Monday, October 11, 2010

Lesbianism, Male Nudes, and Other "Difficult" Subjects -- The Art Institute of Chicago as a Teaching Tool

As I have mentioned previously, I volunteer at the Art Institute of Chicago. This past weekend, a patron spoke with me. She brings her kids to the museum and discusses subjects to which they may not normally be exposed or, if exposed, only negatively. She recently brought to the museum a neighbor's nine-year-old boy, in addition to her own children.

The woman said they were looking at a painting she described as portraying two nude women on a bed, one pregnant. They were warm towards each other. The woman asked, referring to the full-bellied one, "what's going on here?" One of her children said, "she's pregnant", to which the boy replied, "gross!" The woman said to him, "that's not gross, it's beautiful!" Then she asked the children, "what kind of relationship do (the two women) have?" One of her kids said, "they're lesbians", to which the boy said, "gross!". And so on....

The Marsden Hartley painting "Madawaska -- Acadian Light-Heavy" (1940) (see photo above), was originally a nude. A male nude at that time was virtually unacceptable and is still rare. Mr. Hartley added a "posing strap" to make the painting more palatable. (By doing so, he anticipated similar treatment of male models in men's "fitness" magazines by a decade.) Even with the strap, Mr. Hartley challenges the viewer to look at a man in an admiring way, similar to that reserved for female subjects.

A purpose of art museums is to give us different perspectives on common experiences. Sexuality, for example, is often portrayed in ambivalent ways in our daily lives. Nursing women are tolerated, sexy ladies are lusted after and condemned in the same breath, and homosexuality is debated. Not all artists are progressive (i.e. Thomas Hart Benton, who did not like what he perceived as pervasive left wing/gayness in the New York art scene), but even "reactionary" works are thoughtful and thought provoking.

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