It’s Labor Day, an occasion to recognize and thank the men and women who—by the strain of their backs and the sweat of their brows—have (already) made our country great.
There was a time—even in America—when heroic male nudes were used in art, monument and architecture. With a tip of the hat to the Classical aesthetic of Greece (and later Rome), the depiction of a fit man was used to represent the struggle, determination or achievement of the society. The ideal masculine physique—whether it belonged to an athlete, warrior or laborer—represented the noble efforts of the society as a whole. Likewise, idealized female nudes were often used to symbolize those intangible characteristics of an ideal society, like liberty, compassion or justice. As late as the Art Deco period of the 1920’s and 1930’s, glorious human figures—with their bodies on display—were incorporated into the structure or decoration of the period’s building. On a visit to a late 19th or early 20th Century cemetery, one will see a treasure trove of allegory represented by the human body.
After World War II, all of this came to an end—at least in public spaces. Perhaps sterile International Modernism (with its stripped-down Ayn Rand/Fountainhead ideal) no longer wanted “artisan craft” or “decoration.” Perhaps craft and handwork had become too expensive. Or, maybe, the fashion no longer desired Classical embellishment.
I suspect something else might have been going-on, as well. As the Twentieth Century progressed, people became more aware of human sexuality as a science—complete with theories, analysis and scrutiny. Naked bodies were no longer benign symbols of a greater good. A cigar was no longer a cigar. This public awareness made bodies something to hide, something to be ashamed of and something from which we should shield our children. People became sheepish about admitting a desire to admire a beautiful body. On top of this, with the rise of a post-war American middle class, nuclear families (more and more) were being sequestered away from the previous “cheek by jowl” communal urban living which had been the norm in decades past. In the old days, your neighbors saw (and heard) what you did and what you looked like. Now, privacy was increased and expected by more people—and with it came a heightened sense of what others should be allowed to see.
And then there was another development. With the rise of a Gay Rights movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s, a new kind of man was being openly acknowledged—a man who desired other men. It is likely that this, more than anything else, killed the market for nude men (at least amongst straight men). After all, what straight man would choose to invite speculation about the object of his private desire? Furthermore, naked women became verboten as the Women’s Movement began to challenge the appropriateness of objectifying the female body (though, in truth, both male and female bodies had been objectified for millennia). As often happens, the culture of the despised minority takes root and blooms in the established, majority culture. Jazz and Hip Hop is now appreciated by whites. Sensitive men are encouraged to say “I love you.” And the appreciation of a fit, healthy male body has kept the registers ringing at Abercrombie and Fitch. Perhaps we’re heading back to The Garden?
The bronze-clad bookends above, made in the 1920’s, represent the growth of our nation and our cities during the Teens and Twenties.
LEO Design will be open today from Noon ’til 6:00 pm in honor of Labor Day.
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