Extremely clever Cambridge Classics scholar, Mary Beard (whatever you do don’t mention the hair!), whose very name is redolent of patriarchal authority, has been enlisted by the BBC as their new paterfamilias telling us how to think rightly about things like the female nude in western art in her new series, “The Shock of the Nude” (see what she did there?). In episode 1, as she pads around the Uffizi wearing the winningly garish Christmas socks and day-glo gym shoes that 14-year-old girls wear, she peddles the standard line on the objectification of women and the wicked Male Gaze. And, for her, it’s not just a few men looking at their sexual complements that is wicked. What was once the cultural space whose occidental fringes were known as the Wild West is now, wholesale, the Wicked West. She demonstrates, with the help of a BLACK curator, how, instead of being leered at as the object of male desire, in African culture, the naked Female body is celebrated solely as the centre of “community values”. He’s obviously never witnessed all those African women twerking in tribal initiation rites, or heard of Oshun, the Yoruba goddess of female sexuality, amongst other things, nor, in the opposite direction, the Lobi phalluses from Burkina Faso. They’ve got nothing to do with sex or sexual attraction of course because Africans just aren’t that interested in sex. And Prof. Beard has obviously never seen one of the many thousands of nursing Madonnas and child sprinkled across European art galleries which is strange given that she must spend a lot of her time in Greece and Italy.
She interviews curators who describe great western art in their care as “problematic.” She chats with Sonia Boyce, who is BLACK and a WOMAN you know, (and has, of course, been recently announced on Radio 4 to be the British representative in the next Venice Biennale) about her recent “takedown” performance removal of Waterhouse’s ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ from Manchester art gallery on the grounds of the nymphs constituting an excessively high adolescent tit-count ( the “performance” included irritated attendees at the gallery telling her what a supercilious authoritarian dick she was on post-it notes which she stuck on the wall in the space where the removed painting was supposed to be).
Ms Beard takes part with a tittering hen party participating in a male nude life class before they get pissed on the High Street. The women all manage to sustain the rictus of obligingly solemn faces while Mary opines on what an advance for western culture their cock-fest represents. She then interviews a female artist whose ‘art’ consists of photographing the reactions of squirming men whom she signed up to watch her get her kit off in front of them. Personally I’d have been first in the queue, unable to believe my luck, as hers is a rather marvellous example of the female body. This ‘artist’ says the reassuring bit about the last thing in her mission being to humiliate or demonise men. Mary then tells us that the various versions of the death of St Sebastian are principally there, as we all know, to serve the GAY community. The ‘Saint’ part of his name doesn’t come into it. She really couldn’t toe the orthodox party line more predictably, obediently or dully. Along with artistic genius Sonia, she ponders thorny problems such as why it’s ok to get your cock or fanny out to be depicted by a painter or sculpted by Michelangelo and exhibited in a gallery but not to do the same on the number 57 bus. The main thing we learn from the programme is that this furrow-browed ‘expert', for all her anxious and vexed interrogations, is, contra expectations, profoundly stupid. She has twigged less on the subject than that betrousered man on the 57 omnibus from Clapham. For her the penny has scarcely begun to drop about humans, (of which she is one), being sexually defined because we, er, reproduce sexually. One day her mum and dad are going to take her aside and give her a little book that tells us that the race depends on the sexes feeling, well, sexual desire for each other and looking at each other in a non-sinister or even loving way. And as for art being representation instead of reality, well, she never!
In an Irish art gallery she helps a curator chip a plaster fig leaf off a male statue, placing her face in close proximity (because she’s terribly brave on the subject of sex - it doesn’t phase her) with what is finally revealed as a pair of sculpted testicles and a missing penis. We get a tantalising glimpse that, in episode 2, Mary, herself, is daringly going to get her kit off. Lawks!
Picture credit: Tristan Ferne [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]