What are your reasons for focusing on the Nude in America?
The first–and only other–book on the history of the nude in American art was published more than thirty-five years ago. As a cultural historian I have long admired the many nudes painted by American artists over the past few centuries, and have always been puzzled why their efforts did not seem to merit anything more than an occasional article by an intrepid researcher. Clearly the absence of work dealing with this subject matter attests to the Puritan residues in American scholarship; the subject is still considered “embarrassing” by many of my colleagues in the academy, and tends to raise eyebrows; scholars on their way up the academic ladder therefore avoid it. I am “emeritus” at the University of California, and therefore beyond potential punishment for my indiscretion by censorious colleagues.
Does the representation of the Nude in America enable you to arrive at specific conclusions about American culture and its attitudes about nudity, sexuality, and ideals about Beauty?
Any artist worth his or her salt needs to study the naked human body–which, at its best, represents the essence of what we perceive as “Beauty.” As such it is the source of all that is best in our capacity to recognize the otherness of others (which is the essence of desire).
We speak of the “naked truth” and not, say, the “nude-truth”? Why is your book entitled “Naked” instead of “Nude”?
As I point out in my book, to be naked is to reveal one’s true self. Nudity conforms to convention. A painter or photographer who catches beauty in its sheer nakedness captures truth; those who paint or photograph the nude capture only convention. Magazines like Playboy censor nakedness and concentrate on the nude, because that makes the residues of true desire still stirring among its viewers easier to control and manipulate.
“Naked” presents a historical survey of the differing representations of the female and male nude. How did you arrive at the respective categories in which you group the different images?
The chapter titles almost wrote themselves, for as I tried to organize the various representations of the naked human body to be found in the history of American art, specific patterns became perfectly obvious. The early nineteenth century representations of super-muscular “Herculean” strugglers almost imperceptibly morphed into “Superman” early in the twentieth century. “The Inexorable Rise of the Breast” became inexorably clear as a topic as I watched the female bosom rise to new heights from the late nineteen thirties onward.
In your mix of illustration, comic art, pulp and vernacular/commercial imagery, and fine art depictions, what were your reasons for contrasting these disparate images from both the popular and fine art spheres? to be naked is to reveal one’s true self. Nudity conforms to convention
In my book I try to make it clear that there is very little distinction between good “high” art and good “pop” art. We make artificial distinctions for marketing purposes, but until a great Matt Baker cover of the 1940s sells for more than a mediocre-to-bad “ironic” John Currin, Baker’s reputation will be that of one of the “vulgar” comic book illustrators whose work led to the institution of the comic book code: Baker’s work is good because it represents naked wit–while Currin’s nudes echo the Playboy philosophy of high art.
to be naked is to reveal one’s true self. Nudity conforms to convention
What informed your particular inclusion and/or exclusion of well-known works, such as Manet’s “Olympia? There are deserving artists in the book who are relatively unknown to the masses, such as Jerome Witkin, among others. My book is about American art and artists. Hence no Manet (or Picasso, or Correggio, for that matter). There are hundreds of American artists whose achievements have remained unknown or under-appreciated because of the American collectors’ ridiculous fixation on the big names (mostly manufactured by various dealers). I have tried to include as many unknowns as was warranted by the quality of their work, and I have excluded as many super-well-knowns as was warranted by the inferiority of theirs.
Who are among the included names/artists that you feel should be more widely known and appreciated for their work with the Nude, and why?
Anyone included in Naked, because they have made a significant contribution to the development of American culture (though there are many more out there whose work I simply don’t know–for, unfortunately, the less artists lust after publicity, the better they tend to be).
Some of your chapter titles are amusing such as “Discovery of the Pubes.” What specific cultural epiphanies do you attribute to such discoveries? And does such acceptance of this sector of the human body represent an advance in tolerance? Today most Americans are still unwilling to recognize the existence of pubic hair. Hence the proliferation of hair removal salons that help to turn the naked human (usually female) body into the nude. When American men stop trying to weed the human body of its supposed flaws, they may also become ready to let the rest of the world live according to whatever happens to be local fashion, instead of attempting to excise all naked reality throughout the rest of the world.
What are your thoughts about the increasing emphasis on sexiness in the later images in the book versus the more discreet representations that open the volume? Is the line between softcore, pornographic, and fine art blurred in contemporary culture?
Most contemporary artists seem to believe that dragging porn into their work will automatically give it a special edge; they still believe that it is the artist’s role to “shock” the bourgeoisie, although it has become dramatically clear over the years that to shock the bourgeoisie you must be part of the bourgeoisie: the vulgarity of trying to “shock” the world is the vulgarity of the adolescent who has finally dared to confront his own fears about bodily functions and sex–those who transcend the world of middle class horror are those who want to change that world by forcing it to confront the beauty that exists in the body, in sexual pleasure–in what the bourgeoisie considers “sin.” Pornography can be (though rarely aspires to being) fine art, and much of contemporary art is muddleheaded smut. Softcore is nudity all over, almost always for the sake of commerce.
Why is the naked body so stigmatized in our society despite evidence of the massive consumption of pornographic images in this country alone?
Because most Americans are still taught in childhood that the human body and its desires are “dirty” they are therefore forced to associate pleasure with “dirt,” with violence, and with shame. If sex and mutual pleasuring were to be recognized as a force for good, pornography would disappear and the representation of sexual encounters of all sorts, having lost its power to engender shame, would become a normal part of everyone’s world–and hence incapable of more than usually inartistic exploitation. Those who “consume” imagery of sexual activity for its capacity to make them feel “dirty” would have to find their thrills elsewhere (as many already do while fighting “wars” and other such violent “games” on their computers).
What is ultimately the objective of your book?
To make people recognize the beauty of the naked human body when not maltreated and the violence that is done to the body when we try to make it conform to standard conceptions of “the nude.”
Who are your desired readers and those that already read your work?
Anyone still gifted with a modicum of native intelligence and a sense of joy.
Is there a pattern, or recurrent set of concerns between the books you’ve written?
What weaves together the themes of all of my books is the concern to find ways to counter the destructive follies of racism, sexism and fear of the body in human society by presenting a history of the misuse of social and scientific assumptions.