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The Atlantic Monthly | August 1901
From time to time the question arises whether certain nude statues shall be exhibited in the museums of art where they are to be seen by the general public,—by children from the schools as well as as by scholars from the universities. And from time to time the answer to the question is hotly debated, usually without agreement. Those who are concerned about the morals of the public maintain that grave harm is done by such exhibitions. Those who believe that beauty is its own excuse for being have scornful words for spectators who find evil where, most certainly, no evil was intended. Such controversies usually start from a priori assumptions, and seldom lead to any useful end.
The Nude in Museums
The Atlantic Contributors' Club
The question is capable of a practical solution that will be accepted by everyone. It is universally admitted that public libraries must reserve certain books from general circulation. In the same way, it is reasonable to affirm that a public museum of art may be justified in excluding certain statues. There need be no discussion of the first principles of morals or of beauty. The solution reached must rest on practical grounds. Moralists will justify it for one set of reasons; artists will acede to it for another.
Every librarian knows what books to reserve for the exclusive use of persons of mature age; and every curator of a museum is likewise bound to admit that his public must be considered. The general principle is entirely clear. There is no great difficulty in carrying it out in its details. The analogy between public libraries and public museums helps us to decide as to special points.
If a certain book offends any considerable number of persons, it should be placed on the reserved list, even though a considerable number of other persons may find no harm in it. No librarian would seek to enforce his private judgment in such a matter against the protests of a large group of respectable persons of a different opinion. The same procedure should be followed in arranging the statues in a museum open to the general public.
I, personally, find no harm in the statue of ———— from Pompeii. It interests me in itself, as a thing of beauty, and as an index of the feeling of the people who produced it. It was, in Pompeii, so placed that only adults saw it, probably. If the citizen of a modern American town, two thousand years later, finds offense in it, for himself or for his children, I will not blame him. His point of view is essentially different from that of the Roman of that earlier day. His child's point of view is utterly different. He, as a citizen, pays the taxes that support his museum.
His opinion, therefore, deserves respect, even though he may be, from my point of view, uncultivated, intolerant, and unreasonable. If any considerable number of such citizens are offended, for themselves or for their children, I, for one, will not object if their opinions are respected by the public officer who is their servant as well as mine. Let the offending statue go to a reserved room, just as an offending book in the public library goes to a reserved shelf. Any one who has a right to see the statue will be admitted to do so by the curator. The general public is, on the whole, better off without access to the book, and, on the whole, the general public will be better off without access to the statue.
I can remember when Balzac's novels were kept on the top shelf, though now they are freely given out in many public libraries. It was, in my opinion, a loss that they were so long reserved. I acquiesced in the reservation, however, since it was demanded by a considerable number of intelligent people. I do not think they are good food for children, even now. The same principle can be, and should be, applied in public museums of art. If the public demands that the Discobolus should be relegated to an attic because it is unclothed, very well, let it go there. Let me have the key to the attic when I wish it. If the statue is really good and pure, as thousands of good people believe, it will, by and by, be brought down to the main hall.
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.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1901; The Contributors' Club; Volume 88, No. 526; page 286-287.