Howardism Musings from my Awakening Dementia
My collected thoughts flamed by hubris
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Beauty in things exist in the mind which contemplates them.

—David Hume

Is All "Nude" Art?

Philosophy has a branch called aesthetics, where a bunch of dead, white guys have been trying to answer the question, "What is Art?" Not that I really have an answer to this long and perplexing problem (although I do know art when I see it), but I do believe I have an idea that may stitch together the different versions of why some people appreciate a work of art, and others do not. The idea is… familiarity.

Think of Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, which was quite controversial in 1913. Theodore Roosevelt said that it looked like a Navajo Indian rug, but even the critics viewed it as an example of all that was wrong with the current expression of art.

But now, it is considered a masterpiece. Why the change?

Let's consider another example, my favorite symphony, Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. I was always fascinated by the story of how in 1913, its premier incensed the audience so much that the performance turned into a bloody riot and Stravinsky fled the theater as the police were summoned to restore order. However, at the next year's performance, the police came again, but this time to keep Stravinsky safe from the adoration of the crowd.

Once again, why the change? Well, in a Radio Lab episode, they discussed this symphony and this curious acceptance of the artistic expression, and came to an interesting conclusion. Our brains, being pattern recognition machines, are always looking for patterns in every thing we see, hear, taste, etc. But when we encounter something chaotic, something that doesn't fit a pattern, the brain gets excited and agitated. If we are bombarded with such stimulus, our brains begin to secrete dopamine††According to Wikipedia, disruption to the dopamine system has also been strongly linked to psychosis and schizophrenia. to cope. In the case of the audience in Paris, it may have been a factor in contributing to men in stiff shirts and ties beating up old ladies with wigs.

But the brain is remarkably adaptive, and quickly learns to recognize the patterns in the new chaos until it is accepted and even appreciated. A bit o' science to help substantiate what every scotch drinker knows: that familiarity breeds appreciation… and children.

Sorry, but that was a very long introduction to what I really wanted to discuss… is every nekked person a walking example of art?

I was re-thinking this question when I first visited Frank Cordelle's, The Century Project, where he has been photographing nude women from all ages and backgrounds. Clearly there is a story with each picture, but in this case, included with the picture is a note from the woman photographed.

I showed my wife the photographs, and then left her alone to absorb it. When I returned she was doing what I was doing moments before… laughing and crying at the same time.

This pictures are shocking and even appalling. They make us squirm and completely uncomfortable. The first picture, of a girl's actual birthday, brings a flood of emotions… including a twinge of inferred pain. The pictures continue until we arrive at my favorite, a 94 year old woman who said, "I posed nude so some old lady will not fear age and some old men would know old women are not so strange."


Much of what is real is covered and hidden behind clothes and reticence. We know it is there, lurking in the dark recesses of our soul, but we don't want to concede its existence. We know that ignoring reality doesn't get rid of it, but still…

So when an artist uncovers and exposes a hidden reality, it is shocking. Maybe people then claim that the artist's point is nothing more than shock value and that continued exposure makes us numb. But numbness is just the perspective from an outsider looking in at acceptance. According to Buddhist philosophy, acceptance of all that is, is the first step to enlightenment.

So Cordelle's work, while initially shocking, will, like all good art, hopefully lead us in acceptance of our wonderful bodies. If you think about it, body acceptance is probably the root cause of deaths in America among women.

You may enjoy another similar art experience in paintings of Naked Old Women by Alice Matzkin.
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