Blinders To History
By Joan Altabe

Attorney General John Ashcroft, our own Director of Intelligence Clouseau.

To keep TV audiences from seeing the partially bared female anatomy of an aluminum statue in the Justice Department's Great Hall during his news conferences, Ashcroft ordered it covered up. This, even though the 12- foot-high figure, known as "The Spirit of Justice," has stood there for 66 years.

Mechanically, I go over the scene—Ashcroft watching himself on television, becomes "mortified" when he spots a metal breast over his head—and I ask the air: Why not just move the lectern away from the statue, or hold the conference in another space? After all, the Great Hall is not Ashcroft's private space. He can't, like a dog, pee his boundaries on a spot owned by everyone.

And if this attorney general, who does nothing that is not approved by the religious right, thinks he's preserving tradition, he doesn't know his history well enough. Michelangelo's wholly au naturel "David" has been standing in the front door of Palazzo della Signoria—Florence's center of city government—since 1503. It was supposed to go on the dome of the Cathedral of Florence, but officials opted for their main square so everyone could see it better. Michelangelo's renderings of nude saints on the Sistine Chapel's altar walls also come to mind.

A nude not unlike "The Spirit of Justice" also was an icon of the French government in the 19th century. "Liberty Leading the People" by Eugene Delacroix showed a female with bared breasts raising the tricolor of the French flag in battle. The uncovered breast was a reminder that Liberty is the mother of France.

If unclothed figures are OK for a great church, as well as two European governments, why isn't it OK for ours?

The answer may lie in the warring of two old ideals that continue to hold us: The Renaissance ideal, which says bodies stand for truth and beauty, and the Medieval ideal, which says bodies stand for shame. So we diet but remain diffident about our unclad selves. Ashcroft, holding to the latter, seems to ignore a large part of human history. (Even a repressive country like China allows nudity in art—10 percent by culture ministry decree).

By craving the security of the medieval tradition and ignoring that of the Renaissance, Ashcroft keeps alive a belief system best illustrated in a 1473 painting. "The Martydom of Saint Agatha" pictures men mutilating the breasts of a female in the belief that the female is a sexual temptation and must be crushed. Even paintings that came after the Middle Ages perpetuate the notion that women are temptresses. Rubens, illustrating a Bible story, depicts Bathsheba tempting David with a knowing look, making the point that she's the transgressor, not him.

But the Bible doesn‚t tell the story that way. It says that from an off-angle on his rooftop, King David spied on Bathsheba washing herself, inquired about her, learned she was the wife of one of his loyal soldiers, summoned her to his bed, impregnated her, and arranged for her husband to be killed in battle.

Yet there are painters, like Rubens, who have chosen to see Bathsheba as the culprit. Eighteenth-century painter Jean-Francois Detory rendered a nude Bathsheba sprawled out with beckoning eyes, presumably to lead the king on to commit adultery and murder.

Painters have the license to distort. A man who runs our justice department doesn't. Ashcroft ought to uncover "The Spirit of Justice" and by doing, remove his blinders to history.