No nudes is bad news for our art galleries

The Nude is under threat – but it is too important to our culture to hide away for fear of offending sensibilities

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The Independent Online

Is it curtains for The Nude? Will the bottom fall out of the global nude art market? Sorry about the double entendres, but the subject asks for it. A director of Sotheby’s called Philip Hook told the Hay Festival audience this week that certain things must be taken into account when offering paintings to foreign art dealers. Top of the list is: you mustn’t offer buyers from the Middle East depictions of the naked body. Too much undraped flesh, the shy revelation of a pink nipple, any hint of jungly pubic undergrowth and – but let Mr Hook explain: “There is a certain level of nudity that they will not, for cultural or religious reasons, countenance. There are some things that are just not permissible for them to spend money on.”

Uh-oh. Can you feel some alarming stirrings in the Zeitgeist? First, painted nudes will cease to appear among the works on offer at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonham’s, for fear of upsetting art-lovers from Dubai or Kuwait. Next, the major art galleries will start becoming circumspect: should they continue to hang displays of nakedness on their walls, where they might outrage the sensibilities of any Islamic tourists who clap eyes on them by accident, while heading for the Constable landscapes? Mightn’t it be better to keep such pictures quarantined in specialist rooms where no one’s religious or cultural beliefs might be compromised?

I pray that won’t be the case. Because the nude, especially the female nude, is the cornerstone of Western art. It, more than any other subject, is an emblem of culture and civilisation. And it represents a victory over the power of organised religions. When Botticelli painted The Birth of Venus in 1484, the first full-scale depiction of human nakedness, it cocked a snook at a millennium and a half of Christian restraint and anti-sensuality; it celebrated the simple fact of human beauty. And when no clap of divine thunder or fizz of lightning-bolts was prompted by the sight of Venus’s astonishingly pale breasts, half-covered by one hand, every other artist of the next 500 years piled in with his (it was mostly his) own sighing tribute to the female form divine.

I don’t want to compare myself to the Renaissance, but it was the same dynamic that made me remove the picture of the Sacred Heart of Christ from the wall of my bedroom when I was 13 and replace it with The Rokeby Venus by Velasquez. My mother, an intensely religious woman, couldn’t remonstrate with much conviction since the vain horizontale was, unquestionably, Art.

I would argue that her response – half shocked, half accepting – has been at the core of Western culture for centuries. Because the Nude is never just art, is it? It’s a revelation of beauty, sex, desire, self-consciousness, concealment, wantonness and modesty, all mingled in various harmonies, switching between canvas and viewer. It asks us if we’re happy to inspect nakedness on a canvas, from Titian to Lucien Freud, or if we’re repelled by it. It asks, effectively, “Are you embarrassed by this? Embarrassed to be human?”

The artistic nude has been a staple of comedy for centuries. Art historians have long been amused to find that Cardinal Richlieu, the most fanatically repressive Catholic in 17 century France, was obsessed with Rubens’s The Bath of Diana and gave the painter’s widow a gold-encrusted watch for it. In EM Forster’s A Room With a View, the English ladies checking out the artworks in Florence galleries agree that the nudes are “a pity.” Peter Cook and Dudley Moore had a nice art-gallery sketch in the 1960s, in which Pete (or was it Dud?) observed, of a Rubens, “Amazing, isn’t it, how the bums follow you around the room?” Monty Python fans will remember the Art Critic whose lecture begins, “Tonight we examine the place of the nude in my bed – I’m sorry, the place of the nude in Art…”

These were all vestigial expressions of the 17-century suspicion that being able to call the nude “art” allows us to look at naked women without having to call our desire to do so Sin, or prurience, or lechery or dirty-raincoat perviness. This guilty freedom has been a cornerstone of Western culture for 500 years. It would be a shame if its beauty were obscured by too fastidious a desire to indulge the easily offended.

Self-employment is lonely, but it has perks

According to research, self-employed people earn a fifth less than those on a company’s staff, work longer hours than the staffers and risk “social isolation” by being unable to congregate with co-workers around the water-cooler. They’re looked down on by unions, who see them as tragic “odd-jobbers” scratching around to make a living.

But what’s this? According to the survey, they’re inexplicably happier that their staffer counterparts. No less than 84 per cent were more satisfied being solo than being corporate. How?

Here’s a freelancer’s insight. It’s something to do with being able to arrange your working day so that, if you fancy, you can start at 8am, finish at 1.30pm and go shopping/ to the cricket/ lie in the sun for the afternoon. Also, being able to cook your own lunch, watch Happy Valley on catch-up TV, trim your toenails, dance around the kitchen or have a little snooze at 5pm, should any of these moods seize you. Oh, and drink a colossal gin and tonic at 6.30pm with your feet up, happy to know that all your former colleagues are, right now, preparing to brave the hellish train ride home…

Weather alerts from my watch? No thanks

Google are trying to interest us in wristwatches. How quaint – like having Patek Philippe trying to sell us grandfather clocks. But these won’t be just digital watches, they’ll be “wearable screens” designed to make smartphones redundant.

The first G Watches were launched on Tuesday, and other makes will follow, from Samsung and Motorola. What concerns me is the watch’s unique selling proposition. Apart from doing all the usual iPhone functions, it will provide the wearer with “timely alerts,” bits of information, updates about the weather, news about the tailback on the M4, the quality of the tides in Cornwall.

Well sorry but, No Thanks is my response. Having a smartphone vibrate in your pocket is a minor thrill because it tells you someone’s getting in touch. Having the Met Office ring to say it’s raining in Wales is not.

My car was programmed by its former owner to intrude weather news from Radio 5 Live into whatever radio station I’m listening to. Every time it does so, I practically swerve off the road with surprise and irritation. Could you bear to have your sleeve electronically plucked by “notification technology” every five minutes, like being nagged by an annoyingly insistent valet? No. I think I’ll be a Late Adopter on this one. 

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