Each year, ESPN Magazine presents the “Body Issue.” In it, ESPN exhibits a series of photographic portraits of top athletes baring their toned and honed physiques in the buff. This year, ESPN chose NFL player, Ezekiel “Zeke” Elliott to grace one of their covers.
Upon seeing “The Body Issue,” internet trolls immediately took to Twitter and other social media platforms to vocalize their “feelings” regarding Mr. Elliott’s photograph. The responses, particularly among men, were often, at best ignorant and rude, and at worst, homophobic and cruel.
I chose not to repost many of said Tweets, because I find them distasteful. However, I must include a few in order to convey the general tone of the Zeke Elliott “Twitter Storm.”
Other Tweeters mentioned how the image disgusted them. Some thought the photo so disturbing that it put them off eating. Other simply remarked how they found the display “gross.”
The art historical canon cannot be summarized in one or two paragraphs, so I will not endeavor to attempt it.
However, I will take a liberty and say for the sake of this article-that the history of art can be boiled down to two words:
That is not to say that the development and evolution of fine art is or has been stagnant. Quite the contrary, each nude be it sculpture, painting etc. evokes the particular social, political, economic, and/or religious feelings of the artist’s day and age.
The corpulent Rubens, the exotic depictions of “Oriental” harem girls, Medieval women with “S-curve bodies” (a round stomach was considered the peak of feminine beauty in Middle Age Europe), Twiggy-life waifs: all testify to the virtues and desires the society in which they were made elevated or clung to.
They are all different and may represent different things but one things does unite them-nudity.
While female goddesses, muses, mothers, lovers, and Virgins abound in the world of art, it has been men, for the most part, who have been the primary movers and shakers of history.
That leaves us with this question: Where are the boys?
Unlike the commonplace female nude, modern society, unlike say classical Hellenistic culture, has shied away from the depiction of the naked man, both historical and contemporary. But while prevalence of the female nude has made the image of a naked woman commonplace and hardly notable, the scarcity of the male nude results in rhetoric and thinking that is often impassioned and at times violent and combative.
The male nude in art does exist. Great personifications of mankind like Michelangelo’s colossus, David, or Rodin’s contemplative Thinker are striking, and demand the attention of the viewer. Instead of existing behind gilt frames, or blushingly covering their genitals with fragile marble hands like female nudes, these men of paint and stone straddle the world of image and reality. They are not crude but they inhabit your space, and possess a semblance of agency. Their nudity, and their solidity forces recognition and dialogue. Unlike their female counterparts, one cannot simply walk by these figures in a museum. Their massive nudity demands our attention in a way which causes discomfort in a society where the naked man is classified as something shameful, or homosexual, rather than natural or symbolic.
Like other great nudes-It is important to remember that Zeke Elliott’s portrait is simply a continuation of an art historical trope. His 2017 magazine cover is just another example of the a celebration of masculine power and strength VIA the symbol of the athlete.
To any art historian, or museum-goer, it is quite obvious that Mr. Elliott’s Heisman-esque stance is a 21st century interpretation of the Discobolus of Myron , executed some 2,328 years before the advent of American football. And while ESPN Magazine has traded the discuss for the football-little else has changed for “the athlete” in over two millenia.
So if the discuss thrower is art, then Mr. Elliott’s cover, while less refined, can be classified as art as well. This leaves us with several distrurbing questions… If we have established that the ESPN Magazine cover is, at the very least, an attempt at art, what is so very offensive about Zeke Elliott’s photograph? Is it his nudity? Is nudity an offense? If it is, which many Twitter users have implied, then- must all nudity be offensive?
By that token this image (below) must be equally disgusting to contemporary society:
However, Twitter remains relatively silent on this point.
So what are we?
Or merely- bigotted homophobes?