“Is it art?” The News & Record headline asks. “That depends.”

Ummm… Is it art? Undoubtedly.

Of course, I’m talking about the expansive mural of a reclining female nude painted by Virginia artist Nils Westergard along the back side of AWOL Fitness. Situated in a location that’s both obscure and in the heart of the city, the painting maximizes the opportunity to surprise and delight through urban context. Viewable only from the east-bound Amtrak platform and CityView Apartments, it also showcases the iconic backdrop of the Greensboro skyline, such as it is (i.e. the Lincoln Financial Building and CenterPointe essentially).

I think the headline writer at the News & Record was really trying to ask whether the painting was appropriate for community standards in Greensboro. It’s a worthwhile question: Public art raises the stakes because it engages an involuntary audience: Good public art can add beauty and vitality to an otherwise oppressive urban landscape, while bad public art can, quite frankly, be a downer.

Whether the female nude form is appropriate for community standards is a question I don’t feel qualified to answer. I find it impossible to disentangle artistic depictions of the female form from the uncomfortable phenomena of objectification of women, and, for that matter, millennia of patriarchal oppression and misogyny baked into gender relations.

Although the News & Record story doesn’t say it, the community-standards question really comes down to a nipple, which is neatly elided by a strategically placed light-post in the photograph published with the story. But the nipple comes across as almost an afterthought. Westergard’s sideview perspective emphasizes the woman’s hand and foot, which project a strong, tactile quality and, more than anything else, her face, which suggests self-awareness and determination. In contrast, the woman’s buttocks are submerged, while her hips and pelvis are de-emphasized.

It’s a lovely and surprising piece that not everyone has to look at, but it’s worth going out of your way to see if you can handle it.

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