ART IS NOT PORN

When City Council president Clay Yarborough walked into the MOCA on November 25th, what he saw shocked him so much that he felt compelled to email the mayor’s office to insist that “you immediately cause to be pulled all funding designated for MOCA for the current fiscal year or otherwise explain how this will be addressed within 24 hours.”

What he’d seen was a reclining nude, a staple of art for centuries. But when he looked, he didn’t see art—he saw pornography.

MOCA Project Atrium Angela Strassheim 5

Put a naked lady on the news, and there will inevitably be a black bar across her nipples, even if she’s been hanging in a museum for two hundred years. In public art and museums, we get to see the human form in one of the few contexts that isn’t trying to hypersexualize or sell. Yarborough’s reaction to seeing legitimate art as pornography is an argument for funding and filling the MOCA and Cummer with nudes where kids might see them, not against it. Otherwise, they might grow up to call a work of art, inspired by hundreds of years of tradition, pornographic.

MOCA Project Atrium Angela Strassheim 1

Nudes are in state-funded museums and public spaces across the globe. It’s nothing novel. In our own Memorial Park, not only is the statue there incredibly nude and seemingly unashamed, he’s also proudly standing on a globe full of naked people. If Yarborough really believes that no city or state money should go to a public space that features nudity, then it’s possible he believes the public shouldn’t fund any art, ever. That’s a valid opinion, but it doesn’t make art into pornography.

Angela Strassheim: Untitled (Janine Eight Months Pregnant), 2013. 50 x 60 inches. Archival pigment print mounted to aluminum composite board. Courtesy of the artist and Andrea Meislin Gallery.

But perhaps it’s educational for us to try to understand Yarborough’s reaction to Angela Strassheim’s nude. The woman is heavily pregnant. Her hands are above her head, and she is turned from the camera, her eyes closed. Her expression is highly subjective to the viewer: she could be dozing, she could be enjoying the sun, she may be experiencing pleasure, or pain, or even early labor. On the wall behind her hangs a landscape that recalls the backgrounds of many Renaissance reclining nudes. Her head and chest are beautifully lit. Pregnant nudes aren’t new, neither is a reclining nude on a couch covered in red and white fabric, turned away from the viewer, eyes closed with hands above the head.

MOCA Project Atrium Angela Strassheim 4
Angela Strassheim

What is different is the medium. It isn’t a painting or a drawing: it’s a photograph. Despite being inspired by a tradition of over 500 of years of 2-D, reclining nudes, the fact that Janine Eight Months Pregnant is a photograph is probably the major reason why we’re even talking about this.

Does that mean that photography isn’t art? We should definitely be examining the way we look at photography as an artistic medium. Because anyone can take a picture, and it can be easily reproduced, there is a tendency to suppose that photography isn’t artistically valid. But truly great photographs come from the same kind of knowledge of composition, rule of thirds, emphasis, color, lighting, contrast, texture and all the other elements you’d find in a skillful painting.

Those elements can all be found in Angela Strassheim’s nude. The Cultural Council and MOCA recognize the piece as a work of art, as do the majority of Jaxsons, if social media, message boards, and letters to the editor, are any indication. This image of a nude pregnant woman isn’t vulgar. It’s beauty. It’s art. It belongs in a museum.

 

About Erin Thursby