|Leda and the Swan (after Michelangelo): National Gallery, London|
The cultural references were lost on them.
Much of our greatest art and literature is based on Greek myths. Once, every schoolchild would have known how to interpret those 'cultural references'. This is no longer the case. Greek myths are taught in schools for a term at most, as part of a wider 'myth module'. I've talked to many thousands of kids about them, doing school visits and festivals on a regular basis. I use art to illustrate those talks - Botticelli's Primavera, Piero di Cosimo's Perseus and Andromeda, JW Waterhouse's Odysseus and the Sirens among many others. I also include sculpture, pottery and friezes. A good proportion of the kids are fascinated, inspired, and want to know more. But it's not enough to give them more than a flavour, and I can only get round so many schools in a year. Without being able to access those stories as part of their basic cultural knowledge, that photograph of Leda and her god-like lover in swan form was just an obscene picture to those policemen, seen as likely to corrupt and endanger public morals. The same could be implied, say, of this bronze of Europa and the Bull by American sculptor Paul Manship, or of the painting at the top of this piece. I think that's a dangerous road to go down - but it's what ignorance can lead to.
|Europa and the Bull (Paul Manship, 1924)|
Gods behave differently, and by their very nature myths are allowed a certain latitude in these things. They are, in their way, archetypal lessons in living, in coping with the human condition. They show us examples of the (almost always dreadful in the end) consequences of certain actions, both taboo and what might be termed hubristic. All life is here if you care to look. But for me, in the end, the myths are above all else great stories, stories that everyone should know, because even in the 21st century, references to them are everywhere in our everyday lives. Pulled an Achilles tendon running the Marathon? Bought a pair of Nike trainers to run it in? Poured Ambrosia custard on your well-deserved apple crumble afterwards? Opened an atlas? Watched the new 3D version of Titanic? If you don't know the stories behind those words, you can't access the full reference or meaning, and as we've seen above, at its worst, ignorance of our shared mythic heritage can lead to censorship and the threat of arrest. That's just plain dangerous, in my opinion.