In the buff: a classical view of National Nude Day
By Dimitris PlantzosWe can’t think of classical Greece without its nude statues, but what was it about nudity that made Greece classical? Thucydides was convinced that taking your kit off while exercising was a sign of cultural progress; he attributed the origins of the habit to the Spartans, and he disparaged the barbarians of his own day for still insisting on covering their genitals in public. For the Greeks nudity was an achievement of civilization: in art, as in life, you were showing off not what nature had provided but what your own (and your community’s) technologies of the self allowed you to make of nature’s endowment. Excellence in warfare and sports was what made you a Greek (a Greek man to be more precise), and it was nudity in the gymnasium and the training field — though not in the battleground as one would think — that taught you how to achieve this very much elusive Greekness. Hence Greek art seems familiar to us, its modern enthusiasts, even though, if you think about it, it can be as excruciatingly elitist today as it was back then: you are asked to respect and admire those nude bodies not only for what they achieved but mostly for what you could not possibly have pulled off (as it were). Still, classical nudity has enforced itself onto us as a universal symbol of humanity — of the human body’s power, prowess and beauty; of man’s (even woman’s) ability to conquer immortality, yet through something as fragile and ephemeral as the body of a youth.
Universal? Not quite. As recently as last April, authorities of an Olympic-themed exhibition at Doha, in Qatar, decided to cover two nude male statues on loan from Greece behind black screens. When the Greek Minister for Culture expressed his irritation, he was sent packing and the two nudes were, quite unceremoniously, sent back with him. As a Qatari commissary stated, “the decision to remove the objects was based on the flow of the exhibition, awareness of the outreach to all schools and families in Qatar, and desire to be sensitive to community needs and standards.” I don’t know exactly what kind of thoughts passed through the Greek minister’s head when he heard this explanation; I’m sure Thucydides would be seriously annoyed, however, and all for the wrong reasons. That a Qatari would presume to teach a Greek about “exhibition flows” is certainly adding insult to the blow of covering the statues; modern Greeks seem to believe that only they know what a museum is and what it is supposed to do, let alone how to do it. As for “sensitivity to community needs and standards,” could it be that those barbarians might resent Thucydides’ cultural model after all? What is about depictions of naked youths that a present-day community might find insensitive to its needs and standards?
Religion is only the easy answer to this question and as such it cannot help us fathom the problem. Undoubtedly, a certain amount of hypocrisy seems to be at play here, as many of the 600 artefacts included in the Doha exhibition – supposed to work as a “bridge of friendship” between the two nations – showed bare-breasted women, yet the Qataris were happy to expose their schools and families to them. Still, it’s their museum, their rules. What I do find strange, however, is that Greece and the West at large insist on treating classical statuary as a true expression of their modern self. For classical nude had very little to do with aesthetics – it’s all social politics and I’m not quite sure we would be willing to subscribe to that in our societies. Greek nudity was invented in order to enforce specific social hierarchies — who, when and how is allowed or even able to do certain things – and, more to the point, to deploy strict gender asymmetries: only men were thought by Aristotle to possess the right body heat; women were thought of as mentally and bodily imbalanced creatures, therefore inferior to men. Male nudity, as a result, is the expression of an idealized, immortal self; female nudity, on the other hand, is a sign of weakness, vulnerability, and immorality (think of all those shy Aphrodites or debauched hetaerae lurking by the thousands in our museums). A slave could never become immortalized as a kouros, and heavy peploi and chitons made sure female bodies were kept in their proper place in art as in life. In a sense, what made Greece classical is what, in fact, ought to make us think twice before accepting the nude as an ideal form of human expression. Or is it that our needs and standards remain so much attached to those of ancient Greece that we can’t quite grasp the difference?
Dimitris Plantzos is a classical archaeologist, educated at Athens and Lincoln College, Oxford. His research focuses primarily on Greek art, archaeological theory, and modern receptions of classical antiquity. His publications include: Hellenistic Engraved Gems (OUP 1999); the Greek-language textbook Greek Art and Archaeology (Kapon 2011); and the edited volumes A Singular Antiquity: Archaeology and Hellenic Identity in 20th-c. Greece (Benaki 2008; with D. Damaskos) and A Companion to Greek Art (Wiley-Blackwell 2012; with T.J. Smith). He teaches classical archaeology at the Department of History and Archaeology, University of Athens and is co-director of the Argos Orestikon Excavation (Kastoria, Greece).
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National Nude Day is an unofficial holiday observed on July 14. Caution is recommended when celebrating this festive occasion.