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Art or Porno?: Getting Naked for the Sake of National Lampoon

by | May 18, 2017 | General | 2 comments

Last month, I talked about the forgotten story of Audrey Munson, the supermodel of the 1910s, whose form inspired many of the famous statues that still grace New York City today. Audrey was unusual in her comfort posing in “the altogether” as it was called in those days of euphemism.

Audrey was a consummate professional and claimed that she could easily tell a real (always male) artist from a fake. The latter usually dressed poorly, had paint or plaster dust in his unruly hair and kept a cold, plain studio. The true artist was so focused on creating his work of art that he barely remembered to let her pause to stretch her sore muscles. The fake playboy artistes of course had plush studios decked out in Orientalist frippery and spent less time on sculpting than on seduction. Their models spent plenty of time relaxing on velvet cushions under the influence of champagne. Audrey shunned such men, but some of her friends earned diamond rings and fine dresses for their services, while Audrey took home a mere fifty cents an hour.

In spite of her insistence on the transcendent motives of both professional model and true artist, one particular part of Audrey’s story has stayed with me. That is, the moment when her world changed forever, when Isidore Konti first convinced her—and her mother—that Audrey should take her clothes off for the sake of art.

“There was nothing wrong, [sculptor Isidore Konti] argued, with Audrey imparting her beauty to create a beautiful object in marble or bronze. Indeed, it was the duty of every woman, he insisted, to ‘contribute what she could to art and loveliness.’” (James Bone, The Curse of Beauty, 40).

For Audrey, especially, disrobing in front of a man was not a sordid act. It meant stepping beyond the limitations of earthly womanhood to become an immortal work of art. Yet while Konti’s eloquent argument persuaded Audrey and her mother, a voice inside me was skeptical.

“He’s lying his head off with that ‘duty of every woman’ malarkey. He just wants to see her naked!”

Biographer James Bone supported my instinct by reporting that the artists who employed Audrey would gossip about the beautiful dimples in her lower back. This suggests that sensual enjoyment of her unclothed form was not totally lacking. Yet Audrey’s relationships with many of the famous artists working in New York was apparently above board.

So where did my mistrust come from? As writers will do, I let my mind wander, through images and stories I remembered when my awareness of sexual politics took shape way back in the 1970s. Memories rose up—the strongest was of the two photographs at the top of this essay, of the same nude woman, side by side. One posed, artistic and boring, the other showing the woman’s sense of violation as if the photographer had burst in when she was changing into her bathing suit. I remembered, too, joking advice on how to convince a woman to pose nude, and the clear message that the male photographer was conning his female model into doing something bad, even illegal. The name of the magazine where I read this article was also clear in my memory: National Lampoon.

The internet is a boon for recovering long ago memories. I browsed the tables of contents of the early issues of National Lampoon online. With the July 1970 “Very Bad Taste” issue I hit the jackpot: “Art or Porno? A Photographer’s Guide to Naked Ladies” by Geoffrey Mandeville. For just a few dollars, the images that haunted me were before my eyes again. The context came flooding back. Summer vacation at the beach. Lounging around the motel room, lost in my older sister’s cool college magazine. Neither she nor my parents were at all aware the afternoon’s reading would leave such an indelible impression.

Just as I recalled, the humor of the article was entirely based on the tension between a man claiming to be interested in the female form as art and his “base” sexual instincts.

For example, the author suggests some Dos and Don’ts for your photography session:

DO refer to your subject matter as “art studies” or “figure composition.”

DON’T call your finished work “pictures of naked ladies” or “hot stuff.”

DO use such terminology as “bounced floods” and “stroboscopic timer.”

DON’T use such expressions as “Chilly, isn’t it? Heh heh,” and “Watch the birdie! Heh heh.”

My young self picked up on the message very well—never trust a man if he asks you to take off your clothes for art. It’s a zero-sum game. He wins, you lose. And if he says high-falutin’ things about Art and beauty and duty, he’s lying.

In the decades between my first reading and my recent revisitation, I arranged for my own nude photo session—with a female photographer. I knew at the time I was attempting to take charge of the gaze, to define my own beauty. Would I have done so without that issue of National Lampoon and the conflict born then that I felt an urge to resolve?

Today I am certainly better able to take a mature and appreciative view of erotic art than I was in 1970. And yet posing in the nude still has its dangers. Consider the current scandal where nude photos of female Marines have been shared without their permission by male colleagues. The excuse for posting these photos is that the women “cheated” on their Marine lovers and exposing their erotic photos is their just punishment. Some wonder if it’s not pure sexual harassment, to keep women who dare to aspire to what was traditionally a male role in their sexualized, objectified place.

Of course, we shouldn’t allow the Marines or National Lampoon to have the last word. The nude human form—male or female—can be a transcendent work of art. A response that belittles and degrades tells us more about the viewer than he might like to admit. Perhaps we all have within ourselves the dueling artist/artiste—the one who wonders at and elevates beauty and the other who seeks to dominate through defilement?

About the Author Donna George Storey

Donna George Storey

I want to change the world one dirty story at a time.

When I posted this mission statement on my website, I hoped my cheeky ambition would make my readers smile. I smile every time I read it myself. And yet I’m totally serious. I truly believe that writers who are brave enough to speak their truth about the erotic experience in all its complexity—the yearning, the pleasure, the conflicts, and the sweet satisfaction—do change the world for the better.

So if you’re here at ERWA because you’re already writing erotica, a big thank you and keep on doing what you’re doing. If you’re more a reader than a writer, I encourage you to start dreaming and writing and expressing the truth and magic of this fundamental part of the human experience in your own unique voice. Can there be a more pleasurable way to change the world?

I’m the author of Amorous Woman, a semi-autobiographical erotic novel set in Japan, The Mammoth Book of Erotica Presents the Best of Donna George Storey  and nearly 200 short stories and essays in journals and anthologies. Check out my Facebook author page at: https://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor/

 

2 Comments

  1. You’re quite right that artists may well have mixed motives in asking a woman (or indeed anyone) to pose in the nude. However, is that necessarily bad? I would say not, as long as the artist is honest with him/herself and the model. How can one separate sexual desire from aesthetic appreciation? Each one catalyzes the other.

    My own experiences modeling nude had strong erotic undertones. Because I trusted the photographer, I didn’t mind at all. In fact, the sensual echoes gave the resulting photos much more intensity.

    Reply
    • Donna George Storey

      You know, Lisabet, I agree with you–and you’ve helped clarify something for me. It’s not the erotic elements of the encounter that bother me, it’s the dishonesty, the lie. Of course, a serious professional in 1910 couldn’t admit those complexities to a 16-year-old model, much less her mother. The National Lampoon article definitely plays upon the false either-or “moral” choice–either you’re a pure artist and the sensual is transformed into Beauty and Truth or you’re a complete sleaze. None of the famous sculptures Audrey inspired are without erotic power. I have no doubt her energy and focus played a part in her popularity. That is, it was a human connection between artist and model, not a conceptual one.

      Reply

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Latest Posts

DO IT YOURSELF
by Nikky Kaye

Erotic romcom: starting over

CHARACTERS WELCOME
by Taisha Demay

Charity erotica anthology

SENSUAL SABOTAGE
by Willa Edwards

Contemporary, Menage, BDSM

SINGLE-SYLLABLE STEVE
by Sam Thorne

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THE GUESCHTUNKINA RAY GUN
by Spencer Dryden

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