Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

For Art’s Sake?

During my misspent teenage years, my parents dragged me to an exhibit of Paul Gauguin’s work. Near the end of our tour of the exhibit, a friend who had joined us turned to me and said, “he liked looking at young women. I can appreciate that.” (Truth be told, his language was a bit stronger, but this is a family website). The troubles Miley Cirus has had of late (which Julie mentioned a couple of days ago) reminded me of that bit of adolescent wisdom.

In the past couple of centuries, broadly speaking, art seems to have lost its way. The naked pursuit of art for arts sake has made it difficult to consider the moral implications of art (other than "consciousness raising," and other such things) or the legitimacy of moral restrictions on the artist’s craft. Hence it is not entirely impossible that Miley Cirus and her father trusted Annie Liebovitz when she asked the 15 year old Miley to pose half naked for her camera. It is possible that they trusted a respected artist at work. Taking pictures of semi-nude people, however young or old, is, after all, art.

That reminds me of a comment in Leo Strauss’ famous "Preface to Spinoza’s Critique of Religion": "Rousseau was the first modern critic of the fundamental modern project (man’s conquest of nature for the sake of the relief of man’s estate) who therewith laid the foundation for the distinction, so fateful for German thought, between civilization and culture." Culture, in which we find the world of high art, is to be free to follow its own muse. A good civilization, many people nowadays seem to think, is one that lets artists be free to do so. Hence my friend was not entirely wrong about the trend that Gauguin represented with his paintings from Tahiti.

Perhaps Voltaire put it best in a letter to Rousseau: "One wants to walk on all fours after reading your book."

Discussions - 8 Comments

It appears, though, that they trusted Liebovitz too much, especially the dad!

You know, exploitation is exploitation, no matter if want to call it art.

For Pity's Sake.


Yes, the callous artist is nothing new. Making person object is part of the job. Yet, once the point of good portraiture was to express the inner person with the depiction of the outer. The object was an expression of its inner self in a portrait, and yet could express something else if the object were being used as model, to express something of the artist's imagination. Was this girl being used as a model to express the sexual content of TV's image of the modern teen, say?

If this was intended as a portrait, we have another matter. You should be able to read something of the soul of a person in a good portrait, which was what makes it art. Maybe that is what makes this such an ugly representation, if we see it as portrait. The artist, purporting to show the soul of that girl, shows us what looks like a post-coital tart. Was that her intent? Is that the girl? If not, then this is abuse. If so, the artist is pitiless for art's sake. I don't know the truth of it. Presumably this accompanies an article. What is the article about?

A thing I think people find so irritating (and insulting) about all of this is that so-called "artists" like Ms. Liebovitz are very difficult to distinguish these days from the old "publicist" of yore. "Publicist" and, even the simpler "photographer," are too crass or too pedestrian for the puffed-up tastes and imaginations of today's famous people. Besides, calling her an "artist" gives her cover to do things that really sell. She's not just appealing to the puerile in order to make bank; she's doing something much more "important" than simply "selling" Miley Cyrus (or any of the other celebrities she's photographed) . . . she's "making a statement." Yeah . . . that's the ticket.

As for poor Miss Cyrus, I'm willing to believe (and even to bet) that she was taken for a ride. She's too young to have good judgment. But her father ought to have known better. I can understand his getting caught up in Liebovitz's fame and the notion that he was doing something "good" for his daughter and her career by allowing it to go on. We all get caught up in the "culture." But if we want to preserve civilization and the happiness and virtue of our children, we have to heed the still small voice inside of us that is repulsed by such behavior. Even if people accuse us of being, "parochial" and small-minded.

When I saw that misquote from the Voltaire letter, I developed a sneaking suspicion that someone had read John Derbyshire's Corner post, from 8+ hours earlier the SAME DAY, and was taking the citation from their memory of the post. Wasn't a hat-tip warranted there, at the least? The correct quotation is:

"One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours."

As for the absurd Miley Cyrus brouhaha, unless people have drudged up some pics that I've not seen, she hardly looked "half naked," much less a "post-coital tart." We see the girl's back, and that's about it. Go to a public swimming pool or beach any day and you'll see at least that much skin shown - even by the more modest females - and most people don't really get that worked up about it. I'm not sure if there's much for people to be outraged by here, but I'm sure NLT's culture warriors will give it their best (has anyone called Bill "Loofah/Falafel" O'Reilly to get him on the case?

I had not seen Derbyshire's comment. I looked the Voltaire quote up quickly and mistranscribed it, and regret the error.

Craig, isn't that the point? Are men inured to female flesh, especially that of girls? You are quite correct that girls assume that exposing their flesh is what they ought to do. Isn't it a pity what girls think "normal" for themselves these days?

Did you think the photo portrayed a child on first waking and nothing more? I still haven't seen the picture in context; maybe I will find it tomorrow. I worry about this sort of thing because it comes close to home. We live in our culture, can't help it. We may try to build bulwarks around our families to protect them, choosing innocence for them, but as you say, these things are all around us. They are unavoidable, unless we do not go out at all nor let anything or anyone in. That's no way to live, either. Complaining and commiserating is small comfort, that's true, and does nothing to hold the cultural tide. Oh well.

Mr. Adams, that is quite a coincidence.

Kate, this thread's way over the waterfall, but I'll tap this out just for the heck of it.

Firstly, I never said "girls assume that exposing their flesh is what they ought to do." and that wasn't really what I was driving at. My point was that when people go swimming they like to wear less clothing. Notice that even old, overweight, not-so-conventionally attractive people (men and women) will indulge in exposing their skin to the water and the sun. Aside from whatever sexuality issues are involved, it still makes sense. It's uncomfortable to have a lot of wet clothing sticking to your skin. I don't think I need to be "inured" to the female flesh to shrug at this pretty tame photo of Cyrus. I'm not one to check out little girls at the pool, thank you! Yes, if one is interested in seeing the better part of a young girl's back, that can be had at a pool or beach. The possibility that some pervert might be watching any one of us in a public place is always a possibility - life is full of such trade-offs, I guess.

Haven't we sparred about this before? Anyway, I think it's understandable that most women (and most people, period) will not be thrilled at the idea of wearing stuff like this if they are actually thinking of getting into the water (a common activity at pools and beaches). A big hurdle for the innocence mission!

Anyway, as for Hannah Montana, I know next to nothing about her or the show, other than I've heard it's a fairly wholesome, yet hopelessly banal, show.


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