In this week’s edition of The New Yorker, I came across a quick story by Peter Schjeldahl, “The Roaring Stetties,” about the artist Florine Stettheimer. In anticipation of The Jewish Museum’s retrospective of her work, the story gives us a taste of this New York-based artist living during the end of 19th century and first half of the 20th . Based on the story, Stettheimer seemed fascinating, bold and talented. In 1915, Stettheimer painted the first full-length nude self-portrait by a woman. No coincidence the image accompanying the article was a copy of this very painting. It’s quite beautiful, tasteful and arresting. Never would I hesitate to share this story and the image with my children. In fact, I would be proud too!
But why is a painting of a nude woman any different than other images of naked woman we witness all too often in today’s culture on the internet? Would I want to show these other images to my children? My initial response is “no!” But why? My question reminds me of a post a wrote a number of years back about the difference between erotic art and pornography. Below is piece from that post:
What explains why pornography is considered base while erotic art is deemed beautiful? In both cases we lay our eyes upon the beautiful (or sometimes not so beautiful) human form. According to Robert Scruton in Beauty, pornography objectifies the body whereas erotic art represents the embodied person — soul, personality, character….
What struck me about the argument is Scruton’s own words: “My body is not an object but a subject, just as I am…I am inextricably mingled with it, and what is done to my body is done to me.”
His thinking has implications way beyond pornography for me. Essentially he’s elevating the role of our bodies. They aren’t just flesh and bone, they are inseparable from ourselves, from our essences.
Keeping our kids shielded from pornography makes absolute sense. Pornography demeans us and distances ourselves from our bodies. And the reverse should be true as well. We should not only deem erotic art differently from pornography, but actually encourage our kids to view it. They will get a taste of talent and challenge themselves to understand the art in the context of its time. But perhaps more importantly, they will hopefully embrace the human form and see it as something beautiful not some distant “piece” of who we are, or even worse, a source of shame. Instead they will see it as inherently part of us, and as such, will respect it, treat it well and love it that much more. In a time and culture where we have so many conflicting feelings about our physical selves, let’s at least give our kids a sense of our bodies as sacred and worthy of self-care. I truly believe such a stance towards our physical selves will make us healthier, happier and more respectful of others’ physicality as well. Imagine that: we will not only be more loving and protective of our own bodies, but more accepting, caring and cherishing of others’ bodies too. Could this help to stop body shaming and actual physical harming others? Maybe. I hope so.
I would love your reactions to this and I’m looking forward to the exhibit and may even some of you all there :).