Hansen: Nude art exposes Laguna

I had Playboy. My boys have Laguna Beach art.

It's OK. It relieves me of my fatherly duties, which, let's face it, are sometimes painfully awkward. Besides, my boys cringe whenever I play dad anyway.

Like Saturday night and the opening of the Pageant of the Masters. They hate it when I don't tell them where we are going. When I say it's a "surprise," they know it's going to be "some stupid art thing."

"But it will have naked women," I said, trying to find parking. They mumbled something from the back seat, then chuckled.

Walking around the Festival of the Arts, killing time before the show, I tried spying displays that I knew would appeal to them. I wondered if they were the same things that appeal to me.

With nude art, the trick with boys is timing and location. In other words, if it's too formal and quiet — like in the Laguna Art Museum with a lot of "old people" around — no way. They will stand stiffly and give me "the look."

However, if they have room to breathe and talk among themselves, then they might stick around longer.

It's like my fort with the Playboys. Men need caves.

But more importantly, cities need nude art. It gives people something to argue about. And we know exactly who is on one side and who is on the other.

They are the same sides that were around when Michelangelo created the "Tomb of Giuliano de Medici," which is re-created at the Pageant. In Michelangelo's day, there were people with pursed lips and strange bonnets; they took rules way too seriously. On the other side, there were suspiciously single cafe dwellers who read and drank too much.

These same people were around at the turn of the 20th century in America when Henri Matisse's "Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra," was burned in effigy at the Art Institute of Chicago. Not only that, all nude statues were removed or dismantled at the Institute because of public pressure.

And if the nude statutes at the Laguna College of Art & Design are ever banned, by the way, I want the second woman on the left. Called it.

What is happening in Laguna — and I saw it at the Pageant — is a subtle watering down of nude art. It's as if we are self-censoring ourselves and turning the original art into PG versions.

Do an image search of Auguste Rodin's "Eternal Springtime" and then think back on how much was not shown at the Pageant. Or look at Georges Seurat's "Les Poseuses" and notice what is missing.

That's not to say that the Pageant versions are bad — hardly. It is a great show and at times, breathtaking. But I also could not help but feel Saturday like I was watching Nick at Night.

Is the art compromised? Is the story lost? Yes and no.

As I think back on art history, we are where we are because of all the bans and burnings and outrage. Ultimately, we take a middle road and hope that it doesn't offend anyone.

With nude art, the critical factor (aside from the location) is whether the nudity is sexualized. Rodin's "Eternal Springtime" is very sexualized. That's the whole point. And it is beautiful.

The public nude art around Laguna, what little there is, is tepid.

There is, of course, much more nudity — sexual or otherwise — in popular culture that largely numbs us to the issue. I know my boys are aware of it. I know they have their own caves.

The point is, we seem to have a misplaced hypersensitivity to nude art. It's as if our puritanical heritage still rules.

In 1841, when artist Horatio Greenough was commissioned to create a massive sculpture of President George Washington, Americans were mortified because the president didn't have a shirt on. He was topless, in the fashion of the Greek god Zeus.

You can't win for losing. Open any newspaper around the country and you can find similar controversies about "inappropriate" public art that involves nudity. Seriously, it happens more often than you think.

George Braque, the 20th-century French painter and sculpture who helped create cubism, once said that "art is meant to disturb."

I agree (mostly).

The fact is, we want things to be "nice." We don't want to upset the children. We enjoy our pleasant evenings admiring art in Laguna Beach sipping wine.

And as a result, Laguna is falling into the trap of catering too much to tourists and not enough to real art.

So I'll take my velvet coffin in blue, please, but keep me naked. I want to feel good as long as possible.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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