertise, which is confused with elevating and enhancing.

The early 20th century German-Jewish Bible Scholar, Benno Jacob, has this to say about clothing, “Clothing is not merely a protection against the cold or ornamentative. It constitutes the primary and necessary distinguishing mark of human society. In the moral consciousness of man it serves to set him higher than the beast. The status and glory of man are reflected in the character of his attire. Just to be clothed already lends dignity to man.”

How striking to note the central role that clothing plays in the Genesis account of Adam and Eve in the Garden. Humanity comes into being wearing its birthday suit; there is no consciousness or shame at being naked. The sly serpent of Genesis 3 is described as ערום (arum) in context meaning shrewd, clever, cunning; yet in Hebrew ערום more generally means “naked”! The biblical play on words is quite deliberate — through the act of eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the consequence of humanity’s newly found sentience is an awareness of and an embarrassment at being naked. With the attainment of full human consciousness, the very first thing Adam and Eve do is to cover themselves with fig leaves. Their action, of course, is paralleled by God. As the Torah teaches, “וַיַּ֩עַשׂ֩ ה’ אֱלֹהִים לְאָדָ֧ם וּלְאִשְׁתּ֛וֹ כָּתְנ֥וֹת ע֖וֹר וַיַּלְבִּשֵֽׁם — And the Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21).

Nowhere else in Genesis — or in the entirety of the Bible, for that matter — does the text inform us about God’s role in the invention of the accouterments of civilization. Greek mythology explains how Prometheus stole fire from the gods for the sake of humanity, Native American legend relates how people learned to hunt, while other cultures possess stories about the etiology of tool-making and house building. Judaism, however, is absolutely silent on all these subjects, presuming as a matter of course that human beings used their God-given ingenuity to discover agriculture, building and metal-working on their own. But it is none other than God who invents clothing, not Lord and Taylor, but rather, Lord as tailor, who personally dresses Adam and Eve for their foray into the cold world outside Eden’s gates.

“Man, who was created in the Divine Image,” the late Nehama Leibowitz wrote, “must not rest content with what nature has endowed him. He must strive to rise higher. Man is the only creature in the universe who does not rest content with his natural skin, but covers his nakedness with a garment given him by his Creator, symbolizing his role as priest in the temple of nature.”

Samuel Butler, the English novelist, once said, “Fashion is like God, man cannot see into its holy of holies and live.” Yet the “holy of holies” of fashion can be rather a profane place. Surely a multitude of present-day designers can boast that they have been employed by royalty, having designed the Emperor’s clothing many times over. One need not be a proponent of the Mea Sh’arim look of the ultra-Orthodox, long sleeves and ankle-length dresses, to note the sad contrast between Jewish ideals and the contemporary couterier’s decision to let it all hang out.

The Jewish value of tzin’ut, modesty in one’s clothing is not rooted in prudish contempt for the human form. The 1st century Hillel praised bathing because it allowed him to pamper his body; Rabban Gamliel would offer a blessing to God whenever he came across a person of great beauty. We celebrate our bodies because God created them, and the totality of our being is reflective of the Divine Image in which we are made. The medieval Iggeret Hakodesh (the Epistle of Holiness) teaches, “We the possessors of the Holy Torah believe that God, may God be praised, created all in wisdom and did not create anything ugly or shameful. For if sexual intercourse were repulsive, then the reproductive organs are also repulsive. [Yet] it is said, “The Rock whose work is perfect” (Deuteronomy 32:4) and “God saw everything that He had made, and behold it was very good” (Genesis 1:31) . . . God created man and woman, fashioning and forming all their organs, placing them in their form. God did not create anything repulsive.”

Yet the intention of the above is a far cry from the sniggering anatomical jokes and the “wink wink” nudging of men when a scantily clad woman walks by. That some women — and men, for that matter — dress inappropriately for worship is not a reflection of contempt for the sanctity of a house of worship and what it stands for; rather, it is merely an extension of the absence of modesty in the world at large, the product of a society that relegates tzni’ut to the margins of the mainstream, to the quaint Amish and out-of-sync Satmar of society. It is the failure of parents who do not teach their children that a certain modesty in dress preserves the inner human being from assault by the coarseness of daily life. It is a symptom of a culture in which myriad T-shirt logos glorify foul language, drugs, violence, or toilet humor. Perhaps above all, it is a failure of self-respect, as if the manner in which we can best draw attraction to ourselves requires we expose to the world our skin instead of our skills.

In the eyes of Judaism, clothing does make the person — but not in the sense implied by the crass commercialism of the fashion industry. The issue is not whether rayon humanizes us more than cotton, or whether Donna Karen is more ennobling than Calvin Klein, but rather how the clothing we choose to wear can make us more cognizant about being human.

Scripture teaches, “הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָה־’ה דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶיךָ — God has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:9) “To walk modestly with your God” means to eschew the garish, the vulgar, and the lurid in speech or in dress. In biblical idiom God is described as “clothed in righteousness.” We who wear garments of wool, cotton, linen or nylon must seek also to cloak ourselves in righteous behavior. If not, no matter how fashionable our garb may be, we may be far more naked than even we realize.

Leave a comment

Filed under RJL Biography

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s