Sunday, January 31, 2016

Book notes: “Naked. The nude in America” by Bram Dijkstra

I’m very interested in some theoretical aspects of art, especially concerning representation of sexuality and imaginary creatures, so I try to collect any book on such topics which seems interesting. This one was a great read and even though I don’t fully agree with the author’s reading of some of the artwork it has given me a lot of things to reflect upon, so I expect I’ll be referring to it in future posts. But first an overview.

“Naked” describes how nudity has been dealt with in North American visual arts from the XVIII century down to our days. I bought it mostly because of its extensive coverage of XIX and XX century nude art, which is often dismissed by the art critics still hellbent on selling modernism and conceptual art as the only worthwhile products of that period. As stated on the front flap of the book though Djikstra is a cultural historian rather than an art critic, and it shows in a positive way in his rational, sequential, analytical approach. Many of the artists and works mentioned in the book are new to me and it helped me fill knowledge gaps between more famous names, as well as actually explaining some of the contempt for XIX century art and XX century figurative art.

The main thesis of the book is that much Western nude art was (and in some cases still is) built on symbolism which stemmed from oppressive, sexist, racist, or even outright insane sociopolitical theories about sexuality. Such theories were popular at the time the paintings were created and most of them have been discredited or forgotten, but contemporary figurative art and illustration still happens to draw upon the old symbolism, sometimes willingly, sometimes out of ignorance of the original meaning of certain symbols and clichès. There is fairly convincing evidence for this thesis coming both from visual analysis of the artwork and from explicit statements by artists, writers, critics and censors of the past.

Franz von Stuck, Il peccato (Die Sünde), 1893

An example of outdated symbolism is the predatory sorceress/temptress/amazon clichè which is still relatively common in fantasy art but used to be common in highbrow art too up to the early XX century. This is a concept I’m especially interested in given the half-human half-animal nature of my subjects. It is very ancient symbolism going all the way back to sirens, harpies, the sphynx of Oedipus and other mythological figures. The depiction of naked, sexually intimidating women with animal traits or accompanied by dangerous animals such as snakes used to be a commentary on how women’s wild, beastly sexual urges were supposedly dangerous and destructive.

Keeping all due differences in mind, erotic furry/anthro art is at its core a subversion of that symbolism. Being part wild animal is not a liability but as an asset - something humorous and even appealing.

BHawk, Her Own Personal Space Heater, 2013

Only time will tell whether this is just an aesthetic preference of few people or a symptom of deeper cultural changes in the perceived relationship of humans with nature. We are animals after all and I believe we need to seriously come to terms with the "uncivilized" parts of our mind, so to speak, if we want to keep our sanity in an increasingly complex, manufactured world. But regardless of personal philosophy I think erotic furry art is a very logical progress in the historical process described in the book. I'm fairly sure one day it will deserve its own chapter (or at least a mention) in a similar essay.

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