“Sexy” Venus uncensored

venus2.jpgTransport for London (TfL) made a very ludicrous decision a couple of days ago by banning this image of Venus.

The Royal Academy have organised an exhibition of the artist Lucas Cranach the Elder (c.1472–1553) next month (he was part of the Dürer generation).

The reason for the ban is due to a tube guideline against depicting “men, women or children in a sexual manner, or display nude or semi-nude figures in an overtly sexual context”.

Thankfully, TfL have seen the error of their ways after being put under pressure and the image of Venus will be now used on the underground to advertise the exhibition.

“On reflection, given its context, the Cranach exhibition poster should not have been rejected and we have now approved the ad to be carried on the tube.”

TfL claim they were thinking of the commuters who may be offended by this work of art. Instead of letting the viewer make up his/her mind, TfL made the decision for us by deeming it too shocking to display. Surely it shouldn’t be about averting our eyes in shock and indignation but more of focusing our gaze on the image, giving us the chance to make up our minds rather than TfL? The TfL guidelines lack perspective and context.

Art is a broad spectrum as it can be troublesome, in-your-face, mediocre, shocking and indeed can push the boundaries. It is subjective, based on  tastes, dislikes and artistic licence. The fact that a 500 year painting can evoke consternation reveals an element of prudery and fear of nudity.

And the fact that Venus was part of this bureaucratic decision making process that doesn’t relate to the meaning of the painting. What Venus does represent is Cranach’s interpretation of the female nude (something to be celebrated as opposed to banned!) and that shows his understanding (or lack of) of female anatomy. There is an implicit beauty in his painting.

It is a very simple primitive medieval construct of a naked woman, who is coquettishly draping a piece of transparent fabric across her body. Her breasts small, she has a stomach, curvaceous hips but her body is out of proportion. Her stylised face emphasises her smile (kinda “come hither smile”). The aesthetics are evenly balanced, the background contrasts nicely with the flesh tones of her body. Overall the painting is of a sexual woman comfortable in her own skin. Again, this is a 21st century interpretation of a 16th century piece of art.

The composition also seems to hark back an earlier classical time as Venus looks like a painting of a statue. Cranach’s interpretation of the goddess of love is a straightforward simple composition in contrast to the more lavish painting by Botticelli.

Cranach was part of the reformation period and the transition in art was noticeable (differences between Germany and Italy) for that period yet he seems wedded in a more medieval time.

If TfL had succeeded in their attempt to ban this picture due to their prosaic guidelines on “sexualised nudity” then we wouldn’t be able to engage with the meaning of the picture or just being able to simply look at it.

Contradictorily, society is saturated with sexualised advertising images yet, I suppose, the use of sex for marketing is a form of worship at the altar of capitalism. The commodification of sex  in the cause of making money is more acceptable than viewing a painting from the distant past.

52 comments on ““Sexy” Venus uncensored

  1. “It is a very simple primitive medieval construct of a naked woman, who is coquettishly draping a piece of transparent fabric across her body. Her breasts small, she has a stomach, curvaceous hips but her body is out of proportion. Her stylised face emphasises her smile (kinda “come hither smile”). The aesthetics are evenly balanced, the background contrasts nicely with the flesh tones of her body. Overall the painting is of a sexual woman comfortable in her own skin.”

    Take out the word ‘medieval’ and you could be describing a picture in a porn magazine. Does that not worry you? Just because a piece of ‘art’ is 500 years old does not mean it is not exploitative. In 500 years time the art critics of the future may spend hours debating the artistic value of the front pages of ‘NUTS’ magazine.
    You are treading a dangerous path by referring to those who oppose sexualised images of women, on the grounds that they are a key part of womens’ oppression, as prudish.

    “Surely it shouldn’t be about averting our eyes in shock and indignation but more of focusing our gaze on the image, giving us the chance to make up our minds rather than TfL?”

    Would you say that about ANY image?

    The most interesting thing about this post is that the tube actually have a guideline against sexual images. All institutions should have a similar policy.

  2. Well, Prude (somehow don’t think that is short for Prudence..)

    Do I feel oppressed looking at Venus? Er, no, actually I don’t!

    LU banned an image from the front page of Gay Times ‘cos it was deemed that one of the men was in an “unecessary state of undress”… Now what should be made of that. For me there is a real stench of homophobia….

    Now who exactly is making the decisions to allow what we can and can’t see? I mean, for gawd sake, it is a painting depicting Venus… If we gonna start banning images that supposedly oppress women then the major art galleries would be near empty. Would we also remove violent depictions? Ditto…near half empty galleries..

    Where do we stop? What else do we want to censor..? It has the potential to degenerate into banning anything we don’t like.

  3. Pete Brown on said:

    Louise – as you said in an interesting article art is subjective. So in your response to
    Prude you say “It has the potential to degenerate into banning anything we don’t like”
    But that’s exactly it – subjectivity.

    (I don’t understand Prude’s point about the use of the word medieval whether it’s there or not makes no difference to her/his interpretation)

    Pete

  4. Adamski on said:

    Louise you should read marxist art critic John Berger on the sexual and class politics of the nude.

  5. Thanks Pete, I agree with you.

    Funnily enough, Adamski, I have read Berger on the nude. What are you trying to say btw re your reference to Berger?

  6. jonathon fast on said:

    Why don’t we introduce Sharia law in the UK? Then we could allow the image, but only after we cover it up with a burka. Let’s remember, that solution worked quite adequately in Afghanistan under the Taliban. On the other hand, this might be impossible, since Islam bans all images of the human form, clothed or not. But, of course, the solution is simple: just introduce legislation to force ALL women to dress “modesty” as defined by Islamic scholars. And also ban ALL images of the human form, pornographic or otherwise? Anyone who opposes this modest proposal in the name of “secularism” is clearly an Islamophobic bastard.

  7. Adamski on said:

    John Berger “To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object to become a nude.”

    As objects women are passive and available. When they are pictured this way their oppression is reaffirmed as natural and therefore unchangeable.

  8. art lover on said:

    ‘Her breasts small, she has a stomach, curvaceous hips but her body is out of proportion.’ But not quite as out of proportion as this site seems to render her, anyone who’s not familiar with the picture needs to click on the image and view it out of the frames to see what Cranach painted.

  9. Louise, isn’t there a part of “Adamski’s” point that has purchase?

    Why, for example, didn’t the gallery choose, “Judith with the head of Holofernes” as their advertorial centrepiece?

    Just because it’s the Royal Academy, doesn’t do much for me in terms of immunising them from cash campaigning.

    Not wanting to sound “prud”-ish, nor wanting to grant ground to religious conservatives etc., I think it’s great that socialists should have something to say about “Art History”. TfL’s position is probably closer to a poll at The Antiques Roadshow than defending against women’s oppression. But we do have to be critical of both sides in this – again without giving ground to the conservatives.

  10. prianikoff on said:

    While this painting was probably for the private titillation of an aristocratic owner, there’s nothing inherent in an image which makes it exploitative or pornographic.
    That’s arises from the social relationship in which the image exists, not the image itself.
    It’s a sign of social progress that it can be displayed in public nowadays and people can take it or leave it.
    Joan Smith got it about right in the “Independent” today:
    “Many of us don’t like the coarse attitudes to women and sex that have invaded contemporary culture. We don’t like the way Premiership footballers behave at parties, the huge commercial sex industry or the fact that about 11 per cent of the male population use women who work as prostitutes. But that’s an argument against sexual exploitation, not against celebrating the human body. Fig leaves and their modern equivalents are always products of fear, not respect for women.”

    Mind you, I think Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, which examines “La piccola Morte”, says a bit more about the nature of sexuality and its been on display on the Underground for a long time.
    Good thing Savanarola didn’t consign it to the “Bonfire of the Vanities”

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7d/Venus_and_Mars.jpg

  11. BPS: Yes, “Judith with the head of Holofernes” could have been used as it is a very striking painting but equally that painting could be well described as violence, would that have been acceptable for TfL? Violence as opposed to nudity? This is an interesting debate……

    The arguments are bound up with the issues of censorship, women’s oppression, nudity that need to be unpicked carefully but why such controversy around the female nude in the picture? Yes, there was probably undoutedly an element of profit to be made, but equally can there be an argument that, as Joan Smith IMHO correctly identifies, “Fig leaves and their modern equivalents are always products of fear, not respect for women.”

  12. “To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object to become a nude.”

    Therefore using Berger’s logic, women are objectified once they are nude with the man in the powerful role as the gazer. Yet……is it that simple? It this statement by Berger too sweeping with little hope of any shift or changes in the nature of society? Yes, art replicates the dominant patriarchal norms in society and under capitalism the process of commodification.

    Yes, the Cranach painting is a male interpretation of a woman’s sexuality but can we readily apply the logic Berger to a 16th century painter? Equally, is it wrong to find the picture aesthetically pleasing?

    Many woman artists have indeed subverted the usual norms of the female nude during the last 40 years. Hannah Wilke, in her self-portrait Starification Object Series where she depicts herself in a stereotypical pose of a stripper at the same time she is stripping herself bare. She is exposing the contradictions of femininity but at the same time she is turning herself into a object. Is this her own critique of the contradictions of femininity or is she perpetuating her own oppression?

    Another artist who subverted the norms of the nude was socialist feminist Jo Spence. Her self-portraits are powerful interpretations of reclaiming the female nude, also coupled with the fact that Spence was diagnosed with breast cancer during the 1980s (she died in the early 1990s). Her photography isn’t stylised, it is raw, realistic and powerful. One of her works include highlighting the objectification of breasts by writing on one of her breasts, “property of Jo Spence”.. This can also be interpreted as political statement for women being able to reclaim their own bodies….

    Many of the responses on this thread have been censorious with the belief of exposing women’s oppression. Yet can’t we find a painting aesthetically pleasing without the need to berate ourselves? There is still sensitivity about the female nude in any political context.

    I am inclined towards the the more muscular and visceral paintings of Caravaggio that have a violent content. Can that be deemed acceptable while nudity is seen as objectionable?

    Here’s the link to the Joan Smith piece http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/joan-smith/joan-smith-venus-is-the-difference-between-nudity-and-porn-783278.html

    Here is also a link to Cranach’s painting Judith with the Head of Holofernes http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/nman/ho_11.15.htm

  13. Prianikoff – I like what Joan Smith writes but there’s another side to this story that the liberal press won’t ‘press’.

    I totally buy the assertion that there’s nothing *inherent* in an image making it exploitative or pornographic. But there *are* images that I don’t want to see used and displayed to legitimise a rotten social relationship without being able to criticise both the image and the context.

    You can bet your bottom dollar that it was the advertising agency, commissioned by the bosses of the RA, who “chose” this particular example of the ‘ouevre’. Not the show’s catalogue writing team or author. My question is why *this* one?

    Because it’s a ‘celebration of the human body’?

    Where then is the track record of “celebration” of other bodies, black ones, gay ones, lesbian ones, wasted ones, imprisioned ones, tortured ones, bombed ones…

    I know I run the risk of sounding like an unreconstructed Mary Whitehouse, but we do have to chew gum and walk when touring the galleries. And I think socialists want everyone to “see” more, while having the right to set the context.

  14. The real issue here is how sexualised images of women serve to further womens’ oppression, not about censorship. Censorship is not necessarily the way forward, as it is the state that decides what, when and where things are banned. I find it incredible though that socialists on this website immediately rally to the call of the liberals at the first sniff of censorship (“its only a picture, its art, YOU CANT BAN ART!!!”), rather than opposing sexualised images of women as their starting point. I will not bother to go into the arguments around womens’ oppression and porn as it has been done on this site before and has been unproductive, a bit like most of the discussion on here.

    (medieval as opposed to contemporary pornography)

  15. 1. There is actually a reason for the tube guideline, which is that unlike TV, press and indeed exhibitions, you can’t easily avoid ads on the tube. People should have the choice about seeing (or not) such images

    And I think the picture is guilty as charged, no matter how old it is!

    (The reason for the ban is due to a tube guideline against depicting “men, women or children in a sexual manner, or display nude or semi-nude figures in an overtly sexual context”.)

  16. Given that the whole tube system is plastered with various adverts using sexy pictures of women (although clothed) to sell stuff, then a rather tame old picture of a naked woman advertising an srt exhibition seems an odd subject for tfL to ban.

    Surely, the cover girl shots on the magazines and bill-boards are in fact more oppressive to women than this picture?

  17. prianikoff on said:

    #17 “Why this one”

    For it’s advertising potential, no doubt.
    I’m not suggesting that capitalist social relations are going to produce liberated art. ( I read John Berger before I ever read Socialist Worker!)

    But the relationship between advertiser and audience isn’t the same issue as the public display of the nude body.
    Which shouldn’t be subject to state or religious censorship.
    I can’t believe how some of the Respect(R) types are now chipping in to support censoring this image and had absolutely nothing to say on Abortion rights!
    This reminds me of the Haredi Jews in Jerusalem who tear down advertising posters of girls in bikinis and are now segregating buses on gender grounds!

    Spend a few hours in the Capitoline Museum in Rome and you’ll realise that classical male nudes got the fig-leaf treatment most of all.
    There also the ‘Artemesia Gentileschi’ question: the historic underepresenation of female artists. Which certainly skews perceptions.

    Liberation is when you can walk for hours in beautiful mountain scenery on a hot day, find a cool lake, taking your clothes off and dive in, or skinny dipping in a river on a hot night. Both of which I’ve done in a mixed group, with no sexual implications whatsoever.

  18. 20. But Andy, isn’t that the whole point.

    This particular picture was probably chosen by the ad agency because of it’s correspondence to cover girl ads, not because it somehow stands above them. In a, “look how cute it is that you can see her breasts, and it’s hundreds of years old and she’s an odd shape etc. etc.” snickering kind of way.

    Of course I wouldn’t call for the TfL to ban it – they are accountable to no one it seems, and even if they were ‘accountable’ I’d have even deeper objections to any state sponsored banning of images outright.

    I think we’re off on a tangential track. Louise is right to highlight the reversal of the decision and the grounds it was originally taken on. Subsequent posts seem to want to discuss a more general theme about the graphic construction of “identity”.

    Just because the image is “tame and old” doesn’t convince me to drop my suspicions about its use. Very interesting thread, I haven’t see, yet, how “prude” can disentangle “opposition” from censorship but look forward to hearing more…

  19. Prianikoff, let me restate: I am not for censorship by Transport for London of this, or for that matter most, images. I say most, because I can foresee a time where I probably would call for a ban of imagery rendered by the BNP on the tube or bus.

    I’m sensitive to the fact, however, that the Royal Academy and the BNP are not the same thing.

    On skinny dipping, you wrote: “Both of which I’ve done in a mixed group, with no sexual implications whatsoever.”

    To which I’m sure you won’t mind me asking, what’s wrong with sexual implications?

    My more general point here, and I know I’m not doing a very good job of making it, is that there isn’t a sphere, realm or authority “above” capitalist social relations. We are bound to fight for our ideas *within* them, and tracing both the hypocrisy of TfL AND the RA’s ad campaign is a good place to engage.

  20. BPS: “In a, “look how cute it is that you can see her breasts, and it’s hundreds of years old and she’s an odd shape etc. etc.snickering kind of way”.

    But that’s all pure guess work, isn’t it? How do you know what was discussed? Maybe so, maybe not, who knows! So
    Judith with the Head of Holofernes would be acceptable even though it depicts violence? Would that be ok as opposed to a nude?

    But also this picture can represent a historical and political shift in art. It’s part of the reformation period and how Cranach perceived the human body. This also highlights the difference in artistic approach in German and Italy. Also, we are looking at a time that started to explore sex and sexuality.

    It seems that people want to apply a 21st century “bum and tits” interpretation of this painting.

  21. Louise, please understand that I’m not in the politically correct “intentionalist” wing of Art History. You’re right that I do not know the content of the debate at the RA’s advertising firm – I am being cynical, ’tis true.

    But, if I put my cynicism aside for a mo’, then I’d still want to criticise their choice of image in much the same way as I would criticise the Archbishop of Canterbury’s *choice* of words and timing on the Sharia law question.

    In other words, all of what you say about the importance of understanding this period of art history can be true and *should* be available to us, but, given the context, which they’re (the RA) aware of and sensitive to, these ideas are lost.

    To your question about violence vs. nudity, I’d answer yes to it being ok. As mentioned above, I’m not for censorship by the TfL in this case. In fact if there were more horrifying images of the results of war and famine it’d be helpful in turning toward progress.

    Just as if there were more images of *sex* in all its forms we’d be in a better place to discuss and, ahem, enjoy them.

    But, we’re operating in “circumstances not of our own choosing”, so I think we have to both stamp on the right wing “censors” and illustrate why some images are more appropriate than others.

    Thanks for this post, it is very interesting.

  22. Unashamedly, the painting does stir feelings within me that are artistic appreciation and sensual. Should I be ashamed?.

  23. lyrical witch-hunter on said:

    Louise said: Judith with the Head of Holofernes would be acceptable even though it depicts violence? Would that be ok as opposed to a nude?

    “Acceptable”? Are you joking, sistah? That’s my all-time favourite painting you’re talking about. Ditch the nude – Judith in every carriage, please.

    Louise, you’re a good photographer, aren’t you? Think you could re-enact Judith and Holofernes as Miaow and Hollow-man-Rees? You set up the lighting, I’ll bring the bucket.

  24. lyrical witch-hunter on said:

    ianu (#27) said: Unashamedly, the painting does stir feelings within me that are artistic appreciation and sensual. Should I be ashamed?.

    Oh … mmm … ah … I’m so, so with you here, ianu. You are talking about Judith and Holofernes, yes?

    But we’re spoilt for choice. Mantegna, Donatello, Giorgione, Cranach the Elder through to Klimt.

    But for my money:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Judith_Beheading_Holofernes_by_Caravaggio.jpg

  25. “lyrical”, I’m all on board for the Caravaggio in the carriages.

    If Louise and Madam M. were to cooperate on a re-shoot then I’d proffer the following caption:

    Judith: Are you sure this is Rees, it looks a helluva lot like Andy Newman to me?”
    Servant (photoshopp’d with a mug of johng): “Yes, yes it’s Rees, get on with it girl!”

  26. prianikoff on said:

    “..what’s wrong with sexual implications?”

    Nothing. But those implications can be destrucive of social cohesion.
    You also need to be able to walk away.

  27. On skinny dipping, you wrote: “Both of which I’ve done in a mixed group, with no sexual implications whatsoever.”

    To which I’m sure you won’t mind me asking, what’s wrong with sexual implications?

    Well, not everyone’s going to buy into “hey, let’s all put our bodies on display to actual and potential sexual partners, but in a friendly and mutually supportive way!” “Let’s all strip off to go swimming and it doesn’t mean anything like that” might be a bit self-deceiving, but it’s also safer.

  28. Prianikoff, Phil, I heartily [and pragmatically] agree on the skinny dipping issue.

    My point about “sexual implications” was that socialist responses to sexism can all to often [and are] characterised as prudishness of the religious type.

    On the “sexual implications” potentially being destructive of social cohesion I simply don’t follow. You’ll have to explain to me what you’re getting at here Prianikoff.

    Phil, I was not supporting a Hugh Heffner orientation on sexuality, if that’s what you’re concerned about.

  29. prianikoff on said:

    “…a bit self-deceiving”

    Spontaneity doesn’t really allow time for such calculations.
    Nudity can be a very puritanical and asexual thing in a group setting.
    In such circumstances, it’s definitely not synomymous with sex.

  30. BPS: “On the “sexual implications” potentially being destructive of social cohesion I simply don’t follow. ”

    I think Prianikoff means that of a group of people go swimming naked, then if it is overtly sexual then that will have a potentially disastrous impact on the network of friendships in the group.

    BUt i might be wrong.

  31. Prianikoff is *that* what you meant? re Andy’s point above.

    If so then I couldn’t possibly disagree, save to say that the potentially disastrous impact is tied into how we’re made to relate to one another by an historically specific and opaque set of values.

    There you go. I’ve brushed myself with Mary Whitehouse and Hugh Heffner in the same thread.

    It is what I love about this blog. And it’s also getting very late. I think I should quit now while the quitting’s good.

  32. prianikoff on said:

    “sexual implications” potentially being destructive of social cohesion”

    Sexual resonses should be determined by reciprocal relationships between people, not Pavlovian responses to images.
    It’s healthier to be able to deal with that issue than for people to be prisoners of the image.

  33. prianikoff on said:

    #37 No, you’re absolutely right. And it didn’t happen. The couple who were in a relationship, continued in it. No one who wasn’t entered into one simply as a result of the event.

  34. prianikoff on said:

    I’m definitely quitting while I’m making sense.
    I’ve had half a bottle of 2003 Corbieres.
    First plonk in about 3 months!
    That was the year of the European Heatwave, so the alchohol content must be well above average. I’ll put it down to celebrating NRock being nationalised.

  35. OK, sorry, one last go.

    Prianikoff, surely the issue is that we live in a world where the image *is* a carrier of all sorts of crappy ideological content. Wishing that away won’t change the terms of *this* debate.

    I still suspect that the RA’s ad agency choice of this image was based on T&A “metrics”. Sexism, not a committment to widening and deepening access to art historical debates, I have to believe given its (the RA’s) record were far more active in the decision regarding which painting to promote.

    Is the TfL “decency” squad deciding based on an anti-sexist, pro-women agenda. Of course not. Another strand of backward ideas about the nature of decency is at work – one which socialists shouldn’t have any truck with.

    Does this entail support for the the priorities of Penthouse as the way forward? No, again.

    I hope that’s clarified my personal view.

  36. lyrical witch-hunter on said:

    priapikoff (#41) said: No, you’re absolutely right. And it didn’t happen. The couple who were in a relationship, continued in it. No one who wasn’t entered into one simply as a result of the event.

    No, you’re not making a whole lot of sense, sweetie. Get it over with. Heaven in a Kleenex.

    Tilt the fools’ tallywhackers to the left … Eh, Brigadier?

  37. It’s late. We’re all getting pissed. Nowhere to let off steam ‘cept at Andy’s.

    Now look what that bally picture’s gone and done. Well done tfl!!!!! Hope you’re proud of yourselves!!!!!!

  38. It seem that there is a sinister sect called “Catholics” who have the Book of Judith in their version of the bible.
    http://www.eskimo.com/~lhowell/bcp1662/apocrypha/judith.html

    Surely anyone having a book like this must be an al qaeda sympathiser and a terrorist?

    Read for yourself. Tilt the fool’s head …

    32 Then said Judith unto them, Hear me, and I will do a thing, which shall go throughout all generations to the children of our nation.
    33 Ye shall stand this night in the gate, and I will go forth with my waitingwoman: and within the days that ye have promised to deliver the city to our enemies the Lord will visit Israel by mine hand.
    34 But enquire not ye of mine act: for I will not declare it unto you, till the things be finished that I do.

    4 So all went forth and none was left in the bedchamber, neither little nor great. Then Judith, standing by his bed, said in her heart, O Lord God of all power, look at this present upon the works of mine hands for the exaltation of Jerusalem.
    5 For now is the time to help thine inheritance, and to execute thine enterprizes to the destruction of the enemies which are risen against us.
    6 Then she came to the pillar of the bed, which was at Holofernes’ head, and took down his fauchion from thence,
    7 And approached to his bed, and took hold of the hair of his head, and said, Strengthen me, O Lord God of Israel, this day.
    8 And she smote twice upon his neck with all her might, and she took away his head from him.
    9 And tumbled his body down from the bed, and pulled down the canopy from the pillars; and anon after she went forth, and gave Holofernes his head to her maid;

  39. lyrical witch-hunter on said:

    Priapikoff (#47) said: … “Witchunter” Objectively, you behave like a racist and fascist.

    Mmm … posted at 08:37 too. Did you sleep in a little after last night’s excitement?

    Such a salty little comment, though. I should print it out and frame it. I think it’s the “objectively” at the start that does it for me: charmingly unhinged, yet ever so manly.

    But sorry – despite all your flattery, I can’t be your girlfriend. I’m already taken.

  40. Stirring the pot on said:

    “They were nude but they were not ashamed” Furthermore, because God created it, “The human body can remain nude and uncovered and preserve its splendour and its beauty”

    -Pope John Paul II
    Quoting from Genesis

    “If we were meant to be nude, we would be born that way”
    -Old folk saying-

    This video will help stir the pot

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BUBFUaj_GA0