One of the primary differences between Eastern and Western schools of philosophy is the dramatically different perspectives on the individual. Within Eastern thought, the individual is part of the whole, recognizes its place in the whole, and acts in the best interest of the whole. Living for the greater good of humanity is key to Eastern philosophies. Western philosophy, by contrast, emphasizes the individual. The whole is designed to support the individual. Value is placed on who and what I am over who we are. The US Army’s mantra Be all that you can be is indicative of a genuinely Western mindset.
The United States has, in many ways, stood since its inception as a bastion of Western philosophy. The very concept of democracy, that each person has a right to vote and participate in government, could not, would not exist without the underlying premise that each person is individually important and deserves equal rights, equal protection, and equal opportunity. As such, our founding principles are girded upon individual freedom and responsibility.
Yet, at the same time, American society has never been too quick to embrace individuality. Even among the earliest Europeans to settle on this soil there was disagreement and social discomfort with anything that might stray from what we would now call “community standards.” For all our talk about individual rights and freedom of expression, there is incredible pressure to conform. Schools have dress codes. Teachers, lawyers, and some other professionals are pressured to adhere to strict codes of conduct that inhibit personal expression and in many cases even punish with expulsion those who pursue individual interests outside stated codes of behavior.
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Body modification is not new. For millennia tribes have used various forms of body modification as a means of identity. Certain tattoos might not only define the clan to which one belonged, but also one’s role within the clan. Others have used piercings and gauging as symbols of wealth or status within a given community. Among some native North American tribes, including so-called “civilized” tribes such as Cherokee and Creek, tattoos on the hands and forearms were symbols of power and position within the tribe.
Yet, among America’s individualistically minded society, body modifications are still regarded as a bit too rogue for the mainstream. Granted, their popularity is the highest its ever been, and tattoo and piercing shops can be found in just about every town and city across the continent. Still, the conventional wisdom is that, while one may have body modifications, they should be discreet and hidden from public view. Many restaurants will not allow servers to have any visible ink, or piercings other than their ears. Long sleeves and high collars are the rule for most any public-facing business person. While we might admit one’s right to use their body as a means of expression, that’s one expression we don’t especially want made public.
What we fail to realize, as a progressive people, is that to censor the one is to censor the whole. Expressions of thought, desire, philosophy, wonder, and worry that we do not allow into the mainstream of our collective conversations are expressions that become lost. When one stands up to say, “This is me! This is who I am,” our society has an obligation and a responsibility to listen, even if the form and means of that statement are unconventional and, perhaps, at times, even a bit unsettling.
Herein lies one of the many purposes of nude art as part of the public forum. What one may not be able to express at work, or at school, or even on the sidewalk, one can express through art. Providing a means of expression for those whom the public conversation attempts to ignore is one of the primary responsibilities of art. Nude art gives people who have poured countless hours into delicately designed tattoos a chance to say, perhaps even scream, “Look at me, damnit! I’m trying to tell you something!”
Those who would censor nude art in the public forum are essentially telling us, “We don’t want to listen to what you have to say.” They don’t want to hear opinions that conflict or challenge theirs. They, whoever that mysterious if not largely unorganized group of cantankerous people are, want everyone to conform to the status quo. There are presumed, though not specifically stated, “rules” for how one should behave, what manner of expression is appropriate, and even the illogical presumption, though without substantial and absolute evidence, that exposing young people to the wrong means of expression is somehow harmful.
My challenge to such misguided thought is that the speech that does the most harm is the one that is not allowed to be heard. Expression that is forced underground, that is kept from public conversation, that is denied a place in mainstream social existence, becomes subversive and divisive as it struggles to survive. The voice to which no one wants to listen too often turns to more violent and disruptive means of getting their point across.
The reality is this: people who are readily given a seat at the dinner table are not likely to poison the wine.
Society needs alternative forms of expression. Society needs to hear, and respond, to what an overwhelming number of people are saying with the ink with other modifications to their body. Society needs nude art to help facilitate that conversation.
Our society is built upon the value of individual expression. If we are to continue to succeed in this democratic format, we must listen to what individuals are saying with their bodies. We must accept nude art as a critical part of that public conversation.