Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sex, Violence, and Hokey Pokey at the National Gallery

As a writer of YA, and particularly YA that has dark themes, I tend to keep an eye on debates about "quality content." I quirk a curious brow at those who deride stories that are "too violent" or boast too much "sexual content." Much of this criticism is lobbed by "Christian" groups, like the one in West Bend, WI who has sued for the right to burn "inappropriate" books shelved at their public library.

I'm both astounded and frustrated by news of hate-filled censorship, so when I was wandering the halls of the National Gallery today I got to thinking about human culture, sex, and violence. I find it interesting that some folks who label themselves as "Christian" are so distant from the history of their own beliefs. The holy texts and tales attached to Judeo-Christian literature couldn't be more full of sex and violence. Please bear in mind as I write this passage that I have a very deep respect for and fascination with religion (this comment isn't tongue and cheek, my father is a Presbyterian minister). I teach the history of religion in early modern culture and I draw much of my material for writing from questions that I have about the blurred lines between the spiritual and the material that cropped up in Western societies from 1500-1800.

I wonder why so many people seem afraid to take a hard look at human sexuality and the role of violence in our cultures, and are especially vehement that children should know nothing of such subjects. All it takes is a short walk through art galleries to see how integral both are to human history.

Here are just a few examples that I saw hanging on the walls this afternoon:

Susannah at Her Bath, Fracisco Hayez. Oh Susannah. What's an Old Testament girl to do when she all she wants is to scrub up and the Elders come in and tell her if she doesn't sleep with them the meanies will accuse her of adultery. Being of the no-nonsense type, Susannah refuses anyway and manages to prove her innocence; thus, she isn't stoned to death (phew!)

Judith in the Tent of Holofernes, Johann Liss. Just call her Buffy the Tyrant Slayer. Judith knew business when it came to getting her people out from under the thumb of Holofernes. She seduced this bad boy and then chopped of his head. You go girl!

Samson and Delilah, Peter Paul Rubens. Uh, if a picture is worth a thousand words need I say more?

Saint Sebastian, Gerrit van Honthorst. I've chosen Sebastian as the emblem for all the martyr works that fill museum collections. Believe me this image is tame when it comes to forms of martyrdom that are out there depicted in all their graphic horror. I'd also like to mention that this painting is only one of six Sebastian portraits that are hanging at the National Gallery (and the National Gallery doesn't have a monopoly on paintings of Saint Sebastian).
I'm not going to put up any pictures of the mortification of Christ, but I'd wager that those paintings out number all others in most art museums around the world.

So - sex, violence, discord, betrayal, tumult: all part of the human condition and something that needs to be part of literature and education not hidden from sight. That's my soapbox for today.

Now onto the hilarity. It seems that my trip is going to be marked by bizarre incidents with children (see it is related to above post).

During my perusal of the galleries today I encountered a National Gallery docent surrounded by a group of young children (ages 4-7 or so) and their parents. The docent was enthusiastically leading the children (and a few of the parents) in a boisterous round of the Hokey Pokey. Yes, I'm serious. When I saw them they had just gotten to the "you put your whole self in" verse.

I'm not certain what this tour was docketed as. Maybe, show your kids museums can be fun? Or, hey parents look at nice paintings while our employee distracts your children!?

Whatever the case may be it was one of the strangest museums scenes I've ever come across.

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