Monday, April 28, 2003

So the other day I was reading the Dixie Chicks....

....and I thought of Patrick Belton's rather elaborate Oxblog critique of their Entertainment Weekly cover. (Honest, that's what came to mind.) You see, according to Belton, Karen Finley's famous habit of smearing her naked body with chocolate in front of a paying audience "undoubtedly qualifies her as an artist," whereas he's "not sure this is true for the Dixie Chicks," whose posing nekkid for a magazine cover "seems only a diversionary tactic."

This seems completely backwards to me. The Dixie Chicks can hardly be accused of using their nudity as a "diversionary tactic", since there's nothing to divert our attention from. Sure, there are words scribbled on the images of the musicians' bodies, symbolizing the vilification the singers have endured following the lead singer's anti-Bush remarks at a European concert. But if the point of their posing nude for an Entertainment Weekly cover was actually to provoke thoughtful reconsideration of the role of the artist as political commentator--rather than, say, to provoke lots of furtive glances across the magazine rack at a trio of hot, naked music chicks--then the Dixie Chicks' publicist is obviously a complete incompetent. (Note to said publicist: New York Times op-eds provoke reasoned discussion; nudie cover shots provoke lust. There's a difference.)

On the other hand--leaving aside Karen Finley, for a moment--let us consider another famous depiction of the nude female form: "The Birth of Venus", by Sandro Botticelli. Now, the nude Venus at the center of this painting really is a diversionary tactic. I know this because I, personally, have all the artistic discernment of a golden retriever (a poker-playing golden retriever, perhaps), yet I can still appreciate this painting--inasmuch, at least, as it provokes lots of furtive glances at the hot, naked goddess chick on the scallop shell.

There is of course much more in the painting (I'm given to understand) for the aesthete to appreciate, but frankly I don't really notice any of it, and I'm pretty sure it would all leave me cold were it even pointed out to me. I can only conclude that the nude Venus is the visual equivalent of the stupid puns in Shakespeare's plays: coarse entertainment for all of us ignorami, munching on our snacks and watching from the pit. Or, to use Belton's phrase, it's "only a diversionary tactic" to keep us philistines amused.

Now, I'm not claiming that Botticelli's painting isn't an artistic masterpiece. But then, how hard is it to paint a nude that grabs the viewer's eye? (I can't for the life of me fathom Picasso's paintings--or his fans--but I give him credit for ingenuity in figuring out how to paint female nudes that normal heterosexual males are not particularly drawn to look at.) If Botticelli's goal had been to dazzle us strictly with his magnificent aesthetic sense, rather than, say, to distract us from his weak command of the craft of drawing human proportions, or simply to amuse cruder viewers--including, for all we know, patron Lorenzo di'Medici--he could have left Venus clothed or modestly obstructed by the shell. Or he could have just painted a still life instead.

And no, that wouldn't have been a particularly onerous restriction on his artistic freedom. Artists endure--and the great ones overcome--far more limiting constraints all the time. (For all we know, Botticelli himself was a born filmmaker who had to make do with oils because he was born a half-millenium too early.) To suggest that Botticelli decided to make his Venus fetchingly naked because his pure aesthetic sense demanded it is like--well, like saying that the Dixie Chicks' publicist simply couldn't think of a way to discuss public resentment of politicized artists that didn't involve a provocative nude cover photo. And if Belton thinks that Karen Finley can't think how to express her views without the "diversionary tactic" of smearing her own naked body with chocolate....

Of course, Belton didn't invent the idea of an artistic "good" way and a crassly commercial "bad" way to use nudity, profanity or other frowned-upon means of expression. In fact the idea is practically universally accepted in literate circles, even though it makes absolutely no sense. Are Shakespeare's lousy puns transformed into brilliant witticisms by virtue of the quality of the plays in which they appear? Or can we admit that Shakespeare's plays are great in spite of the presence of the odd bit of cheap wordplay, not because of it? And as with puns, why not with nudes?


An update: Patrick Belton has helpfully informed me by email that Karen Finley's nude form could not possibly be categorized as a "diversion", in the above sense. I'll defer to his judgment in that regard.

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