Nudity in art. The role of museums. Artistic freedom. Public funding of arts and culture. The individual creative voice. Collective will.
These are all topics that have been at the center of a debate in our community that arose from a work currently on display in Angela Strassheim’s exhibition at MOCA Jacksonville. The media has covered the issue. Artists and the cultural community have mobilized. Political and personal opinions have been expressed on all sides. It is a story that will continue to play out over the coming days and weeks, through what I hope will be a meaningful conversation. The kind of conversation that is integral to the experience of art.
As I have engaged in the conversation and expressed our solidarity with the leadership at MOCA Jacksonville, I have also been reflecting on the broader context that shelters the details of the current controversy.
Questions have been raised around the portrayal of the nude human form in art. History is filled with art works expressing the human condition through the nude form. More specifically, there are masterworks across millennia and geographic boundaries that illustrate the state of motherhood; being found in works ranging from the Venus of Willendorf’s swollen belly and pendulous breasts to Mary nursing the Christ child in thousands of Renaissance paintings and sculptures. Museums, houses of worship, and street corners across the globe are filled with such images. There is hardly a gallery at the Cummer Museum that is not populated by the nude body.
Questions have also been raised about the appropriateness of access to such images by children. Education through art is a cornerstone of the mission of the vast majority of museums in this country. The two art museums in our community, combined, see over 50,000 children a year. In my twenty years at this Museum, I have had thousands of interactions with children viewing works of art that show the nude body, depict places they have yet to visit, and express religious or cultural ideals different from those they have so far known. These are special moments for learning and they happen every day on school tours, during family visits to the galleries, and between young people themselves.
Museums are among those special places where all opinions are welcome. The works of art we preserve and exhibit are diverse in subject and style, inevitably conjuring a wide variety of responses. People of all ages and experiences freely express their likes, dislikes, elation, confusion, joy, and disdain. It is the freedom to create, exhibit, and discuss the works that is the foundation of museums in this country, beautifully reflecting the individual rights we all enjoy.
It is good that our community is having this conversation. We should all demand artistic excellence, fiscal responsibility, and measurable impact from all of our cultural institutions. Our process for receiving public funding requires this, and the partnership with all those who financially support our organizations is one marked by transparency, common goals, and mutual respect.
We should also recognize how tenuous the right to artistic freedom can be. There have been nations and regimes that not long ago determined what art was legitimate and deemed the rest “degenerate”, using art to feed fear and discontent. I am proud to know that we find ourselves in a place that honors divergent opinions and provides many platforms for the expression of those ideas.
So, today I am thankful for the father who brings his daughter to visit each new exhibit, for the volunteer Docents who facilitate meaningful conversations with children of all ages, for the members, donors, and partners who lift up our cultural institutions through their engagement and financial support, for artists who give expression to our common humanity through their individual experiences, and for leaders, in all sectors, who work hard, stand strong, and have an inspirational vision for our community. I am thankful for the opportunity each and every day to see the powerful role that the arts play in bridging differences and celebrating what makes us unique.
To see more about Angela Strassheim’s exhibition, click here.