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As a Protest, What a Bust

April 21, 2005

The College of Cardinals elected an ultraconservative pope earlier this week under a ceiling replete with genitals, breasts and buttocks that apparently gave no offense.

Good thing Michelangelo painted his Sistine Chapel masterpieces in Rome and not Venice -- California, that is.

As Times staff writer Diane Haithman reported Saturday, a handful of Venice residents are up in arms over a statue that doesn't have any, a proposed nude female torso being donated to the city by artist Robert Graham and donor Roy Doumani. Though the statue, slated for installation in a popular traffic circle, has been approved by the Los Angeles City Council, residents have filed an appeal that could hold up the project for months or cancel it.

This is not the old Venice. Soaring property values have gentrified what used to be a funky, let-it-all-hang-out artists' enclave. Opponents of the statue, however, go beyond religious and social conservatives. There are also feminists in opposition, objecting to Graham's alleged objectification of the female form. The reaction probably has more to do with the artist than the artwork.

Graham is a controversial figure who has been accused of having a streak of misogyny. Some of his works show nude women -- svelte, young, unsmiling, in poses both unglamorous and gymnastic, some looking like they'd be equally at home in a men's magazine or a gynecological journal. Yet the same man created the graceful figure of the Virgin Mary on the entryway to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles. A depiction of the proposed metal torso shows it to be no more pornographic than the Venus de Milo.

Sadly, most public art in the United States seems designed to produce as tepid a reaction as possible, and that's why the vast majority of it is so awful. Art ought to provoke a reaction. In that sense, it's nice to see public debate.

It's too bad the protest is over the statue's morality rather than its quality, but it does produce some priceless images. Members of the evangelical Venice Foursquare Church gathered at the traffic circle earlier this month to pray that the statue be canceled, even though a parade of real women on the nearby beach regularly flaunt their own torsos in string bikinis. Others complain that the headless, armless figure is a symbol of violence against women or of female anonymity, even though the torso in art has long represented a celebration of the human form, not a fantasy for hatchet murderers.

A nude torso is nothing to lose one's head over. The community will be the loser if it is scrapped.

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