When were you shocked by a piece of art? Do you find nudity tricky, or does anything go? Why is a penis more offensive than a breast? We may not think much about such matters until we’re forced to and discover we care. That was me when I read about the poor school principal in Florida who was forced to resign after her sixth-grade (11 to 12-year-old) pupils were shown an image of Michelangelo’s iconic David statue, without parents being “warned” in advance. The class also discussed Botticelli’s equally iconic Birth of Venus. Shocking!
I am reasonably sure that many of you will share my initial mirth. However, I am equally certain that mirth soon gives way to fear over what this story says about the creeping censorship and “cancel culture” associated with the ultra-conservatism that is now so rooted in the southern United States. Florida’s far-right governor Ron DeSantis, the Republicans’ chief alternative to Donald Trump for 2024, had just days before signed off on “don’t say gay” legislation, banning the teaching of sex education and gender identity issues to under 12s.
How did principal Hope Carrasquilla of Tallahassee Classical School find herself in this mess? That creeping censorship was insidious. Last year, the school had warned conservative parents that their children might see “David” in his glory, this year it did not. The exotically-named chair of the school board, Barney Bishop III, described this omission as “egregious”.
“David” was originally commissioned by the Medicis to be placed in the Renaissance cathedral of Florence. Upon completion in 1504 it was regarded as the greatest work of art ever, so wonderful that it should be exhibited outside in the city. The weather took its toll and David was eventually moved to the Accademia, where it resides today. Famously, 400+ years later, a copy was made as a gift to Queen Victoria, who regifted it to the new South Kensington Museum (today’s Victoria and Albert). When she saw it, she was so shocked that the museum commissioned a fig leaf sculpture to place strategically on the statue whenever she visited.
Perhaps you have your own trigger points in art. Would you have been outraged by Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 “Fountain”, a signed porcelain urinal? Maybe you recall the furore surrounding the infamous 1997 “Sensation” exhibition which included both Marcus Harvey’s painting of killer Myra Hindley and Chris Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary” made from porn magazines and elephant dung. Shock art in history often involved the female nude, notably when women were portrayed defiantly; gazing shamelessly at the onlooker – as in Manet’s 1865 “Olympia”: neither passive, nor demure.
When we condemn Florida conservatives as philistines, we must note our own red lines. One person’s Michelangelo is another’s Damian Hirst, Picasso or Banksy. But, in a world where extreme violence in art appears to pass almost unchallenged, our continuing issue with a penis or vulva is mystifying and alarming. Sadly, there appear to be few votes in defending the arts like Winston Churchill, who in 1938 said: “The arts are essential to any complete national life”. Florida reveals we are not fighting for individual artworks, but defending a belief system against the likes of Barney Bishop III. It really does matter.