Is this painting obscene?

July 15, 2011 | By | 3 Replies More

I’m in London on vacation, enjoying many of the museums, including London’s National Gallery.   Today I spotted the following painting, which is part of the National Gallery’s collection:

This is a painting by Palma Vecchio (painted around 1520).  The art gallery is open to all ages, including small children, and there were plenty of young children in the vicinity of this painting today.  The description next to this painting announces that the woman displays a “sensuous beauty” characteristic of Roman courtesans.

Frankly, I find the woman in Vecchio’s painting to be quite fetching, and I find the painting itself to be most excellent. To my eye, it is not in the least obscene.  But seeing it today made me think of Janet Jackson’s “nipple” incident at the Superbowl XXXVIII.  What an incident that was, ending up with a fine of more than 1/2 million dollars for the TV network, and America ending all up bent out of shape because somehow . . . somehow . . . the sight of Ms. Jackson’s nipple harmed children.   I strongly disagree with the attitude that the naked human body should be seen as perverse.  I have never seen any evidence that any child has ever been harmed by seeing a nipple; I’ve never seen any scientific evidence suggesting that it is harmful to view a nipple, despite millions of protests to the contrary (As to why so many Americans are so terrified about the public viewing of female nipples, I have a theory).

Seeing this painting reminded me of  Dan Dennett’s comment that people in American don’t believe in God, but they believe in belief.    Likewise, we don’t really believe that children are harmed by mere nakedness, but we believe in the belief that children are harmed by mere nakedness.

If we  Americans really believed that mere images of nakedness and sexuality harmed children, we’d pass a law to remove quite a bit of art from our own museums, and we’d also take down quite a  bit of our suggestive advertisements currently on billboards and storefronts.

It’s incidents like Jackson’s that make me think that we Americans are not even capable of having meaningful conversations anymore, unless the topic is sports, TV, movies, or consumer electronics. On important issues we’d rather yell at each other in tribal ways.

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Category: American Culture, Art, Human animals, hypocrisy

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. I think our attitudes towards nudity reflect an even broader pattern in our American system of laws and morals: the prohibition that is expected to be trespassed. We make rules and laws that are overly strict, because we expect people to break them. It has the unintended consequence, however, of making all rules seem arbitrary.

  2. Mike M. says:

    Only a very sick and twisted person would consider that painting (or any human nipple) to be obscene. Obscenity only exists in the minds of the perceivers – it's a personal psychological reaction. Obscenity does not exist as an observable, testable space-time reality. It is always "in there" and never findable "out there" in the world at large. It takes quite a robust sex-negative cognitive imprint to view the naked human as dirty or perverse. There is also a deep self-hatred imbedded in such thinking, and I suspect it ties directly into the false doctrines of the Judeo-Christian-Moslem mythos. Within those religions you will find pervasive, skewed ideologies of human's fallen and utterly depraved nature, along with unhealthy servings of blatant hatred for the female gender in particular.

  3. Karl says:

    Hope she doesn't plan on flaunting that foot of hers.

    http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/3701059

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