Thursday, June 21, 2012

Nudity and Public Art

Yu Chang's sculpture recently
caused a furor in Kansas City (Photo by
Fred Blocher, for the KC Star).

“Being unclothed is not the equivalent of lewdness,” I wrote in a Letter to the Editor recently, but unfortunately many people persist in seeing it that way—and it has an impact on artists.

In Kansas City recently, we've been wading through yet another controversy about nudity in public art. As readers from outside KC may be aware, and as my home-turf readers can readily testify, both Kansas and Missouri are very socially conservative states.

This is not to say that people around here cannot be well educated or sophisticated. But the echoes of the 19th-century Holiness movement, with its cultural wariness about anything “worldly,” still reverberate loudly around here.

The focus in Kansas City at this moment is a sculpture in the Overland Park Arboretum. Chinese artist Yu Chang’s sculpture, Choice: Accept or Reject would not at first seem much of a candidate for a charge of immorality: the poor woman has lost her head, and is coming all to pieces over taking a photo of herself.

The work strikes me as being rather far from sexy or sensual. I think it would be more appropriate to see the nudity as expressing vulnerability to self-esteem issues.

The message of Pray Standing by Arden Ellen Nixon
has little to do with sexuality!
This episode has brought to mind another recent experience. I am the Art Show Director for the annual ConQuesT Art Show, held in Kansas City each Memorial Day Weekend.

One of our exhibitors, Arden Ellen Nixon, is unfortunately all too familiar with the heavy-handed censorship that can come from a misunderstanding of nudity in art. She queried me beforehand, about the acceptability of some of her images for the show. “Do I need to engineer some painter's tape pasties, or are [these] pieces acceptable as is?” she asked.

The pieces in question needed no “pasties,” as far as we were concerned. She sent them, we exhibited (and sold some of) them, and not a single word of complaint came to anyone on the Art Show staff. Compliments, yes—complaints, no.

To me, her work makes expressive use of nudity as a metaphor for spiritual concepts, as in Pray Standing, the work she gave me permission to share here. I really love this piece. It speaks to me of standing in complete openness before the Creator—a powerful message that we could not receive without the nudity of the central figure.

To get into a dither over exposed “boobies” is something most adults should hope to have moved beyond when they made it to high school . . . and yet, the petition to remove the sculpture still gathers signatures. 

How much better to simply confront the artwork, and let it speak to you with its own visual vocabulary!

IMAGE CREDITS: The photo of Yu Chang’s sculpture is by Fred Blocher, and was published through the Kansas City Star’s “Johnson County 913” magazine. Pray Standing is shown here courtesy of the artist, Arden Ellen Nixon. See more of her work on her website


  1. Yu Chang's sculpture is something I'll have to go see. I don't think the picture does it justice.

    Pray standing is a beautiful piece of work that does have it's own visual vocabulary. And I believe that is true of all art.

    This is a case of 'to each his own.' The vocabulary of art is highly personal. Some pieces move me deeply, others I don't give a second glance.

    I guess I don't pay much attention to whether the figure in the art is nude or not. I had a piece of artwork I LOVED. It spoke to me of nature and peace and serenity. I had it hanging on my wall for years. I didn't notice that the female figure in it was nude until someone else mentioned it!

  2. Exactly my point! You were responding to the piece, not social convention. Thanks for the comment!