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 sceneAshcroft watching himself on television,
becomes "mortified" when he spots a metal breast over
his headand 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 SignoriaFlorence's center of city governmentsince
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 art10 percent by culture
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 doesnt
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