The Moral Panic Over Nudity In Art Is No Laughing Matter

We should all be concerned about stories of religiously-driven campaigns against classical art.

I know that there are those who think that we bang on about censorship, sexual freedom, moral panics and the like too much – and indeed, it is one of the driving obsessions of this particular site and its editor. But can you blame us, when stories like this appear – and are treated as humorous novelty pieces by the press who are more interested in the strange predictions of a classic TV show than they are in what this tells us about the state of current moral panics and the power of the lunatic fringe?

Hope Carrasquilla, the principal of Tallahassee Classical School in Florida, has been forced to resign after exposing her 11 and 12-year-old students to ‘pornography’. Well, rightly so, you may think – even the most liberal of us might find this to be a bit unacceptable. That is, of course, until you discover just what this ‘pornography’ was.

It turns out that the shocking and indecent images that the children were shown were two works by Michelangelo – the David sculpture and his Creation of Adam painting – alongside Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. Images that contain nudity, certainly, though not in what anyone of sound mind would consider to be in an erotic context. The Creation of Adam is even a religious piece, for crying out loud, the sort of thing that you might think God-fearing Christians would approve of. But for the people of Tallahassee, nudity is nudity, regardless of context – and nudity is sinful. One parent complained that the material was pornographic, a definition that you would hope would give even the most delusional anti-porn campaigner pause for thought, while other parents complained that they should have been given advance notice of the lesson. Presumably, this was not in order to give their children a proper historical context for the works but rather to withdraw them from the class.

You might hope that outside of religious theocracies, such complaints would be dismissed out of hand. But this is Florida, a delusionally right-wing state in a country famous for trivial but costly litigation. Carrasquilla was given a ‘resign or be fired’ ultimatum by the School Board, something so despairingly outrageous that it makes my head ache just thinking about it.

David has been censored before, of course – Queen Victoria, the woman whose prudishness gave birth to the concept of Victorian Values, was so shocked by a replica on display at the V&A that a fig leaf was made to cover his genitalia whenever a delicate royal paid a visit. Even now, I noted while reading about this latest case, there seems to be a reluctance amongst news outlets to show images of the artworks – and isn’t that just too depressing?

The reporting of this story has focused less on the sheer insanity at work here – that idiots see classic art as porn, that a teacher is forced out of her job because of those idiots – and have instead focused on the fact that a Simpsons episode predicted all this. The Simpsons has proved a fertile ground for finding stories that were, at the time, ludicrous exaggerations but now reflect our reality – and this is no exception. In the 1990 episode Itchy and Scratchy and Marge, Marge Simpson leads a campaign to censor the ultra-violent cartoon show Itchy and Scratchy and then finds herself as the leader of a fanatical moralising campaign group that wants to act against Michelangelo’s David when the statue turns up in Springfield as part of a travelling exhibition. “It graphically portrays parts of the human body, which practical as they may be, are evil,” cried Helen Lovejoy and doesn’t that sound only too familiar now? The Simpsons‘ episode was designed as a warning against moral campaigns (the sort that the show itself had been subjected to in its early days) but some people seem to have taken it as a template for their own lunatic ideas.

If we allow stories like this to simply be reported as silly season eccentricity, we give more power to the most extreme of moralisers – the sort who see any nudity, in any context and regardless of artistic importance, as porn. Every time a TV station blurs out a topless pin-up on a 1970s TV show during a daytime broadcast, every time assorted censorship bodies declare even the most innocuous nudity as beyond the pale, every time a museum hides classical artwork behind a warning sign, every time Instagram suspends someone for posting a photo of a female nipple of too much butt cleavage or every time someone crops or edits one of these three pictures to remove the nudity, we empower the worst human beings in the world by suggesting that their fear of nudity is a valid one, giving credence to their delusional and fanatical ideas and allowing their wildly skewed view of the world to be the only view allowed. How long will it be before the censoring of images like David and Venus becomes the norm unless we fight back against this insane demonisation of the human body?


Like what we do? Support us and help us do more!


One comment

  1. I remember, about 15 years ago, musing to myself of an evening: ‘I wonder if Victorian Prudery will return, and what form it might take?’ Lo and behold, my thoughts were prescient: a short time later I was perusing mags (in a swanky expensive hipster bookshop, not a porno shop) with an old friend. There was a photo on the cover of one of a pregnant woman, a la Demi Moore on Vanity Fair. Tasteful and modest. I commented that the lady in question was attractive; my erstwhile pal actually spouted some prattle about how the unborn child couldn’t give consent to appear in the image! Seriously! This fellow was formerly a no-holds barred type with regard to racy talk and humour. He had got married and spawned, and thus a newfound prudishness had emerged. This is the sticking point moreso than these so-called ‘religious’ dingbats. I feel like there was an explosion of id-driven activity from the 90s until the credit crunch, then a somber hangover, a reassertion of the super-ego to reclaim lost ground and exact punitative measures. The battle of the mind and body, doncha know. So when the liberal suddenly got a massive guilt trip on, it swung the balance in favour of the repressives.

    Big boobs mean a healthy economy.

    At least there’s naked attraction, it’s not all ration-book time for the mainstream. And we ought to ship t-shirts bearing David’s image, cock and all, over to Florida, along with the message ‘Visit Accademia Di Florence’.

    I take this stuff seriously. Mostly, I feel sorry for folks who cannot enjoy the human body and regard it as inherently obscene. Maybe they were wildcats in a former life who’s full-tilt ways caught up with them once they had been blessed by, angelic chorus, the miracle of reproduction.

    This kind of shit is always cropping up though. Part of me questions the veracity of the story, or at least wonders to what extent it’s been exaggerated. It’s always easy to convince us the Americans are nuts, especially southerners – which is a prejudicial attitude for a start. Maybe it’s justified? I remember even before the Simpsons episode hearing a story that some – some, I stress, maybe only a few – persons had complained to NASA that the line-drawings of a naked male and female human on the Voyager plaque were pornographic! I genuinely don’t know whether to pity or envy the adult individual who can get a tremendous turn-on from such material. Of course we all feel a bit of trouser-activity, taht’s normal, but these people must barely be able to leave the house if that’s what constitutes top-shelf material to them!

Comments are closed.