30 October 2010

In Praise of Pulchritude

The latest episode of Glee generated some advance media buzz because two of its hottest male stars appeared for the first time with very little clothing on, and during the show both characters were extremely uncomfortable with it. That got me thinking about why, and I realized how many people--guys particularly--would share their sad, overinflated prudery. From time to time there's also some discussion in the MoHoSphere about whether it's morally wrong to appreciate pictures of male beauty (because of the Mormon misinterpretation of the "appearance of evil" thing, a topic for another time).

Coincidentally, I'm reading a book that offers an interesting insight on this point, and I wanted to share.

The book is called Sailing The Wine-dark Sea: Why The Greeks Matter. It's a fascinating look into the culture and the people who became the foundation for all of Western civilization. But despite the incalculable debt we owe to the ancient Greeks for ideas like representative democracy, aesthetics, drama, literature, and more, Judeo-Christian cultures have always been uncomfortable with the ancient Greeks' tolerance and even encouragement of homosexuality and those statues of guys who weren't wearing much of anything.

Most conservative Christians and Mormons, while recognizing the Greeks' artistic and social and political achievements, would probably not choose for their own homes any replicas of such statues. I even heard of one LDS stake president who called Michelangelo's David "pornography." My parents once attended an art festival and purchased an original sculpture, small enough for a tabletop, of a man & woman passionately embracing. Both were unclothed. They put it in the living room. I thought it was beautiful and very tasteful. But apparently somebody from church saw it during a visit and complained to my parents, so they moved it to their bedroom. Apart from the gall of criticizing someone's own choice of art in their own home, I was amazed at the aggressive prudishness. How cleverly diabolical, to persuade someone that the mere sight of God's greatest creation is morally wrong (spare me the "sacred, not secret" bit, that's not the topic here). I understand my parents moving the statue because they didn't want to give offense to any other visitors. To my dad's credit, it's now back in the living room.

Art like that, no matter how tasteful, makes a great many conservative Christians and Mormons uncomfortable. They're baffled by why the Greeks created so many unclothed statues. Their religious tradition's heavy overlay of original sin and the idea that the flesh is corrupt, plus the hysteria that has overtaken modern American society about child molesters and sexual abuse and wardrobe malfunctions in Superbowl broadcasts, all seem to have robbed almost all American Mormons and Christians of any ability to think calmly and rationally about anything less than fully clothed in a way Queen Victoria would have approved. But this book I'm reading gives some compelling insight about why the Greeks created those statues, and why such art resonates with gay guys particularly. And I think also answers the MoHo question about appreciating depictions of male beauty.

Many straight people assume that gay people's attraction to those of their own gender is merely "abnormal" and "unnatural" lust, thus any appreciation of the physical form of someone of one's own gender must also be "abnormal" and "unnatural." Apart from the fact that this is just plain wrong, it is also demeaning and dehumanizing.

In fact, there is another aspect, much loftier, that's perfectly captured by the Greek statues and any art that follows the same lines, as so well put by the author of Sailing The Wine-dark Sea. It is that those statues capture an ideal:

"The kouros [statue of a young man, unclothed] is the Greek in his idealized state, eternally young, eternally strong, but fixed for all time--not in process, not on his way from boyhood to manhood, but eternally achieved, eternally One. As the ultimate ideal, he must be naked, for no costume but his own skin could serve his eternality. . . . Forever beyond all development (which would necessarily imply disintegration at a later stage), he belongs to the World of the Forms. He is the Form of Man, the perfection, of which all beautiful and heroic men partake as partial examples, the man that all men would wish to be.

The kouros, then, is not merely the expression of a Greek idea but of a profound human longing that the Greeks were the first to uncover and that reverberates through art and literature ever after . . . the wish to be absolved . . . from the "change and decay in all around I see"--and its expression in notes high and low, in measures quick and slow--whether in Homer's lost utopias of Troy and Ithaca or in Sappho's plangently expressed desire for youth and regret over age, whether in Socrates' earnest aspiration to "shuffle off this mortal coil" and ascend to the World of the Forms or in the molded pathos of the kouros--is Greece's most complex and valuable gift to the Western tradition. . . . The kouros . . . speaks with one authoritative voice: "Here is our ideal, the best we have to offer."

That's why that cork-brained stake president I mentioned before was so laughably, pitiably wrong about Michelangelo's David. It, and those Greek statues, are actually homage to perfection (and aren't Mormons supposed to be trying to achieve perfection?), to the pinnacle of the Creator's art--in fact, they try to depict what I'm sure most Mormon men hope to be after the resurrection. They are reminders of what all of us partake in, partly, and of what we might hope to approach through dedicated care of the divine gift of corporeality. They represent a longing for the eternal, for youth and beauty to stay that way forever.

Gay guys get this; it's intuitive. But you don't need to be gay to understand it. I am sincerely sad for anyone who can't see this perspective, who may be so bound down by the traditions of their gymnophobic fathers that they can't comprehend this reverence and appreciation but remain stuck in the attitude that all such depictions are necessarily base and obscene. In fact it is that attitude which dishonors both the Creator and His creation.

Mormons are fond of the truism "As a man thinketh, so is he." So to anyone, Mormon or otherwise, who thinks these statutes or the "David" or anything like them are porn and obscene, I say get your minds out of the gutter and show more respect not only for others but for the Creator's work. Thomas Cahill, author of Sailing the Wine-dark Sea, is right; such art captures a way of thinking that honors divinity, invites us to aspire and achieve, and fills our lives with beauty. It's not porn, it's perfection. It's not shameful, it's sacred. It's not degrading, it's a celebration of the divine gifts of life and creation.


HACnBAC said...

I wish there was a "like" feature. I don't have anything substantive to add. I just wanted to express my agreement and tell the author I enjoyed the read. :)

MoHoHawaii said...

The Greeks were also passionate in a way that Puritanical American culture can't fathom. The best book I've ever read on the subject is James Davidson's Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens. It's an extraordinary book.

[I'll have to check out Cahill's book, too.]

I share your criticism of Mormon culture's inward-looking and prudish impulses. In particular, I don't like the way Mormon culture collapses the huge world of human passion and intimate social intercourse into an obsession with genital sexuality. It's an infantile, stunted understanding of the human condition.

Tim Trent said...

I find prudery bewildering. I was, once, shy at showering with my peers. I overcame that by doing it. I was once sleek and svelte. My body was, once, toned and honed. I was an active teenager.

As age came upon me I was careless and became tubby. But I am still at home with my body, under no illusions that it has saggy and baggy bits.

In hot climes I frequent beaches where clothing is optional and I am not alone with saggy bagginess. I am comfortable in my skin, even stark naked.

I spent my 50th birthday party wearing a leopardskin thong that left very little to the imagination. I had not intended to, but I was dared to, oddly by my homophobic cousin who had no idea I was gay, then. I was de-thonged at one point.

My body is 58 years old, a little loose at the seams, but it is not a thing to be ashamed of. And it may be considered beautiful by some.

The point is to become comfortable in one's skin. One has no need to be naked, but a great objective is to be able to choose to be, and to do so with comfort.

Just please do not model the German holidaymakers on beaches in the Canary Isles. No-one wants look down the beach to see someone my age and size at the water's edge, facing out to sea and touching their toes!

Beck said...

I read some of Sailing the Wine-dark Sea: Why Greeks Matter on my way to Athens last year. The Greek and Roman statues are amazing to behold in person - maybe because I'm a gay man and my eye is naturally focused on male beauty. I see nothing abnormal or unnatural and have enjoyed being able to enjoy them WITH my wife, not behind her back.

Feeling comfortable in one's own skin is an amazing process to go through after decades of self-loathing. To be able to no longer feel intimidated by prudish thinking and shedding such inhibitions has become one of the most rewarding transitions of coming to terms with my personal self-discovery.

Thank you for your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

We have a copy of a kouros in our living room (full size torso but with broken genitalia) and a print of a nude Eve on the wall (I think Cranach the elder).

Hmm, I wonder if this has anything to do with absent home teachers (one visit in past 4 years).

Invictus Pilgrim said...

See Titus 1:15. I think Paul was trying to make the same point you did.

Matt said...

My favorite class at BYU devoted two weeks of discussion and a paper to the differences between art and pornography. The professor started by telling about the first time she saw the David in real life; she called it her first brush with God.

It was perhaps one of the more engaging, enlightening discussions I've had.

English is definitely the major to have at BYU.