Topless Bea Arthur still controversial after all these years


A PG version of John Currin’s “Bea Arthur Naked” (John Currin/Christie’s)

You can probably buy John Currin’s topless portrait of former Golden Girl Bea Arthur at auction for an estimated $1.8 to $2.5 million. But you cannot, apparently, post the portrait on Facebook.

Editors at the Daily Beast learned that the hard way Wednesday morning, when they posted a picture of the obviously titled “Bea Arthur Naked” on the social network site and promptly got locked out of their company page. That, the Daily Beast’s Brian Ries argued on Twitter, was weird for a few reasons: it essentially banned a news organization and prevented its distribution of an image, which is a work  by an acclaimed painter.

The portrait is also pretty tasteful, all things considered. There are more provocative images in the National Gallery of Art. There are definitely more shocking things elsewhere on Facebook.

But this is only the latest controversy for the embattled “Bea Arthur Naked” — the painting (and the painter) have been alternately vilified and lauded since Currin painted it in 1991. Here’s what some critics have had to say:

  • “Boycott this show.” (Kim Levin, The Village Voice, 1992)
  • “There are critics and other art world luminaries who find Currin’s art, though technically admirable, to be derivative, extremely vulgar, and downright quirky.” (Frederick Winship, UPI, 2004)
  • “Toe-curling, embarrassing provocations, leading to knee-jerk accusations of sexism, ageism and misogyny” (Adrian Searle, The Independent, 1995)
  • “Blasts of seriously bad taste” (James Hall, The Guardian, 1996)
  • “A graduate of Yale’s art school, Currin can paint, however, no better or worse than dozens of others.” (Peter Goddard, Toronto Star, 2004)

Others put it differently:

  • “Those middle-aged women are not objects of mockery, as it happens, but memorable in their proud desperation to keep up appearances, and dignified in the case of the actress Bea Arthur bare-breasted.” (Michael Kimmelman, New York Times, 2003)
  • “Naked, Arthur nevertheless remains composed and dignified, her smile and slightly peaked eyebrows conveying a sense of irony, even amusement. The portrait is too psychological for the everyday antifeminist caricature.” (David Rimanelli, ArtForum, 2003)
  • “I’m not one of Currin’s assassins. I was pretty entertained by his exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.” (Geoff Gehman, The Morning Call, 2004)
  • “I loved her character and the persona of that particular age … They were sympathetic paintings, even though they seem mean-spirited.” (The artist himself, Rocky Mountain News, 2003)

Facebook, as it turns out,  flagged the photo inadvertently. The site’s terms of service technically forbid nudity, but not in art.

As for Ries, the Daily Beast editor, he’s back on Facebook and undeterred by the drama. Is he going to try posting Arthur’s portrait again? Maybe before it goes to auction at Christie’s Wednesday night?

“Oh, hell yeah,” he said.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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