Aren’t those the three things not to discuss with friends and relatives? Yet all three were on my mind one winter afternoon in the Uffizi Museum in Florence, Italy as I wandered lazily through rooms stuffed with iconic renaissance art. I reached back to dusty memories from high school art history as I took in the paintings by Raphael (a few), Boticelli (a lot, including the famous Birth of Venus), Titian and Veronese. Crowding out my effort to recall facts about who used light and perspective in new ways and who revived classical iconography were the following intrusive thoughts. First, about religion, which went something like the following: So much of this art would not have happened without the Church. (Not that the Church was the sole funder. The Medici family and other wealthy Italian patrons played their crucial role in bankrolling the Renaissance. But… the Sistine Chapel. I think I can stop there.) The art does not excuse, let alone justify, any of the harms, past or continuing, done in the Church’s name, but could all of this art have happened without the Church? It is one of those unanswerable, midnight-in-the-freshman-dorm kind of questions. But it might occur to you (at least it did to me) as you wander the halls of the Uffizi, or the Vatican, or the Museo dell’Arte, where Michelangelo’s David stares sternly and perpetually at the horizon. And if it does, it will add to the reasons why you cannot land exactly where Christopher Hitchens does, so firmly and adamantly opposed to those who take God as their inspiration.
Interrupting this vague, grudging thank-you note to the Church was another thought. This one about sex. I had paused in front of a painting by Titian, Venus of Urbino. A nude Venus is reclining on a bed and touching herself. A dog, a small spaniel, is curled up near her feet. Venus gazes at the viewer somewhat archly, or perhaps invitingly. In the background, a servant girl looks in a trunk while another stands by. The casual sexuality, downright weirdness (nude lady, puppy, servants, half classical portrait, half domestic scene) and beauty of the composition struck me as incredibly hip. An artist makes art, regardless of the sponsor or the age.
Somewhere nearby, I paused again in front of a painting of the holy family by Veronese, Holy Family with Saints Barbara and John. Baby Jesus is napping, his chubby infant-sized hand holding on to his sacred little penis.
At this point my thoughts made the final impolite turn to politics. In the United States, we are bi-polar about sex. We embrace it in every television show and advertisement. On the streets, skimpy outfits for women (and increasingly men) make the pornographication of every day life hard to parody. (Though Gary Shteyngart does heroic work in Super Sad True Love Story. Read it. But in the mean time, here is a small teaser: the hottest fashion trends in Shteyngart’s near-futuristic tale come from a brand called, unblinkingly, Juicy Pussy, which is just a tiny yet crucial notch cruder than Juicy Couture.) At the same time, we are so very squeamish, prudish and judgmental about sex. We might summarize the conflicted cultural attitude this way: Let it all hang out, but stuff it all back in with an extra dollop of puritanical condemnation. So I wondered, thinking about these paintings from over four hundred years ago, about whether our country’s youth has something to do with this. (I mean the fact that our country is only 235 years old. I am not blaming young people.) In addition to all of the other good explanations (we were a refuge for religious fundamentalists; we are constituted by extreme libertarian streaks and extreme puritanical streaks; we are very free-market capitalist and sex makes money, and so forth) we are just very young as a nation. Italy, on the other hand, is very, very old. Maybe we overreact to things because our own peculiar culture has not been around long enough to roll with various phases. Some phases are very libertine. Some are very repressed. Life goes on. We lack a sense of enduring notwithstanding how directly (or not) we talk about sex, religion and politics. So we swing from one extreme to the other, temporally and spatially, and we always think everything we do is novel. Maybe if we hang in there long enough, we will realize that Piss Christ and songs by Ani Di Franco (at one time banned from playing on Letterman) are just art. Time will tell whether they are great art, like Venus of Urbino, or just passing fancies. But either way, nothing more or less than that, even if they make us think about sex. At the same time, maybe becoming less uptight about sex as art will help us to distinguish aesthetic expression from market-based exploitation of sex. It would be nice to think we could embrace the next Titian without having to withhold judgment about Juicy Pussy.