Today's blog comes from the prologue to Hugh Starbuck's book, Naked and Beautiful. Starbuck'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.
Once we all lived in small self-governing communities, and our culture was our own. In that time, we do not have to answer to state or federal governments or to alien kings. Customs, traditions, rituals, beliefs, and religion grow naturally among the people who practice them.
Since before we became the species that we are now, we have observed the Dance.
The Dance is not merely a pas de deux, though that's part of it. It more or less annually brings together everybody in the group of the nation in celebratory spirit. Crafts and livestock get sold in their largest market. People catch up on news. Stories get told and songs sung. Cooks share good food and exchange recipes. If people live in groups within which custom prevents them from marrying, the Dance presents the opportunity to meet people from outside the group. The Dance offers games in which young men demonstrate their prowess as warriors, hunters, or farmers. At the Dance, we affirm, renew, or reinvent most aspects of our cultural identity.
The Dance, stories and music, food, rituals, rites, timekeeping and celebration, and guides are all integral parts of our communal identity: we are proud of them; we work for them, and we die for them. Then come Kings.
A kingdom requires conquest: a King must subjugate neighboring communities to build a kingdom. Sometimes this process is peaceful; usually it isn't. Even when a King comes from our own city, by the time he is strong enough to conquer his realm, his lifestyle, wealth, and education so close him off from commoners, that, even in the capital, the King and the aristocracy are foreigners among their own subjects.
In turn, all people then are ruled by aliens or foreigners who do not have to live by the same rules and with the same problems they do. Nor does the King have precisely the same culture as those of the subjugated communities. Once a group cedes its rulership to a King, the time of terror and bloodshed passes, and the King finds more peaceful ways to control his subjects.
The conflict over culture is where the subject feels most continually the alienation of King. In Western culture, Kings have followed a process dating back at least as far as the Romans of usurping the Dance. The Romans present Circus to the people.
At Nuremberg Rallies, banks of spotlights create curtains of light hung from the heavens. Men line up in perfect rank and file and wear uniforms with razor creases. The Orator-King conveys much more energy than transmitted by oration alone. His demagoguery taps right into a core of mob energy, an anger that he channels into identification with the goals of the state.
American football games channel much of the same frenzied mob energy into regional forms of nationalism as a kind of rehearsal for when the same spirit is needed to support the whole country in war. Televised games are sponsored by the leading corporations and by the American military who capitalize upon the heightened mob spirit to recruit for combat opportunities abroad.
That the Dance can become Circus, Nazi rally, football game, or nationalist pep rally shows how the King's control debases organic culture. In subjugating culture, the King creates an atmosphere of dogmatism, anti-intellectualism, anti-free expression. Artists, who must express their intellect freely even though it might be outside the range of official state dogma. find themselves in a continuous conflict with state-dictated culture. Their whole lives become a defiant act of performance art. There are many names for that conflict, but I like to call it the Philistines vs the Literati.
Many kings are well educated and may even secretly appreciate art, but the official view of art does not necessarily represent the personal view of the king. The official view or party line is a pair of goggles handed out to the people so that art becomes "enforced" in the style of a police state. The cheap studios sought by struggling artists become not merely an affordable lifestyle but a kind of underground.
It's true that the Social Contract vs Individual Freedom is a broad conflict in any society. Freedom of speech and art are only some of those freedoms. The question of the nude in art has been only one of many battles fought in the war of the Philistines vs the Literati, but in a free society the nude in appropriate contexts should be admired for her beauty and not shamed because of the King's controlling set of faux morals or because the King's Church's control of both the daily cycles and the life cycles of men forbids nudity in art.This book focuses on the nude, for which Western culture has had an ethos of appreciation across many millennia.