Public nudity is a bit like school prayer, the question being "Whose?"

Nude beaches, for example, are frightful disappointments to those with prurient interests. The naked people on them all appear to have lived for years on apricot pits, prunes and dehydrated yogurt. At least they look that way on the Yankee island I have firsthand experience of nudewise.

They say it is different in Yugoslavia. There (they say) the nude beaches are thick with Venuses de this and that, but if so they probably wouldn't let us ordinary folk on them.

Even in New England it may happen that two young men traipse up to their nude beach right through the respectable Lucy Vincent Beach which never had anything nude on it except a stranded fish. Once I saw two indignant ladies gesturing angrily to the naked men passing through. They (pretending innocence and a desire to comprehend the ladies) came prancing over.

Which illustrates, as my wife observed, the cardinal first principle:

If you don't like it, try to ignore it. Don't bring it closer.

The recent buzz over the cover of Newsweek, which ran a piece of fine art consisting of a frontal view of a lady with two breasts like absolute blue jays, illustrates a second point:

Nudity is shocking, depending almost entirely on whether you expect it or not. A bikini-clad girl on a beach may be very pleasant to see, or she may not, depending on the way God made her and what she did about it, but she is not likely to make anybody gasp. The same costume at a Moral Majority meeting, or for that matter in the Senate Dining Room, would almost certainly arouse resentment among some.

Male nudity seems more surprising than female nudity, probably because painters tend to be men and tend to paint naked ladies, so we are used to them, though admittedly there have not been any really luscious nudes since the death of Renoir.

You will notice that objections to nudity fall off considerably (even in the Senate Dining Room) if the viewer thinks the nude creature lovely.

As one of my scouts, Cletus G. Starkes in northern Mississippi, put it, "the main trouble with the picture on the magazine cover was that her boobs were no better than 6.8."

Another scout, a man of the cloth, said that fortunately the "horizontal line two inches above the navel" had rather dashed his prurient interest, "though others who have no objection to rolls of fat might be unduly stimulated."

Still others, who adore rolls of fat, might go positively wild. It depends not only on what you think is proper, but what you think is dandy.

"I well recall," said the clerical scout, "my visit to the Sistine Chapel and the many churches of Italy. Of course, the Latin temperament is given to, well you know, so for them St. Teresa is probably not pornographic though she is pretty different from our own; ah, but then charity is the watchword, is it not, especially for Italians."

Another point: Tradition affects nudity. If you've always seen the American bald eagle buck naked, it's one thing, but a nude of Martha Washington would be something else again.

Topless or topless and bottomless bars with more or less naked dancers are known to have greater impact upon being beheld for the first time than on subsequent viewings.

The National Geographic, to cite a rather different example, was formerly sought by pimpled youths not so much for its stimulating articles on the Hebrides and the wild birds thereof as for the tropical ladies trotting about the jungle in the buff. An editor over there has told me there are no naked savages left, practically speaking. Between missionaries and cotton merchants, the ladies are now all done up in bright colors, and if you want nudity (he said) you had better turn your camera on the American and European women of the cruise ship in the harbor.

Another point: Nudity is much more refined if surrounded by genteel trappings. Thus Botticelli shows his Venus standing on a scallop shell with the little waves of the sea lapping about, and her long yellow hair (a very genteel thing in itself) is very pure, and besides the sky is raining pink roses down, all around her. Delicate roses, long yellow hair, the open sea and the scallop shell (symbol of pilgrims) all join together to make the naked goddess perfectly okay. You can gaze at her without being called a dirty old man.

Whenever a diverting issue of nudity arises, people jump in with both feet as a rule, almost invariably betraying other interests they happen to have besides nudity, and using nudity to advance the particular bee they happen to have in their bonnet.

Thus another scout, who has observed the fate of decorum for the past 80 years, told me she did not see why anybody bothered with the Newsweek cover, what with Mrs. Reagan "running about Versailles with bare shoulders and wearing practically underwear bloomers all over France and proud of it. You never saw Bess Truman cavorting about in bloomers all over France. Of course if you elect some California Republican with plaid suits and--" well, it is just here that you suspect the discussion has little to do with nudity and a good bit to do with beastly Republicans.

Any fair survey of American magazines will come sooner or later to The American Pigeon Journal. I have searched its issues for several years without finding anything pornographic in it. It is the best kind of magazine for those wishing to escape nudity. Its covers have large photographs of pigeons, high-flying rollers, red nuns, Dutch frillbacks, pigmy pouters and glossy turbiteens. A refuge indeed, as one of their readers once put it.