Life is full of surprises. I never thought I'd be writing for a magazine that was banned from my local supermarket on grounds of prurience. But that is what has happened. I am referring to that rather startlingly frontal painting of a female nude, with breasts like miners' lamps, that adorned the cover of Newsweek last week. It caused a terrific squawking. Some people think it's trivial or ridiculous. But I don't. I am fascinated by the uproar, by the confusion of feelings registered (including my own "Good God!") upon first seeing that cover, by the fact that we can even be worrying about it in this (lamentably) undressed and undisciplined day and age.
I cannot help thinking that the people at Newsweek who chose William Bailey's "Portrait of S" for the cover from among all the various other paintings with which they illustrated the story inside the magazine were at least aware that this would be noticed. It is unimaginable to me that they weren't. That is what magazine covers are about--being noticed-- and I would not even rule out the remote possibility that, liberated and sober-minded fellows though they are, some one among them might conceivably, at a moment when the others weren't present, have gone: heh, heh, heh.
However, I have no information as to that. So the allegation is rank smear and innuendo--and anyway, beside the point. The point is that I believe utterly their protestations of innocent astonishment at the vehemence of the reaction to that cover, at the widespread expressions of outrage and shock. In a moment we will get around to considering whether this particular portrait deserved to be viewed with such outrage and shock in the first place, which I of course do not think it did. But before we do--and setting aside not only our conclusion, but also the merits of the case altogether --let us rejoice that large numbers of Americans can still be shocked by anything, especially by what they conceive to be a degradation of public taste. This is no mean trick when you consider that public taste has already sunk to a point where the advisability of printing child pornography tends to be discussed only as a First Amendment "rights" issue, as distinct from a self-evidently moral one. Two cheers, then, for the capacity to be shocked by a dirty picture, even if the picture isn't dirty.
I must confess, in short, that I would no more have predicted the magnitude of the public outcry than the magazine's editors apparently did. Several trends in our society would have thrown me off. One is the worthy and wholesome, if somewhat lugubrious, insistence by the women's movement in recent years that the female body--its appearance, reality and workings--not be regarded as either (1) fit subject only for cheesecake reveries, or (2) a collection of vaguely disgusting glands and functions not to be contemplated by polite society. From toxic shock to abortion to mastectomy, the female anatomy and its sorrows, not just its joys, have become the commonplace stuff of parlor discussion, newspaper features and TV up-close scrutiny these days. It is light years from the time when little girls of 14 (they no longer have little girls of 14) would whisper "regular" to the gym teacher as an excuse for not playing a rough game and like unto die of embarrassment in the process--this, mind you, at an all-girls school.
Taken together with a newly generalized, candor-in-all-things (and romance in none) approach to our lives as men and women, years of such insistence on demystification of the female's femaleness would seem to me to have made the Newsweek cover far less controversial than it has been. But, ah, you say, there you go again: your misguided, Eastern-liberal-elitist, snob, establishment provincialism is showing through. . . Don't you know that these trends you talk about never got west of the Hudson River or north of Sausalito, Calif., and actually have no life whatever outside, let us say, the Sarah Lawrence alumnae magazine?
No, I don't know that, and I don't believe it either, which is why I am so surprised by what has happened. For however limited may be a love of the liberationist trends and fashions I am speaking of, the evidence of my eyes tells me that there are practically no limitations on what the mass culture will purvey to the public in 1982--with or without the high-minded commentary that accompanies the new candor, sex education for toddlers and the rest. Advertisements and fashion photos in respectable journals prey fairly explicitly on unspeakable instincts having to do with adult lust for children and, God help us, for fooling around in groups of more or less than two; publications had a brief run a few years back of photographs of male and female fashion models showing off the latest line of beach and swimwear while inextricably and suggestively (to understate the case) entwined with rather interested-looking animals; the lyrics of the pop music that blare out at us, from radios we don't much want to hear, shriek a hundred gross and unappealing variations on (the favorite formulation) "doing it."
The women on some of those daytime call-in shows and the articles in some of those ancient mass-circulation "homemakers" magazines deal overtly and clinically in sexual desires and practices in a way that would make the cover female on Newsweek blush. I believe I got in on the beginning of this trend several years ago in a California beauty shop, where I observed well-dressed middle-class matrons poring intently over the newly produced "beefcake" magazines, studying the male organs that were lavishly photographed throughout with the same sort of bemused expressions they might evince while leafing through a book of wallpaper samples with a view to redoing the downstairs powder room someday.
So what is the fuss about concerning the soulful and rather lovely "Portrait of S," a creature whose face (if you even paused there) rather resembles that of a Botticelli female? In fact, if she had been a bare-breasted Botticelli creation or a Rubens or any other distanced- in-history female, with all the strangeness to us that entails, there wouldn't have been a squawk. We will put up with the distant, the alien, the exotic and, yes, the present-day kinky. It's the rest that unnerves us. Reality has become the last dirty picture.