Last Friday, a visitor attacked a Paul Gauguin painting at the National Museum of Art. The artwork, "Two Tahitian Women," shows two women with breasts exposed. The attacker cited the nudity as her reason for going unhinged and said the painting was "very homosexual."
According to court papers, the woman told the arresting officer, "I feel that Gauguin is evil. He has nudity, and it is bad for the children. He had two women in the painting, and it's very homosexual." She also added, "I am from the American CIA, and I have a radio in my head. I am going to kill you."
It's easy to chalk this up as a mentally disturbed woman having a delusional episode in public, but the heart of this really goes deeper than that. After all, her reaction might have been a little more severe than most, but America's puritanical need to censor all nudity and to tie it up in sexual acts is hardly just the purvey of the mentally ill; it's a large part of our culture thanks to religious indoctrination at all levels of our society.
While Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak makes a good attempt at coupling America's fear of nudity with the attack, she doesn't go quite far enough.
"The nudity must've bothered her," said a frustrated Igal Maoz, a New York artist who'd travelled to D.C. just for the Gauguin exhibit and was crestfallen when he learned that the painting had been removed for inspection after the attack.
"There are other paintings with even more nudity!" another visitor pointed out to me, and we walked over to another work, "Te Pape Nave" ("Delectable Waters") and counted five bare breasts, not just the three that allegedly so unnerved Burns.
It's not the first time someone has come undone over the sight of human mammaries -- metal, oil or flesh -- in the nation's capital. Former attorney general John Ashcroft famously ordered drapes to shield the bare chest of an aluminum Lady Justice statue in the Department of Justice.
More recently, the guards at the Hirshhorn Museum were flustered by a woman who was breast-feeding her infant on an indoor bench.
Throughout any art museum, it's difficult to avoid the naked human form.
If you read Dvorak's article, she's trying to link the attack with unneeded extra security at the museum, but I think she really misses the larger point. Instead of worrying about whether or not we'll end up encasing famous art works in glass to protect them (this painting was surrounded by a clear case already) or there will be extra scanners at the entrance, why not dig deeper into why the woman felt the need to attack an 80 million dollar painting? Why not talk about why Ashcroft's prudishness or the guard's uncomfortable feelings about the woman breast feeding?
After all, it's hard to avoid "the naked human form" in art, but why then are we so likely to try and stifle and avoid the naked body or to only trivialize it as a sexual form? Why do we automatically assume that nudity equals sex? Combine that with the automatic assumption that every time you have two people of the same gender naked at the same time sex has to be involved and you have a distinctly fucked up society.
I'm not an art major and any deep discussions of artistic expression usually go over my head, but even I know that the human body - with all of it's multiple shades, variations, and sizes - is a stunningly beautiful masterpiece. Perhaps it's time we started celebrating the human form again instead of trying to hide it behind curtains or glass cases.
Because for all of our stone throwing at that mentally disturbed woman, we're all living in glass houses.
(Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Art)