The Charlotte News -- Sunday, March 25, 1928
The Moving Row
"We are no more than a moving row of fantastic shapes which come and go."
By W. J. Cash
What constitutes Decency?
Consider the case of Greenville, in the province of the medieval John S. Richards and the Neolithic Blease. 1 Greenville has discovered Art. Greenville has established a museum and filled it with a plaster-cast of the Apollo Belvedere. The selection of that pagan gent has brought down the fire of a reverend donkey and some lady-snoopers upon the luckless head of the Lions Club, to which organization belongs the credit for the effort to rescue Greenville from the Dark Ages.
Not that anybody in Greenville objects to Art. Quite the contrary. If Art is not to be taken seriously like Cotton Mills and Skyscrapers and Airports, it is a beatific word like Freedom and Democracy and, almost, Americanism, and so, of course, everybody in Greenville is for Art. If it only might have been Athena in her flowing robes or the Muses in their nighties, why all would have been well. And if the Lions had only been cute enough to sink their shekels in a fourth rate copy of a fourth rate bust of Lee, Greenville would have proclaimed a fete and "Te Deums" would have been sung in all the local cathedrals.
But this fellow Apollo. Well, of course, they might have rung in that old scoundrel, Bacchus, or that obscene goat, Pan, but, otherwise, it couldn't have been much worse. The Citizen Apollo, you understand, is a most immodest gent. He's naked--and how! Fig leaves wouldn't grow on the barren summit of Olympus.
Of course, it is not of record that the Greeks ever got greatly exercised over the mere fact of his nudity. But then the Greeks were un-American and so, clearly, not very nice people. There was the Helen person who got a thousand ships down to seat with a flirtation of hers. And that blind bum who trumped up some bawdy songs about a scandalous old rascal, yclept Ulysses, and his shockingly uncouth crew. All in all, it must have been rather painful for a good, clean 100 per cent American to live in those days.
And, of course, this same Apollo has been flaunting his nakedness in the Louvre and all the big and little galleries of the world, including the chaste Metropolitan and the Simon-pure Chicago Institute, for quite a few years now. But Paris is wantoning Sodon reincarnate, and everybody knows that the Pope uses the American galleries as arsenals for hidden arms. So what would you?
It was, said the reverend meddler of the female Comstocks, a plot of the devil. The statue would corrupt youth, wreck homes, lure fair Greenville down the poppy path to the ignoble doom of Ninevah and Tyre. So, forsooth, they demanded that Citizen Apollo either go in the ashcan or put on pants.
The Devil won. And I chronicle my wicked glee and loose ardent cheers for Greenville and her Lions Club. The god, having gone au natural for 30 centuries, will not now be subjected to the indignity of trousers. Bravo Greenville! Viva L'Apollo!
Decency, of course, was the crux of the whole matter. The squalling of the pants-advocates about morality is no more than "a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
Morality is concerned with those things which inspire actions, toward themselves, which may be either harmful or beneficial to the body social. Decency is concerned with taste, with offenses against the senses.
Art is essentially outside morality. A beautiful girl and Velasquez's "Cupid and Venus" may stimulate the imaginative reaction of the individual in exactly the same manner. But whereas in the case of the girl it may give rise to desire for the possession, it is, in the case of the picture, immediately sublimated into the sense of the Beautiful, aesthetic exaltation. That, of course, is the reaction of only the normal mind, which distinguishes between realities and fantasies.
I am not unaware that Art may sometimes produce reactions that may be Moral or Immoral. To see Rodin's "The Old Prostitute," is to hear the greatest sermon ever preached from the text "The Wages of Sin is Death." It is a tract in defense of Chastity. I know also that there are people in the world who are fired with salacious fancies by the same artist's "The Kiss." But it is also true, as every good Freudian knows, that these same people may so react to the sight of a shoe, an umbrella, a pail, a dagger.
These things are merely incidental.
What the artist is concerned with is such stimulation of the imagination as will turn to aesthetic emotion as the easiest channel of outlet. Your moralizing mind reads a sermon in "The Prostitute," but the morality lies in the mind, not in the exciting agent. "The Kiss" stirs corcupiscence because the mind impinged upon is sexually over-conscious, morbid. The individual is abnormal in that he derives excitement from phantoms of the brain that the normal derives only from reality. Neither reaction is inherent in Art. The aesthetic reaction is.
And morality must deal with the normal.
Unfortunately, that argument has been seized upon by filth-hucksters and prostituted to ignoble ends. Obscene moving pictures, libidinous [unobservable word], calculated to appeal directly to the morbid interests of the public, have flooded the land, and their sponsors have screeched to high Heaven about the holiness of Art when attacked. The trouble there lies in the mind of the public, it seems to me. Really there is little enough difficulty in distinguishing. Whatever produces the aesthetic emotion at first reaction is pretty likely to be Art. Whatever emphasizes other elements first may be immoral or moral. It probably won't be Art. The pictures in the Wiertz Museum, for example, strike home immediately with moral horror of War. The aesthetic reaction is almost totally lacking. They exist as sermons. John Ruskin destroyed some salacious drawings by Turner, because they were designed to appeal directly to the sexual imagination. Ruskin was right. They were immoral. "Honi soit qui mal y pense"2 is the sum total of the moral element in art.
But Decency is different. If the Apollo Belvedere is actually indecent, then it cannot possibly be Art and had better, as the Greenville protestants insist, be put into trousers.
The argument that we never, under any circumstances, allow complete nudity in public proves nothing at all. The answer is that there is no occasion for it. The artist may have that occasion. He is concerned with the expression of an [unobservable word--aesthetic(?)], the beauty, or the grotesqueness, of the human form. To attempt to bind him by a conventional taboo is as absurd as to suppose that a goldfish is concerned with privacy. Actually, the fig leaf is far more indecent in certain figures since it inevitably calls attention to Sex by its very unnaturalness, its flaunting of secrecy.
The normal mind reacts to the nude figure in precisely the same manner a group of boys bathing react to the bodies of one another. Sexual consciousness is completely lacking because of absorption with other more inevitable ideas.
The Puritan sees indecency in nude art simply because his mind is sensitive on that point. Repression of his own desires has created a perverted attitude.
Instead of seeing the Apollo as a whole, the embodiment of the ancient sculptor's Idea of form and line and harmony, he beholds only the phallus.
Whatever of itself fixes interest on those things which arouse disgust and shock in the normal mind, free of over-emphasis on Sex or any other bogey of society, is, I should say, indecent. Whatever does not do that is decent. The Apollo stands absolved.
1 Site ed. note: Cole L. Blease was elected Governor of South Carolina in 1912 by his demagogued appeals to mill workers based on racism and sectionalism. He continued as a chief Southern exemplar of racist stump rhetoric for two decades as United States Senator from South Carolina. (See Mind of South, pp. 245-53, 284, 301, 422)
2 Site ed. note: Literal meaning: "May he be shamed who thinks ill of it." The motto for The Order of the Garter in Great Britain which is inscribed on the ribbon presented to its recipients. The supposed, though discredited, origin of the Order is that this remark greeted the return of the lost garter of the countess of Salisbury in the reign of Edward III, ca. 1346.
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