Sunday, August 14, 2016

Celebrating Naked & Beautiful

Today's blog comes from the preface to Hugh Starbuck's book, Naked and BeautifulStarbuck's book is a Kindle Countdown Deal with low prices all week. But hurry because the price will gradually return in steps to normal as the week wears on. The sooner you get it, the more you save. Naked and Beautiful is not merely a book of naked pictures. It is a collection of essays on how and why nudity is suppressed in Western culture with the reluctant exception of art, where the paternal culture has accepted it as a sop for religious and philosophical allegories. Naked and Beautiful traces the history of Venus in art, beginning with Botticelli's Birth of Venus, where she stands naked and newborn on the half-shell, then the recurring reclining Venus nudes that span from the 16th century to the 19th. Starbuck takes a look at Europe and America's fascination with Orientalism, which often was an excuse for nude art—somewhat analogous to the schoolboy's pleasures with National Geographic. So Naked and Beautiful is not just a book of nudes, but a history of their suppression and, most of all, a celebration of beauty.

This book celebrates the female human body as the origin of all beauty. Even when we see beauty in, say, a flower, we celebrate a concept that began with the human female. The flower imbues the feminine quality of beauty among plants, but we appreciate it because of the inherent link back to the femininity within our own species. Many of Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings celebrate the sensuousness of flowers as a parallel to human anatomy.
Unfortunately the natural impulses to enjoy beauty have been countered by authoritarian power structures that usurp control of our culture. The culture that is foisted upon us is not the culture that we ourselves invented. Even when leaders rise up among our own flesh and blood, as societies become more complicated, the distance between the common folk and leadership becomes so great that leaders are essentially foreign to us.
In the alienation and estrangement between the foreign official culture and the culture we would have liked to practice, one issue that most often gets changed is the attitude toward nudity and beauty. We can make a list to compare some of the properties of native culture to those of the foreign:

Native Culture
Alien Official Culture
Culture grows upward from the grassroots
Culture is imposed from the top
Culture comes from people
Culture comes from corporations
Invented it ourselves
Foreign and foisted upon us
Motivated by our own benefit (which is not necessarily monetary)
Motivated for the profit of others
Religion tends to be matriarchal, celebratory, and centered in the home
Religion tends to be patriarchal, controlling, and institutional
Female nudity is beautiful
Female nudity is shameful

The internal conflict between an adolescent's natural curiosity about nudity and the authoritarian view that nudity is shameful creates the puerile, Beavis-and-Butthead-like giggle, peek, and poke stage of sexuality. Fortunately, our modern culture contains sufficient freedom that people are able to dissociate themselves from the antiquated power structures that consider sexuality, at best, a necessary evil. People can appreciate and explore each other sexually.
When a young man enters a serious and enduring relationship with a woman, possibly with the intention of having children but certainly aware of the woman's mysterious, lunar, cyclical reproductive powers, and if they are as unfettered as possible of the shame ethos of the alien culture, then the young man enters into a fertility cult of one: he is enraptured with his Aphrodite, and she loves back the man who adores her. They are able to enjoy constantly experiencing beauty through the female form.
Likewise, when a culture is as free as this Aphrodite-centered coupling, Literature and Art can blossom unfettered by prudish censors. And books like this one can be written, published, and enjoyed.
A montage of images from Naked and Beautiful.
Conflicts exist between all Authoritarians and their subjects, and they are known by various names. But all conflicts boil down to a central conflict that I call the Philistines vs. the Literati. When a foreign power invades a country, as when the Nazis invaded France, Holland, and other countries, the conflict becomes hotter and more issues fall into active dispute.
The feud between Philistines and Literati exists in the traditional model of colonialism, as when a handful of European nations sliced Africa like a pie at a Sunday church reception. By 1900, Europe and the US had sliced the world up completely: everywhere was either Europe, the US, or was a colony that belonged to the Europe or the US, so the Philistines vs. Literati conflict was global. After World War II, most colonies were granted independence, which means that the local leadership was handed over to people of the local ethnicity—Hindu India to Hindus; Muslim India to Pakistan; Nigeria to Nigerians; and so on. It was a messy process: often the withdrawal of the overarching colonial authority allowed long-standing enmity among the locals to ignite into full war. Similar conflicts broke out when the Soviet Union broke up and left Yugoslavia to its own devices.
One colony of which the West did not want to let go was Vietnam: the French were there, beginning with their Catholic missionary forces (religion has traditionally been the colonizing agency: soldiers were needed only for dissidents), from 1862, but after the Vietnamese kicked the French out in 1954, the US filled the power vacuum. The reason for this persistence is that Vietnam is one of the major suppliers for opium, which, while it is a relatively popular drug in itself, is the essential raw ingredient for heroin, which has so much demand that countries go to war over it. At that time, the closest Vietnam came to producing serious art was the serious performance art when monks immolated themselves in protest of the war.
While the Philistines oppressed nudity and sensuality in Art, the Literati sometimes found loopholes that allowed them to deliver their work to their audience. Recently, works like James Joyce's Ulysses and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer waged legal battles ultimately won in the US Supreme Court. But the conflict existed in 16th-century Florence, when Renaissance Neoplatonism provided a loophole, and, later, the fashion of Orientalism made nudity acceptable under watchful authoritarian eyes.
During the Renaissance, the Church sparked interest in the classical Greek philosophers as a way to provide a logical framework for its theological system—a doctrine called Renaissance Neoplatonism—and this inevitably meant embracing the ancient gods not as gods, since that was explicitly forbidden by Jewish monotheism and Christian trinitarian doctrine, but as allegorical symbols for ideas. So, for example, Sandro Botticelli's painting of the Birth of Venus allegorically represents the awakening of love and sensuality in a young woman, and the painting necessarily includes a nude woman, which the Ecclesiastical authorities of Renaissance Florence accepted on philosophical grounds. Whether many people look at that painting with philosophical eyes as opposed to erotic vision is open to debate.
Then there was Orientalism, an 18th- and 19th-century European fashion for images and designs with a Mideastern or even Far Eastern ("Chinoiserie") origin. The occasional nudity in Orientalist paintings, even the scenes of white slavery in harems, were accepted technically as cultural study on the same grounds that elementary schoolboys go to the library to look at bare-breasted women in their native environment as a kind of elementary anthropology.
So this book provides a brief history of how nudity has sustained in art and photography despite the Philistines who would quash it. Most of all, though, this book celebrates beauty, which has its origins in the naked female body.

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