(Clicking on Images Will Enlarge Them)
Representation of the unclothed human form has been central to art almost since art began, on every continent where a culture arose. The Woman of Willendorf, a 4.25 inch plump nude figurine unearthed in Austria in 1908, is believed to have been carved over 27,000 years ago. (In the past she was The Venus of Willendorf, and presumed to be a fertility goddess. The assumption that every unexplained ancient artifact has a ritual function a modern affectation. Given her size and a shape that is sure to comfort a recently weaned toddler, she may be simply a child’s toy, a sort of Neolithic Barbie.)
In Europe prior to the Greeks, carved female figures far outnumbered males. Classical Greek and Roman sculptors, though, depicted male gods and great warriors as often as goddesses and paragons of the feminine form. The renaissance painting and sculpture of Michelangelo is testimony to the fascination and reverence held by a masterful artist for the human form, especially the masculine. The nude continues to hold a prominent place in modern art, and the male figure is making a comeback, as well.
The nude in pictures or sculpture produces an interesting tension between the esthetic and the erotic. Alexandros’ Aphrodite of Milos (or Venus de Milo, the Greek sculpture famous for having no arms) and Michelangelo’s David were clearly driven by homage to the beauty of the human body; their erotic content an inevitable (and not undesirable) accompaniment, but not the main purpose, of these works.
Among the art unearthed at Pompeii and Herculaneum, which were pleasure resorts for ancient Romans, were numerous sculptures and mosaics with sexual themes, not unlike the images we use today to promote beach or gambling resorts–photos of buxom bikini babes and bronzed young men with six-pack abs. The Roman images often went beyond our own in terms of their sexuality, graphically depicting copulation—opposite sex, same sex, even with animals–perhaps overstating the pleasures to be had at these resorts. In these works, the erotic content is front and center. Though some of them are skillfully rendered and remarkably beautiful, they are erotic works that by today’s standards would be called pornography. These labels are not absolute, but rather ends of a spectrum. Most pictures with nude figures in them have both esthetic and erotic content in addition to any narrative content they may carry.
In photography, the spectrum is represented by three overlapping genres. Fine art figure photography concerns itself mostly with the interaction the contours of the body with light. Backgrounds and props are held to a minimum, lighting is often high contrast, the medium black and white. The face is not usually included with the figure, because faces inevitably result in an affective quality that distracts from the focus on light and shape. Narrative content is minimal since the image is about the beauty of the form, not the person in the picture. These pictures tend to accentuate the esthetic and restrain the erotic.
Glamour photography is different from fine art photography. It often has a commercial objective. The setting and props are important, interacting with the figure itself to produce the glamour while the figure adds “stopping power” to the image. The face is usually in the image because it adds affect that enhances the glamour. Glamour shots are often taken to promote celebrities, or taken of celebrities to promote a product. Figure, setting and narrative are all important in a glamour shoot, and sensuality is part of the point.
Pornography is all about sexual stimulation and the politics of interpersonal power–domination and submission. Esthetic and narrative values (beyond the raw depiction of sex acts) take a back seat (sometimes literally) to that.
During post-renaissance period in Europe the nude survived in a mostly mythic, exotic, or symbolic guise, such as the sensual odalisques of Ingres and David’s bare-breasted Liberty Leading the People. The female form once again predominated over the male. By sticking to exotic motifs artists were attempting to depict sensuality without demeaning modern womanhood. Neither Artemis nor Salome was any living man’s wife or daughter, nor did they live themselves; their bodies could be appreciated without immodesty or salaciousness, nor promoting a loved one’s jealousies.
The Victorians were so very protective of their women that when John Singer Sargent exhibited at the Salon the portrait of a real French society matron whose gown strap had slipped off her shoulder, Paris was shocked. Sargent was forced to flee to London in a storm of scandal, though in the tiny wardrobe malfunction he had illustrated, no naughty bits were actually exposed to view. Sargent “corrected” his painting, but xrays show the original scandalous position of the strap.
The era of realistic depictions of the fantastic or exotic nude reached its peak in the nineteenth century with such academic Salon painters as John William Waterhouse and William-Adolphe Bouguereau. As their techniques approached a classical perfection, however, much of the passion seemed to go out of their works. “I am convinced” wrote critic Frank Jewett Mather, “that the nude of Bouguereau was prearranged to meet the ideals of a New York stockbroker of the black walnut generation.” A.C.R.Carter complained that Waterhouse’s masterpiece Hylas and the Nymphs showed “none of the gladness which the classic legend’s undercurrent of blissful immortality contains.”
At this time a new spirit was rumbling through the art world, questioning the assumptions of Academic art and introducing new attitudes and techniques that would reshape art forever. The trend was away from the classical and towards the mundane. The nude was to play a central role in this revolution.
In 1863 Édouard Manet presented to the Paris Salon a large canvas called Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass, or The Picnic), which depicted two young dandies dressed to the nines in the styles of the day, having a picnic accompanied by two young women. One woman sits with the men on a cloth spread on the ground; she is inexplicably nude, and looks out boldly at the observer, defying reproach. The other woman, draped in a loose-fitting undergarment, is wading in shallow water behind them. The men are engaged in conversation between themselves, as oddly unaware of the beautiful nude women among them as the women are oblivious of them. The Salon rejected the painting as indecent, since it was a modern scene presented in a realistic style rather than classical myth or oriental exotica.
The same Salon exhibited Bouguereau’s La Naissance de Venus, which depicts young women (nymphs), children (cherubim), and men (satyrs or mermen), all in the throes of mythic ecstasy. Manet exhibited his work in the Salon de Refusés, where it found both acclaim and ridicule.
Manet’s next big painting, Olympia, is of a reclining nude reminiscent the odalisques of past masters from Titian to Ingres, but this nude is surrounded not by some exotic harem scene, but by the trappings of a Paris prostitute. “Look at me,” her fixed gaze tells the viewer, scolding us a little. “My beauty, my art, lies in my form itself, not in the narrative surrounding me. I am not ashamed of that beauty. Don’t you be!” Manet was freeing the nude from the tyranny of the exotic, and giving his models ownership of their own good looks.
Another bad boy on the Paris art scene then was Gustave Courbet; he was badder even than Manet, by far. Courbet was a realist, and for him realism demanded not only painting in a realistic style, but painting realistic subjects as well, eschewing myth and exotic locales. In this he was the forerunner of much of what was soon to come, from the domestic bliss of Mary Cassatt to the stark urban reality of the Ashcan School. In his hometown of Ornans Courbet painted stoneworkers, funeral-goers, and women out for a stroll. In Paris he painted Bohemian café patrons, other artists he met, and simply people on the street. In Normandy, where he met Monet and Whistler, he painted landscapes and seascapes.
And he painted women, clothed and nude. His women were not of the sculpted-figure, smooth-skinned perfection of the Academic paintings. His insistence on realism led to women depicted as they are, sometimes a little overweight, sometimes with blemished skin, always real with their sensuality intact. In the early 1860’s Courbet did a series of increasingly erotic paintings of women, culminating in Le Sommei (Sleep), depicting two sleeping women, their bodies entwined as lovers’ might be, in an erotic embrace, and l’Origin du Monde (Origin of the World), a gynecologist’s-eye view of a vulva which is nearly as shocking today as it was one hundred and fifty years ago. In the hands of revolutionary spirits like Manet and Corbet, the nude became a weapon that helped force European art down from Mount Olympus and into the street and boudoir, where it has flourished.
In the century and a half since then, the nude has grown more abstract. Matisse’s primitive ring of energetic dancers and Picasso’s tortuous Les Demoiselles d’Avignon are examples of this trend. Paul Gaugin’s alfresco nudes were a natural consequence of his focusing his art on the simple life of the Tahitian people. In Duchamp’s Nude Descending Staircase #2 the figure is reduced to the differential calculus of her movement, uncovering a whole new kind of sensuality and beauty in the nude. Some of the brilliant floral works of Georgia O’Keeffe contain echoes of l’Origine du Monde.
Thanks to artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Willem de Kooning, and others, the nude has not surrendered its revolutionary position in modern art.
Many decades ago, on a planet far away, I attended medical school. My professors were learned and serious men. They frequently debated, over stale cafeteria coffee in styrofoam cups, a question which at the time I thought was rather silly. I now realize it represented a struggle for the life or death of the kind of medicine I came to love and try to practice. I fear the wrong side is winning. The question: is medicine a science or an art?
What exactly does this question mean? There is a great deal more subtlety here than first appears. To start, let’s look at the dictionary definitions of the words art and science.
Art (noun): something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings, or the methods and skills used for producing works of art.
Science (noun): the systematic study of the nature and behavior of the material and physical universe, based on observation, experiment, and measurement, and the formulation of laws to describe these facts in general terms.
So art is rooted in interior human qualities: imagination, skill, and aesthetics. The doctor I picture is an avuncular man, perhaps a little overweight, on the threshold of old age, in a slightly rumpled three-piece suit. His experience ranges back to ancient lore, but he keeps up-to-date through the medical journals and continuing education symposia at far-flung universities, to which he likes to travel with his wife. He knows everybody in your family, in your whole town even, and everybody respects and trusts him. His diagnostic skills are largely instinctive but unerring, and his therapeutic skills are encyclopedic, including some effective traditional techniques that today’s young bucks were never taught. You may recognize him from several Norman Rockwell paintings in which he has appeared. Of course he makes house calls. He practices the art of medicine.
Science, on the other hand, arises from the universe at large, working back from specific observations to glean the general principles that determine how things work. I see a man in early middle age, clean-shaven and trim, who moves crisply in a long white lab coat, a stethoscope hanging from his neck. He commutes to his office in your town; he doesn’t know anyone there personally, and nobody really knows him, though he is respected for his training and skills. His diagnostic acumen is fact-based, making extensive use of lab and imaging studies to reinforce his clinical impressions. His therapies have been verified in double-blind studies and are regularly updated to be sure they reflect the latest best practices. You’ve seen him in his pharmaceutical ads on TV. There is no point in his making house calls, since his kind of medicine is dependent on the clinical support services that are available at his office or the hospital, but not at your house. His medicine is a science.
Wait a minute. Those definitions don’t really tell the whole story. Sometimes the line between art and science is more uncertain.
Michel Eugène Chevreul (1786 – 1889) was a French chemist whose work with textiles and dyes led him to think scientifically about color and its perception. He published The Laws of Contrast of Colors, and devised the first color wheel. His ideas were taken up by the renowned neoimpressionist Georges Seurat (1859-1891), who expanded on them in an attempt to produce a comprehensive science of painting, which he called chromoluminarism. Seurat used these principles to paint in a style now known as pointillism, which includes his well-known mural Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte. Is this painting the product of art, or science?
Then there is Albert Einstein (1875-1955), probably the best known scientist of his day, who famously did most of his experiments entirely in his mind, aided only by blackboard or pencil and paper. These grand mental expeditions, which he called gedankenexperimenten (thought experiments), involved no new observations, measurements, or physical experiments by Einstein himself. Such intense interior work produced beautiful ideas “created with imagination and skill” and “that [express] important ideas.” These are supposed to be the hallmarks of art. Einstein’s ideas became the general theory of relativity, the reality of which has been verified many times over by the real-world experiments of others. Is relativity the product of science, or art?
Years ago, when I was a country doc still wet behind the ears, I cared for an aged widow who lived alone at the end of an narrow dirt road. Her husband had died a few years before, and her only son had not returned from Viet Nam. She was very slowly dying of pulmonary fibrosis, a slow but relentless lung disease that was the result a childhood spent in the textile mills. Her mind was clear, and she had learned how to pace herself. She still managed to prepare her own meals and keep her little cottage tidy. I visited her at home once a week after I’d finished my work in the office. She told me how her symptoms were going while I listened to her heart and lungs. That was the routine that allowed the housecall to proceed without embarrassment to to either of us, though strictly speaking it was not medically necessary; nothing ever changed much.
Then the real purpose of the visit began. She brought iced tea from her refrigerator and we sat in two antimacassared wing chairs in her little sitting room to watch The Price is Right or play Parcheesi, which she had played with her son when he was a boy. We watched the birds at the feeder outside the picture window; she knew the names of every one and could mimic their calls with uncanny fidelity. I spent an hour or so with her each week. In the summer, in her faded housecoat and frayed felt slippers, she would follow me out to my car and wave at me as I drove away, bunching her clothes up in front of her chest with her other hand while a few errant grey hairs blew backwards in the wind. There is no billing code for what I did; I never got a dime for it from Medicare. I think it extended her life a bit, though, and I know she was happier for it. That is the art of medicine.
One autumn day she followed me to my car, but before I could get into it she looked suddenly quizzical and made a brief little sound, not unlike the yelp a kitten might make, more startled than pained, when comfortable play gives rise to a painful nip. Then she collapsed, pulseless and unresponsive, onto her threadbare lawn. I was well trained and equipped for this situation. I took the defibrillator from my trunk, ran a strip (v. fib) and defibrillated. She responded to a single shock, and was soon alert again. I slipped an IV into veins like tissue paper and hung the bag of fluid from the mailbox. I gave her a dose of a drug to support her now normal rhythm, and told her to lie still while I went into the house to call the Rescue Squad.
The science of medicine is brisk, efficient, and clear cut, if a little cold. What drives it is success or failure, which can be measured and judged. When metrics are applied this outcome would count as positive, although the widow might not agree.
I remember well what she said as I turned to go: “What the HELL did you do that for?” she yelled after me. It is the only time I ever heard her curse.
I went inside and made the call—the ambulance was rolling. When I got back to her she was lying still. Her eyes were open, but they did not follow me. A few dry leaves had blown up onto the edges of her housecoat where it had spread out carelessly on the struggling grass, in front of the little cottage on the edge of the woods where she had come as a bride; where she had raised a son who, right out of high school, had given his life for his country; where she had held the hand of the husband who had shared her sorrow as he too slipped away from her after fifty years together, for better or for worse. A few minutes ago she had died there peacefully, only to be wrenched back into a world she was weary of by a doctor who was not yet born on her wedding day, and who was only now just beginning to understand the wisdom his patients brought to his practice, which would form the foundation on which he would build his ever changing understanding of the art of medicine.
While I was in her kitchen making the call, she had died again. Her final act had been to pull the IV line from her arm; its life-sustaining fluid was now making a dark, slowly growing stain as it seeped into the parched October soil on which she lay. I made no further effort to revive her.
The art of medicine is rich and warm or cold as ice, and always rife with ambiguities. It is filled with triumph and with pain, which are unsuitable subjects for measurement and analysis.
A contemporary of Einstein’s, Werner Karl Heisenberg (1901 – 1976), noticed, while observing subatomic particles, that if their velocities were measured precisely then their positions appeared indistinct, but if their positions were closely measured, their velocities became fuzzy. Heisenberg posited that this was not because of a shortcoming of the observational technique, but a fundamental property of the universe itself. Heisenberg offered no direct proof for this interpretation of his principle, and expressed the idea only informally and intuitively, though with mathematical precision. Science, or art? Whichever it is, his Uncertainty Principle it is now a key stone in the foundation of modern quantum mechanics.
Perhaps medicine is like this, a fundamental entity having art and science as complementary variables. The harder you look at the art of medicine, the softer the science looks. The closer you examine the science of medicine, the more the art recedes. Uncertainty is a property inherent in the nature of medicine itself. (Alert: This is a metaphor–art, not science–but you can see how they get mixed up.)
For lots of us, technology serves as a proxy for science. Science is an active pursuit, requiring the expenditure of considerable mental effort–something many are reluctant to do. Technology, on the other hand, can be passively received, as Stephen Jobs so ably demonstrated. Today we want the latest technology front and center in our healthcare, like nuclear magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography. (Positrons? Really? Isn’t that antimatter? The stuff that fuels the Starship Enterprise? Cool! I want that.) We want our doctors to use “evidence-based” diagnostic and therapeutic tools and techniques. I believe medicine has always striven to do this, but now “evidence” is narrowly defined (by people far smarter than we are) as statistical data derived from large-scale double-blinded crossover studies that have been subjected to peer review. (Except, of course, for the proprietary bits that the pharmaceutical companies sponsoring the research must withhold as industrial secrets to protect their market positions.) A doctor’s personal experience, accumulated over a lifetime of practice, observation and personal growth, no longer counts for much. Such twaddle, unseemly for the distinguished scientists we aspire to become, is left to artists (who, without our fresh enlightenment, don’t know any better).
We patients (reborn now as “consumers”) check the internet to see how our doctors (excuse me, “providers”) measure up against dispassionate “performance-based” scientific metrics applied by our insurance companies, or the looser, more passionate metrics from those “Rate Your Doctor” websites or Angie’s List. While observing our doctors in such an intensely measured, highly analytical, fiercely statistical manner, we look over our shoulders wondering where the old guy with the reassuring bedside manner and old time smarts has gone.
Even as I look elsewhere for my art, I feel behind me the presence of the zombie that is all that remains of that other art I fell in love with in my youth, now lumbering soullessly toward a gray uniform mediocrity foretold by Delphic statisticians in cubicles across this nation, a nation held captive by the data miners and big-number technology that are consuming so much we once held dear, all in the name of political power and commercial gain.
Goodbye, old friend.
Theodore Roosevelt was a mass of contradictions. A sickly child, through sheer willpower he lived a robustly masculine, strenuous life, participating in all manner of sports and exploring darkest Africa and the headwaters of the Amazon River. Heir to a portion of a huge fortune amassed by his merchant and businessman grandfather, he became a champion for a “Square Deal” for the common man. A big game hunter on four continents, he was the most influential conservationist of the twentieth century, and the story (probably apocryphal) of his act of mercy toward a bear cub launched generations of Teddy Bears. Known to history as a “trust buster”, he was also a champion of those big corporations that acted fairly and honestly with people and society, which he believed deserved the same “Square Deal” as the common man who acted honorably. In fact, most of his campaign funding came from big corporations, whose capital and innovation he recognized as the wellspring of American greatness. It was not the trusts he was busting, but the evil perpetrated by a handful of them: “A vote is like a rifle: its usefulness depends upon the character of the user.” The same was true of capital.
Born and bred in New York City, he made himself into a cowboy in North Dakota, riding the Badlands for weeks at a time with his herd and sleeping under the desert stars. There he also became a frontier lawman; while hunting a gang of horse thieves he joined forces with Sam Bullock, the legendary sheriff of Deadwood, who became a lifelong friend. Roosevelt later became president of the New York City Police Commission, where he routed out corruption and replaced a system of political spoils appointments to one of merit promotions. His hands-on management of the police department led to unannounced nighttime tours of the seedy tenements of New York in the company of socially aware journalists like Jacob Riis and Lincoln Steffens. Already a best-selling author himself, Roosevelt won the respect of the reform-minded press, creating an alliance which served both sides well throughout Roosevelt’s career. He provided space within the White House where reporters could work, setting the stage for the White House Press Corps. His close association with journalist Joseph Bucklin Bishop looks suspiciously like what we today call the office of Press Secretary.
Pugnacious by nature, he was well known for his role as colonel of the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. As president, he built a navy, the Great White Fleet, and sailed it around the world to highlight American military power at a time when British hegemony was beginning to ebb. He lobbied hard for the entry of the US into World War I. Nonetheless he managed to keep the nation out of war during his two-term presidency, despite growing civil unrest in Europe and South America. He supported a bloodless coup in Panama that cleared the political path to the Panama Canal. He brokered a treaty that ended the bloody Russo-Japanese war, a feat for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize. He has said, “Don’t hit at all if it is honorably possible to avoid hitting; but never hit soft!” Perhaps the best known of his many popular aphorisms is a summation of his military philosophy: “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”
A voracious reader, he was also a hugely popular author who wrote on a vast array of subjects: history, biography, nature books and field guides, criticism, memoirs. He published 35 books, innumerable magazine articles, over 135 letters which have been anthologized, and countless political speeches. In addition to his “carry a big stick” remark, he introduced many familiar words and phrases into the American lexicon, among them mollycoddle, pussyfoot, muckraker, and bully pulpit. All these entered American idiom through his speeches or writings. When asked if he would run for president in 1912 he famously replied “My hat is in the ring, the fight’s on!” Even his conversational speech could be colorful: in an interview he once described his diplomatic dealings with Colombia prior to the Panama canal treaty as being like trying to nail cranberry jelly to the wall.
His achievements are legion. At 42, he remains the youngest man ever to have served as US president. (JFK, the runner up, is the youngest to be elected president, at 43. As vice president, TR became president upon the assassination of William McKinley; when he took office in 1905 after his actual election to the office, he was 46.) The Panama Canal owes its existence to him; he became the first sitting American President to leave the U.S. when he went on an inspection tour of the Canal. He was the first president to appoint a Jew to a cabinet post (Oscar Solomon Straus, Secretary of Commerce and Labor), and the first to invite a black man (Booker T. Washington) to the White House as a peer. As a natural scientist he was without equal in his day, establishing the National Park system and the National Forest. Through his expeditions to Africa and Amazonia he made major contributions to the specimen collections of the American Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of Natural History (part of the Smithsonian). He was instrumental in replacing the spoils system of Andrew Jackson that then permeated government with the merit-based Civil Service system in use today. He established the Food and Drug Administration that oversees the purity and safely of those things, and cosmetics as well. His urging changed the rules of American college football to cut back on its violence, eliminating dangerous mass formations like the flying wedge, creating the line of scrimmage, and legalizing the forward pass. He increased the power of the federal government, and concentrated that power in the office of the President.
Roosevelt was not a fan of modern art. In his review in Outlook magazine of the ground-breaking International Exhibition of Modern Art (The Armory Show) in 1913 he wrote: “The Cubists are entitled to the serious attention of all who find enjoyment in the colored puzzle pictures of the Sunday newspapers. Of course there is no reason for choosing the cube as a symbol, except that it is probably less fitted than any other mathematical expression for any but the most formal decorative art. There is no reason why people should not call themselves Cubists, or Octagonists, or Parallelopipedonists, or Knights of the Isosceles Triangle, or Brothers of the Cosine, if they so desire; as expressing anything serious and permanent, one term is as fatuous as another.” Even here, though, his fanatic nationalism showed through. The same things that he scoffed at in the Europeans he paradoxically admired in the Americans: “In some ways it is the work of the American painters and sculptors which is of most interest in this collection, and a glance at this work must convince any one of the real good that is coming out of the new movements, fantastic though many of the developments of these new movements are.“
Above all, he was a man of decisive action:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The next best thing is the wrong thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.”
Theodore Roosevelt,“The Man in the Arena: Citizenship in a Republic”
When Theodore Roosevelt threw his hat into the ring, it was not so much a hat as a haberdashery:
“They don’t hold White House lunches the way they used to at the beginning of the century. On Jan. 1, 1907, for example, the guest list was as follows: a Nobel prizewinner, a physical culturalist, a naval historian, a biographer, an essayist, a paleontologist, a taxidermist, an ornithologist, a field naturalist, a conservationist, a big-game hunter, an editor, a critic, a ranchman, an orator, a country squire, a civil service reformer, a socialite, a patron of the arts, a colonel of the cavalry, a former Governor of New York, the ranking expert on big-game mammals in North America and the President of the U.S.
All these men were named Theodore Roosevelt.”
Edmund Morris, Roosevelt biographer (http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,988150,00.html)