When I was a kid you could always tell if an image of a naked or partially clothed woman was the stuff of porn or of art. It depended on where you saw it.
In a girly magazine of the sort that male cousins stuffed under the mattress, or on calendars in basement or garage workrooms and taxi dispatch stations, displays of women in any level of dishabille were porn. Statues in a public place or a sketch or painting on a museum or gallery wall were art. You didn't just see the difference, you felt it. One inspired giggles; the other kindled awe.
Now we have Attorney General John Ashcroft, the incarnation of the religious right, a grown man who can't quite get the difference. He's uncomfortable, embarrassed even, being photographed in front of statues of the Spirit of Justice and the Majesty of the Law that have for 70-odd years graced the Great Hall of the Department of Justice. The Spirit is partially disrobed, her firm, youthful right breast uplifted and out.
Of course spokesman Shane Hix, announcing the $8,000 in taxpayer money spent on blue drapes - shades of Taliban burqas - to cover the Spirit's naked breast and the midsection of the Majesty, assured everyone that it had not been done at his boss' request. I don't believe it. No adult male comfortable with his sexuality and everyone else's would drape naked statues, as uptight Victorians draped the curvy legs of chairs and tables. If the AG didn't want drapes, they wouldn't be there.
True, many American men have breast hang-ups. The popularity of sex and strip shows, go-go and lap-dancing milieus, and the large number of magazines sold in plastic or brown covers tells it all.
But naked breasts are not just art/porn issues, they also inspire legal interest. Consider that men, with great and/or ordinary pectorals, may run about shirtless in summer, while women who might venture to do the same would, in most venues, face arrest. Our breasts, fonts of mother's milk, are legally lewd.
But not our chests. Remember the self-portrait (photo) of New York artist and former lingerie model Matuschka that graced the New York Times Sunday Magazine cover in August, 1993? She wore a long white dress, cut away on the right side to display a two-year-old mastectomy scar. The image was titled: “You Can't Look Away Anymore.” Shocking, to be sure. But real. No one said lewd. Her breast was gone.
Most people can discriminate between the female breast as a nurturing body part, as an incitement to male excitement, as art, or as an object not connected by affect to the body to which it is attached. Poor Mr. Ashcroft. He hasn't been socialized in these niceties. Moms who breast-feed publicly probably offend him, too.
His statue burqas call to mind the brouhaha in Detroit many years ago when the late Swedish sculptor Carl Milles, who worked at Cranbrook, did a smallish statue of an American Indian toting a canoe aloft. It stood for years atop a column by Cobo Hall.
The high-propriety folks objected to it in the original, and poor Mr. Milles, or someone else, had to tart up its nakedness with a metal loin cloth - as if grown men and women and youngsters with brothers and sisters don't know gender construction disparities.
To see the original, one traveled to Stockholm and bused to Millesgarden, a family home in whose courtyard all Milles statues were featured. It was worth the trip to see them. And what the Indian has to show is not worthy of the extensive attention it got.
Years passed, and the Indian came down because of construction at Cobo. Then there was talk of putting it back up in the way Mr. Milles had conceived it. But no! Native Americans had a voice by then. It said they'd be offended, that this very dignified work would cast them all as “naked savages.” It is still not back on its pedestal.
Oh for the days the late academic and presidential adviser John Roche once described, when Quakers burst naked into Puritans' church services shouting “I stand naked before the Lord!”
Mr. Ashcroft is not the only American male to harbor jejune feelings about a naked breast, though he is the only national public figure I know of to act as if a statue might excite him.
There was added ado in Detroit, also some years back, when a wag painted huge green foot prints on the road and walks between the naked Spirit of Detroit statue outside the City-County Building headed toward the naked woman statue outside the building across Woodward Avenue. Everyone who didn't have to clean up the paint laughed. The wag was arrested.
The $8,000 to drape the nakedness of Justice Department statues is dust in the wind as federal spending goes. I'd have preferred it go for a couple years of psychotherapy or dental care for someone who couldn't afford it. But who asked me?