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When you grow up in Jewish and Christian religious traditions, one of the first (Hebrew Bible) stories you learn is the story of David and Goliath. They give it to you pretty simply: Goliath, the giant warrior of the Philistines, challenges King Saul to present him an opponent to fight one-on-one in order to end the great war between the Israelites and the Philistines. King Saul hesitates to take up the challenge and, instead, one of his soldiers, David, volunteers to fight Goliath. Reluctantly, King Saul agrees, and on the day of the battle, David only brings with him his shepherd’s staff, the smoothest river stones he could find, and his sling (and God’s blessing, of course). David ends up killing the enormous Goliath by slingshotting one of the river rocks straight to his forehead. It’s a classic underdog story constantly referenced in regards to other underdog stories, and David has long been considered one of the valiant heroes of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament. It’s unsurprising then that David and his battle against the giant Goliath has long been depicted in art, especially during the Renaissance.
Michelangelo’s David, in particular, has become a symbol of the Renaissance and is regarded as one of the most important pieces of the period. Really, the statue is quite straightforward as far as artistic renderings of biblical figures go. In Michaelangelo’s version, David is positioned in counterpoise, as if he is about to move, with his sling draped over his shoulder. He has a furrow in his brow, and though he mostly looks serious, his lips have a very slight upturn as if he’s in on some secret no one else knows. His body is muscular but not too muscular, which is reflective of the influence of Greek sculpture on Renaissance era art. And of course, he is naked, just as he’s described in the 1 Samuel 17:38 – 39 in every Catholic and Christian bible that exists in the world: “Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, ‘I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.’ So David removed them.”
When you look at the statue — as I have both in photographs and in real life — you can’t help but be amazed at what Michaelangelo was able to accomplish. Aside from the proportions of the statue, the details in David’s body makes him look real. Imagining Michaelangelo getting a big block of marble and creating this incredible piece of sculpture through nothing but chiseling, scraping, shaping, and smoothing with the tools that were available in the Renaissance could make anyone’s brain go a little haywire. When I first encountered photos of the statue in an old art history book at my grandparent’s house as a young kid, I was amazed that any human being was capable of creating something like that. When I learned about how Renaissance sculptors made these statues in middle school, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. When I saw David in person in Florence as a 26-year-old, I felt like someone took all of the air out of my lungs. The very last thing I was ever thinking about in each of my encounters with David was “Holy shit, this guy’s naked!”
And yet, somehow, that is all some people can seem to think about when they see photographs of David. This week, at a public charter school called Tallahassee Classical School in Leon County, Florida, two parents — I’m not kidding, two parents — of sixth grade students complained when David was shown to their children, alongside other famous Renaissance works like The Creation of Adam and The Birth of Venus, during an art history lesson on the Renaissance. According to reports, in the past, the school usually sent home a letter regarding the lesson (even though they really didn’t have to), and this year, they forgot to. As a result of the school’s “failure to notify the parentswp_postsand the “rights” granted to these parents through Ron Desantis’s disastrous “parental rights billwp_poststhat was signed into law last year, the complaints by these two parents — again, I feel like I need to stress that it was only two — got so loud and obnoxious the Leon County school board had to hold an emergency meeting to essentially fire the principal of the school. The two parents likened the statue of David to “pornographywp_postsand deemed it shouldn’t be part of the curriculum. What’s interesting about this claim is that because the school follows the curriculum created by Hillsdale College, a famous conservative liberal arts college in Michigan that specializes in “classical studies,wp_poststhe teachers at Tallahassee Classical are required to teach about Renaissance art, including Michaelangelo’s David.
If you know anything about conservative politics in the U.S., it probably isn’t shocking to see these two parents play this card. The anti-pornography crusade by reactionary conservative politicians has long been a strategy they’ve used to try to conserve and consolidate power on the American Right. Conservative politicians and their cronies have declared that everything from books that discuss sex to the depiction of LGBTQ characters in fiction to discussions on reproductive rights in schools is pornographic or, in their attempt at coded language, “obscene.wp_postsThe history of obscenity laws in the U.S. is long, and their creation and passing usually coincides with some legal advancements made by marginalized people in this country. When conservatives and white supremacists feel most like they’re losing their grip on the power they believe they deserve, convincing people that their children are wading through a wasteland of pornography and age-inappropriate depictions of sex and bodies is a sure way to win them some support.
Like a lot of the rhetoric that begins at the top, this trickles down to the everyday lives of the people who support these politicians, and that’s how we get here…to two parents claiming that a lesson on a sculpture depicting the biblically accurate naked body of Michaelangelo’s David is the same as the teacher showing these sixth graders a photograph from an old issue of Playgirl Magazine. And it goes even deeper than that, right? Because in order to make these kinds of claims, you’d have to believe, with all of the forces in your mind and body telling you otherwise, that the naked body is inherently sexual in nature, no matter how that naked body is being used or portrayed. This is part of the issue with this kind of rhetoric in the first place. When you convince people who believe in and trust in you that they’re surrounded by sexual deviants who want to steal the innocence of your children away, then everything around your supporters and their children becomes exactly that. Of course, that’s exactly the point for the people who spread these messages, but how far this belief goes will never stop feeling as absurd as it does right now in this debate about Michaelangelo’s David.
Even though I understand these facts and I’ve spent the last four days staring at differently-angled and close-up photographs of David, I still can’t fully wrap my head around the comparison. I’ve been trying to grab for things that would help me understand how you can look at something that is such a feat of human creativity and ingenuity and put it in the same realm as something they clearly find so disgusting. (Personally, I think pornography is also a feat of human creativity and ingenuity.) It’s been rolling over and over in my head. Is it because Michaelangelo is rumored to have been a homosexual man that they are so opposed to this rendering? Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus is also in the lesson, but it depicts a naked female body instead of a male one, so I think the accusation that their complaints about David are homophobic could very well be made. Maybe because Botticelli’s painting depicts a woman, the rumors about his sexuality don’t matter as much. It’s less gay. After all, claiming that something created by a queer person, no matter what that something happens to be, is inherently sexual or is obscene in nature has also historically been part of the Right’s hateful, fear mongering rhetoric. And that trickles down in the same way, as evidenced by the amount of LGBTQ books ripped off of school library shelves in Florida since the “parental rights billwp_postspassed.
Mostly, though, as a Literature “scholar,wp_postsI’ve been thinking about how ironic it all is that it happens to be the statue of David — the Christian world’s ultimate underdog — getting all this heat right now. It’s an interesting reminder of how the conservative and reactionary right constantly characterizes itself in this country. They want so badly to be David, and they want for other people to believe they’re David, too. They want to be the underdog who swoops in voluntarily to save the day from the big, bad heathens who seek to destroy the U.S. and everything it “stands for.wp_postsBut the truth is they hold most of the power here — whether they believe they do or not. They’re no David. They’re Goliath. And until we decide to step up to them with our river rocks and slings, they’re going to push this as far as they possibly can.