Why no nudes is good news

February 17, 1995

In a phoney row about political correctness, the Southampton artist Larry Wakefield and a local journalist cynically seized an opportunity last week for publicising Wakefield's work. However, media-watchers will not be surprised to hear that the facts of the matter are not what they seem.

This is my actual view. I do not believe, as reported in the press, that nudes "have no place in a public space". My view is that paintings of female nudes, being sexual in subject matter (see John Berger's Ways of Seeing or Edward Lucie-Smith's Sexuality in Western Art), are not suitable for the workplace. This is because they emphasise women's private role as sexual beings, thus undermining their dignity at work and their professional status, and creating an atmosphere in which unprofessional attitudes and behaviour towards women are more likely. Male nudes would be equally inappropriate in the workplace. Such canvases are perfectly suitable in other locations - art galleries, people's homes and wherever the celebration of human sexuality is in order. Though universities have changed radically in recent years, celebrating human sexuality is not, to my knowledge, in the mission statements of any of them.

The conference room paintings were removed by a majority decision. I imagine many of my colleagues decided against the pictures simply because they did not like them. Probably through administrative inertia, we were not consulted about whether the nudes should hang in the conference room (nor, previously, in the foyer) in the first place.

Now that consultation has taken place, the consensus is that they should go. Lunatics taking over? All that has happened is that a little democracy has broken out: the faculty's consultative process has been extended to the art on display in the building. Who, other than aesthetic authoritarians, can possibly object?

Prudery? In my line of work prudery would be an occupational impediment. I am a demographer, and one of my specialist interests is the scientific study of fertility. The phenomenon has, I believe, something to do with sexual intercourse, its frequency, whether it is accompanied by contraceptive measures, and if so what sort etc. I have been writing about these subjects for 17 years, with, I like to think, some scientific success. Demographers could be seen as the obstetricians of the social sciences: our daily stock in trade is human fecundity. Prudes we are not.

This PC row is entirely contrived. The real issues at stake are quite different. First, should people have a say in deciding what images are displayed in their place of work? The answer, to me, is: "of course". Art chosen on a consensus basis may well be less daring than an individual's selection, but that is true of almost all institutional decision-making.

Also how can a consensus can be arrived at? If a small minority favour a particular artist, should their opinion hold sway? What conventions can be found to guide the process of choice?

Finally, what styles and subject matters are suitable for the workplace? What is our objective in hanging works of art on our walls? There is a purely decorative function, but beyond that what else? Should we not discuss some guiding aesthetic principles?

Censorship? Removing nude paintings from a seminar room no more amounts to censorship than would the exclusion of a recipe for Dundee cake from an economics textbook. It is all a question of suitability. Creative people - writers, scientists, artists - have to work hard finding suitable locations for their output. Rejection is ever-present. All that has happened to Wakefield's nudes is that a group of people, under no ideological pressure, decided that they no longer wish to look at them. It is foolish and self-dramatising of the artist to pretend that this is censorship.

Wakefield is playing the outraged artist? He appears to feel that he has a right to have his paintings hanging on the walls of the university. Can he demand that people buy his work? Why then does he feel he can insist that an academic institution display it?

He says his nudes are in praise of women's "strength, courage and beauty". OK, but why limit attention to the nude? What about women's heroic efforts in the home? Sally Swain's Great Housewives of Art could perhaps liberate his imagination (e.g. 'Mrs Chagall Feeds the Baby' and 'Mrs Dali Hangs Out the Washing').

Wakefield seems to think that battle has been engaged. Who with? Certainly not with me. I am otherwise occupied: writing a paper on rationality in decision-making about childbearing. A darn sight more rationality there, it seems, than in discussions of art in the office.

M ire N! Bhrolch in is senior lecturer in population studies, department of social statistics, University of Southampton.

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