When I first read what City Council President Clay Yarborough had to say about the latest Project Atrium exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, I was amused, but not shocked. If you haven’t heard by now, he recently visited MOCA and was offended by Angela Strassheim’s photograph of a nude, pregnant woman. He described the piece, Untitled (Janine Eight Months Pregnant), as “pornographic.” He found it so debauched that he threatened to have it removed or else he would have all funds for the museum pulled.
But as an 18 year-old girl with access to the Internet and other forms of media, this is not surprising to me. Society tells me everyday what my body should look like so that I can maintain the status quo. Figures of authority have been telling me to cover up and be ashamed of my body since I can remember. Teaching a girl that her body should be guarded from others (specifically, from men) as a rule is perpetuated everywhere from school dress codes to strict bans on showing female nudity on social media platforms such as Instagram.
Everyone has nipples. Embracing the human anatomy through fine art is beautiful, liberating and edifying. Strassheim makes photographs that are detailed and brilliant, depicting the ephemeral nature of life and the strength of kinship. To see an unclad body and immediately write the artwork off as explicit is to disregard the artist’s thought and thematic purpose put behind the piece. Nudity in art is not a new concept. The reclining nude has been an iconic symbol in art since prehistory. Besides, not everything that features a naked female body is inherently pornographic or objectifying.
In my art appreciation class at UNF, we were shown the image above. It is an early 20th century sculpture entitled, Reclining Nude, by David Smith. At a glance, the piece would probably not be viewed as blatantly perverted or sexual. But does the sculpture not have the same attributes to even the most human-like or erotic representations of reclining nude bodies? At its very reduction, the sculpture is the same as the subject of Strassheim’s photograph. The piece is curvaceous and gives a sense of the body as a form that has volume, as the professor told my class. So, what makes a sculpture like this, which is overtly “sexual” as deduced by its title, less erotic than Strassheim’s photograph? Meaning is found through the context of artwork.
The unclothed, pregnant female body in Strassheim’s photograph is not one of obscenity. The image depicts the subject in a way that emphasizes the cycles of life. The woman in the picture is strong and fertile. There is a human living inside of her body, which is amazing and impressive and so beautiful! The wall behind the woman (toward the top right) is decorated with a painting of a spring landscape. Spring is synonymous with fertility, life and new beginnings. Behind the window we see trees without leaves, telling us that the image was taken during winter. Winter is a time of decay and dormancy. If Yarborough took a minute to try to understand the image, he would realize that the main emphasis of the piece is of the juxtaposition of seasons and the transitions found in life as in maternity.
Yarborough’s belief that the image is inherently provocative or insulting is fine, since it is his own viewpoint, but to threaten to have it taken down is an impertinent injustice to the artist’s freedom of expression, which Mayor Brown thankfully addressed in his response to the Councilman.
So, although his hopes for pulling MOCA’s funds have been declined, I urge everyone to continue the conversation over censorship and the female body. It is amazing how this dispute has already piqued citizens’ interest in our city’s art culture. MOCA received a record increase in attendance over Thanksgiving weekend, as well as growth in membership. This discourse is not one that should be temporary, since it permeates in our everyday lives without us even realizing it.
Everyone always complains about how “behind the times” the city of Jacksonville is, without seeking to realize why (Electing old-fashioned people like Yarborough to be in charge). It is important for us to be informed and take action in our local government so that we can promote a culture of progress and open-mindedness.
Censoring art of any kind is a form of ignorance. Covering up nude photographs sends the body-negative message to young people that being sexually self-possessed is embarrassing, that the human anatomy in even its most purely maternal form is something to be ashamed about. This is also the kind of attitude that fuels the double standards of gender, which normalize rape culture. This is the same voice that tells rape victims that if she was dressed scantily, the crime was partially her fault.
There is so much to learn from all types of work, and whether they contain offensive material or not, getting rid of them is never going to create an atmosphere in which we can pursue knowledge freely. So again, I hope this discourse continues, because it is already creating a more rich, urban atmosphere. Jacksonville will only be able to reach its potential of becoming a unique, advanced city with the help, scholarship and activism from its citizens.