Qatar and Greek Nudity Redux (With a Bit of ESPN too)

Back in April we mentioned an item wherein and exhibition in Qatar was having problems with a couple of nude Greek statues on display (Pass the Fig Leaf) … Dimitris Plantzos has written an opeddish thing for the OUP blog on the subject which has an interesting take on Greek nudity … here’s the concluding bit:

Religion is only the easy answer to this question and as such it cannot help us fathom the problem. Undoubtedly, a certain amount of hypocrisy seems to be at play here, as many of the 600 artefacts included in the Doha exhibition – supposed to work as a “bridge of friendship” between the two nations – showed bare-breasted women, yet the Qataris were happy to expose their schools and families to them. Still, it’s their museum, their rules. What I do find strange, however, is that Greece and the West at large insist on treating classical statuary as a true expression of their modern self. For classical nude had very little to do with aesthetics – it’s all social politics and I’m not quite sure we would be willing to subscribe to that in our societies. Greek nudity was invented in order to enforce specific social hierarchies — who, when and how is allowed or even able to do certain things – and, more to the point, to deploy strict gender asymmetries: only men were thought by Aristotle to possess the right body heat; women were thought of as mentally and bodily imbalanced creatures, therefore inferior to men. Male nudity, as a result, is the expression of an idealized, immortal self; female nudity, on the other hand, is a sign of weakness, vulnerability, and immorality (think of all those shy Aphrodites or debauched hetaerae lurking by the thousands in our museums). A slave could never become immortalized as a kouros, and heavy peploi and chitons made sure female bodies were kept in their proper place in art as in life. In a sense, what made Greece classical is what, in fact, ought to make us think twice before accepting the nude as an ideal form of human expression. Or is it that our needs and standards remain so much attached to those of ancient Greece that we can’t quite grasp the difference?

In this context, but before I had read this piece, I am often struck by the ‘Greekness’ of ESPN’s Body Issue, which includes nude-but-strategically-posed photos of assorted famous athletes. Some are kind of silly, but several do put one in mind of Greek statuary (e.g. the cover photo of Colin Kaepernick in the latest issue). Check out some the online versions here … there’s a link to back issues too. In the context of the above oped, it’s interesting to note the reaction in Poland to tennis star Agnieszka Radwanska’s participation in the issue (see, e.g. the Telegraph’s Agnieszka Radwanska defends her naked photo shoot). I guess this is why folks still have to compare Kenneth Clark (The Naked and the Nude) and David Freedberg (“The Power of Images: Response and Repression”) in Art History courses …

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