Monday, September 26, 2005

Where Have All the Naked People Gone?

Australia was built not on the back of the sheep, but on displays of public nudity - a heritage to which unfortunately little respect is currently paid. Few nowadays appreciate the fact that pretty much every great Australian has at one time or another thrown both caution and underwear to the wind, and bestrode our noble country with their privates waving in the breeze.

It's common knowledge that after getting the arse from the Bounty, Malcolm Bligh conquered impossible odds by rowing back to the mainland; it is largely forgotten, however, that he fed himself and his fellow officers by making his wedding tackle live up to its name - tying on a hook, he would jump into the water, hang on to the stern of the dinghy as his men rowed, and successfully troll for marlin. Lachlan Macquarie is well remembered for his obsessive interests in both urban planning and naming things after himself, but few recall that the layout of Sydney town is in fact based upon the contours of a large and unsightly birthmark on his posterior, which he would proudly display to all and sundry at city meetings (and garden parties, his youngest child's wedding, once in a courtroom and often to sailors down at the docks). And Mary McKillop, favoured (after the Don) to become our first saint, educator of the nation's poor - how did she get the attention of the kiddies she taught? She flashed them, of course (the last Pope is on record as describing her rack as, "Nearly as good as the Virgin Mary's. 8.5 out of 10").

When Mal Fraser was found pants down in his hotel room, he was merely making a belated play to join a list of Australian luminaries for whom greatness and nudity went hand in hand: heroes such as Nellie Melba, Jack Simpson and his donkey (the latter was in fact a nickname Simpson garnered in the trenches, and did not refer to the animal, which was only introduced in a bowdlerised version of the legend for classrooms), Dorothea Mackellar, Walter Burley Griffin, Pharlap, Menzies and Hotdogs (but significantly, not the Don. A noted wowser, from the age of three onwards Bradman never once took his clothes off) - they all made our country what it is today, and they all did it naked.

But let me get to the point, because I do have one. It is this: in the history war being waged on Australia's proud culture of nuding-up by the forces of prudishness, the major battlegrounds are our cultural institutions.

Being a gentleman of leisure, I often wander through whatever exhibitions are running at the NGV. Recently, I've noticed a tendancy towards priggishness creeping into the layouts and the content of certain displays. The Andy Warhol Boxes exhibit - a collection of objects d'art and objects dull which like its begettor managed to be both a deeply intelligent reflection of the times and the morals of the 60's and 70's, and stultifyingly boring - contained several examples of gay pornography. Andy threw anything and everything that interested him into what, though he thought of them only as storage boxes, are now regarded as a key personal archive; sex interested Andy a lot - was very important to him, especially its commercialisation. However, nearly all the glam-mag photos of gay-boys strutting about (pretty tame in the age of internet porn) were artfully covered up from the waist down by bits and pieces of other stuff.

More recently, the Floating World exhibit - woodblock prints from the last gasps of feudal Japan, both a stunningly beautiful display of technical virtuosity and, again, important from the perspective of cultural history - has done much the same thing. Although well worth visiting, the exhibition was rather marred by the fact that although it showed images popular in contemporary society (actors, merchants, geisha, scenes from famous plays and stories - woodblock prints being very much the movie posters and advertising bills of the day), there was only one very small image displaying any nudity. This would of course be fine, were it not for the fact that pillow-books depicting 'how-to' scenes comprised some 80% of all Japanese woodblock prints; a significant omission from an exhibition which purports itself to be a compleat display of contemporary customs.

Although it may seem so, I'm not trying to make an argument for more smut in the National Gallery, or that they hang a big sign up out the front declaring 'Dirty Pics R Us - All Sleaze, All The Time'. I'm not really that big a pervert - no, really. Artistic and historical institutions can not afford to wallow in self-censorship and prudery, not and still claim to be fostering eduction or preserving our heritage. The task of the historian is to present as accurate a record of the past as possible, warts and all; that of the artist is to push boundaries, discover new modes by which we can perceive ourselves and comment on the existing ones. If more nudity is the conduit by which these ends are achieved, then so be it, and to hell with moral rectitude.

I promise not to enjoy myself too much.


Adam said...

Don't forget the Piss Christ thing. I'm sure he was naked under all that piss.

Jon said...

No, He was wearing a fairly tasteful little loincloth; I don't know why anyone thought that one was indecent.