Of the Despisers of the Body

IN reading the Contributors’ Club in the August Atlantic, I was much interested by an article discussing the question whether or not certain nude statues should be allowed to remain in the public exhibition rooms of the museums where they are preserved. The objection to the statues seems to be that “ those who are concerned about the morals of the public maintain that grave harm is done by such exhibitions,” since, in their public exposure, the figures may be seen “ by children from the schools as well as by scholars from the universities.” On the other hand, there are those who maintain that no evil can be found in an objective work of art except by those who bear the evil suggestion in their own mind. The writer of the article in question seems, in his own personal opinion, to agree with the latter party. Indeed, his words show plainly that his genial soul is too open to be guilty of that peculiar kind of modesty or morality which has so keen and sniffing a nose for covert indecencies. Nevertheless, in endeavoring to hold a middle position in the controversy, and to offer a practical settlcment, not of the argument, but of the practical difficulty, he seems to be hampered by an overnice sense of tolerance toward the Philistines. He suggests that, since any citizen who, as taxpayer, helps to support the museum has a right to demand the removal of any nude statue which he considers guilty of malicious intent against the budding moral conscience of the children who visit the place, the offending statues be shut in some more private room, and shown only to those whose mature age is supposed to render them immune.

Now, even though the right to protest and the power to exclude be with the fearful citizen, I do not think that our writer’s suggestion is at all practical, nor am I one of those who would agree with his last words : “ In the meantime, let us wait. There is no hurry. Do not let us oppose our canon of taste, however cultivated, to a canon of morals held by a considerable number of sincere persons, however mistaken.” On the contrary, I believe that there is much to be said here and now. We cannot wait. It is high time that more voices should be raised to cry beauty to this land, — simple sensuous beauty, beauty of form, beauty of body.

Our experiment of allowing aggregates, averages, and majorities to rule our land may in time lead to the ideal government; the experiment, at any rate, is unique and worth trying. But in art such rule leads only to mediocrity. We lack plainly the desire and taste for the beautiful. Our public acts nearly all tend to utility or convenience, to save or gain time. In only a few instances have municipalities made any attempt to supply the public need of some show of beauty of form in public places merely for the sake of beauty, or rather, for the good that invariably springs from beautiful things. With all strictest observance of the canons of the latest morality, human nature may be ugly and repellent if it exclude beauty. Nothing is more harmful than ugliness, or even a colorless lack of beauty.

Many things, indeed, are called by the name of beauty. Moralists, scientists, physicians, as well as artists, use it as the last word of praise or wonder ; but there is only one beauty which is beauty, and nothing else, — beauty of form, whether the form be wrought of words, or stone, or sound, or paint, or flesh. Before the Christian era, the most highly civilized people of the world, the Greeks, had deified bodily beanty. Even in their training of the mind, they had aimed at attaining a symmetry, somewhat analogous to the proportions of a statue, by means of music, poetics, and geometry. Every corner of public places was utilized in the service of beauty. The mind, constantly filled with the images of beautiful things, had perforce to assume an analogous shape. No immorality was fancied to exist in a thing which could not possibly be either moral or immoral. Herodotus states as a curious fact that “ among certain barbarous peoples it is considered disgraceful to appear naked.” Whence, then, this fear of contamination from the artistic representation of the undraped human body ?

Not the smallest of our needs to-day is our need for beauty, not merely in private, but by means of a municipal and national encouragement. There are many ready to take example, in their individual lives, from William Morris, and seek to bring beauty into common life and the decoration of common things. The signs are good, the omens are propitious. Therefore, when there is question of removing beautiful statues from public places, it is no time to remain silent. The desirableness of beauty cannot be rationally disputed, and there are few who will deny that the human body at its best, in nature or in art, is beautiful. Clothes and drapery are more subject to arbitrary changes of fashion than is conventional morality itself. Look at the photographs of reigning belles of three or four years ago, and, in spite of beauty of feature, the already obsolete toggery has in almost every case destroyed all artistic suggestion or value. Of course there are exceptions, and drapery has its uses ; but the Venus of Medici remains beautiful, harmlessly, nakedly beautiful, regardless of the fluctuations of fashion or moral conscience. How can such a statue be either moral or immoral in any eyes, especially those of children ? Only natural depravity could find harm here, — such depravity as would find the same harm in a shoe, a garter, or a glove.

After all, there is no such thing as naked beauty in art. All beauty in art is veiled by the poetic conception of the artist with a cast of ideality which removes the object at once from the world of the actual, and makes it a creature of the more radiant world of symbols. Art can cast its glamour over even the ugly, the commonplace, and the vulgar. It is the hiding away and concealing of a thing that makes it shameful and piques an evil curiosity. Hence the keeping of nude statues in a private room would merely give them a false and dangerous suggestiveness. And this vicious sense of suggestiveness sprang into life at the first gesture of the pointing finger of “ fearful innocence.” We do not need fewer nude statues, nor ought we to hide away those we have ; but, for our moral healthiness as well as for the satisfaction of our higher desires, we need less morality of the sin-sniffing sort, and more real innocence and unshamed beauty.