by Steve Chapman
Southern California, home of the Playboy mansion, Frederick's of Hollywood and the video pornography industry, locals are currently taken aback by a work of art that offends their standards of modesty. A depiction of male nudes in the granite floor of the American Airlines terminal at Los Angeles International Airport has caused shock and anger among Angelenos accustomed to the puritanical standards of dress that prevail throughout the region.
Susan Narduli may become famous as the woman who put the X in LAX. In reality, the photographs she sand-blasted into the black granite floor of the world's third-busiest airport would barely qualify as PG. They consist of several life-size images of athletic-looking nude men, with shadows and body positioning deftly used to conceal their vital parts. Narduli says she was merely trying to evoke the nobility of early man's efforts to fly, not "to do something provocative or controversial."
Her creation was not too provocative for those avant-garde rebels in the executive suite at American Airlines. "We worked with the artist, and we're fully supportive of it," said George Hazy, the company's managing director. Maybe they're just trying to distract their customers from the wearisome indignities of modern air travel. But the city airport agency concluded that innocents passing through the building might faint dead away at the brazen display of bare flesh.
"We are a public place, and we have an obligation not to offend people," one official said. "What I really care about is what my father thinks, or my niece thinks, or the Amish couple from Des Moines thinks." One complainer wrote, "Aren't there much more beautiful and acceptable things to be admired, especially by children who have to walk over and past this stuff?"
On behalf of children and Amish couples, the airport hastily covered the pictures with brown paper. But last week, the city's Cultural Affairs Commission ruled that the piece would remain where it is, sans covering. So outsiders should enter the terminal braced for what they will encounter.
Of course, Iowa farmers may actually grasp that an unclothed human figure can be a legitimate subject of art, as it happens to have been for more than 2,500 years. They might know that nudes appear in many thoroughly Christian places, starting with the Sistine Chapel, and countless paintings of biblical subjects.
Some can be found in various public sites around the world, where they can be gazed on by youngsters and everyone else. In Des Moines, an array of naked people is immortalized in works on exhibit at the Art Center. And would you believe that director Susan Talbott says she frequently sees Amish patrons?
Maybe they know what art historian Kenneth Clark pointed out: "The nude is the most serious of all subjects in art." His answer to the question of whether there aren't "more beautiful and acceptable things to be admired" would probably be the same as the ancient Greeks, Michelangelo and Renoir would have given: No, there isn't.
Why would an artist insist on portraying a naked person when she could portray a modestly attired one? Not usually out of a desire to evoke lust, but because there is something elemental, timeless and classic about the nude form. Artists also realize the undeniable fact that the human body is a subject of great interest to anyone who has one.
For some subjects, nudity is not just appropriate but mandatory. Michelangelo's "David" -- that's King David, of Israel -- would not be the same wrapped in a loincloth. Narduli's men would lose something if they were wearing togas.
Southern California is not alone in having some residents who doubt that nakedness can ever be aesthetically valuable. After a shopowner in Lake Alfred, Fla., placed a replica of "David" outside his store, the city demanded that he cover its nether regions. Complaints from workers at Kennedy International Airport in New York prompted an artist to paint a loincloth on her depiction of a nude Jesus on the cross.
After the State Bar of Wisconsin decided to adorn its Madison headquarters with a classical sculpture of a woman holding the scales of justice, with her eyes covered but her breasts bare, a handful of employees expressed discomfort. So the artist was brought back in to put some clothes on the hussy. There are people out there upholding the crucial principle that the uncovered human form should evoke shame rather than pleasure.
But in Los Angeles, where Victorian values are under unprecedented assault, sensitive travelers may see things they might not see just anywhere. So they should take the advice that has always been prudent for anyone journeying to California: If you're easily shocked, close your eyes.
August 6, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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