Celebrating Circumcision

Circumcision is an ancient practice whose origins date back thousands of years. Genital surgeries on both males and females are routine in many indigenous societies around the world.

In human history, two penises -- one circumcised, one apparently not -- have received the most attention. One belonged to the infant Jesus who, following Jewish tradition, was circumcised on the eighth day after birth. The other belongs to Michelangelo's David whose foreskin has been frequently discussed by scholars and tourists alike.

Innumerable artistic representations through the ages depict the presentation of the Child Jesus for circumcision in the temple. Many Renaissance paintings show the (uncircumcised) penis of the unclothed infant Jesus. Behind this revealing nakedness lay a motive, namely demonstrating that Jesus was indeed human by showing his most human of parts. Depictions of the Madonna's naked breast did the same.

The David, however, is enigmatic. The youth who slew giant Goliath with his slingshot was a Jew and therefore should have been circumcised according to the law of Abraham.

So why is the David not circumcised? Two theories are put forward. First, in Renaissance Florence only the Jewish minority practiced circumcision. Michelangelo may never have seen a circumcised penis and his model was almost certainly intact.

Another possibility has to do with the way Jewish circumcision was practiced until Roman times. It involved -- even for Jesus -- the excision of only that part of the foreskin beyond glans and thereby leaving it covered. Michelangelo, if he like Leonardo knew everything, merely reflected historical accuracy.

Representation of circumcision in art does not stop here. One of the most puzzling renditions is Jackson Pollock's "The Circumcision" (1946). A friend of Pollock's suggested the name only after the work was complete. Few hints in the finished painting suggest the surgical removal of a foreskin. It may only be, as a friend of mine suggested, that Pollock was representing "the stars" you'd see during the surgery!

There's more. Three performance artists have made very public statements about this thing that is usually hidden and seldom spoken of. Just over decade ago, Afrikaner artist Peet Pienaar stood in frozen pose upon a pedestal in a Cape Town museum while a Xhosa practitioner circumcised him, thereby submitting himself as a white man to the black man's traditions and control over his body

More recently in Washington, D.C., Adrian Parsons retrieved his intact penis from his Levis, stretched out his foreskin, used his Swiss Army knife to cut it off, and inserted the severed tissue into a smallish hole in wall of the Warehouse gallery. Afterwards, neither the audience nor the wounded artist was in a state for the explanation Parsons originally planned.

Over lunch recently in the Corcoran Gallery where he now works, I heard Parson's undelivered remarks. He wanted to evoke a similitude of the experience of the victims of suicide bombers, who, if not killed outright, are hit by fast moving bits of flesh and bone.

These become embedded in the victim's bodies and are difficult to identify and remove. The bomber's tissue often becomes a living part of the victims' bodies. Not wanting to assault the audience with his flesh, Parsons simulated it making a part of his body a part of the gallery itself.

Even more recently in the 2012 San Francisco Fringe Festival, Glen Callender, clad only in running shoes and a black T-shirt emblazoned with "I <3 My Foreskin," celebrated a part of his body he feels fortunate to retain.

Over a meal the next day, he spoke of his goal of awakening America to the pleasures and functions of the foreskin -- something men circumcised at birth will never experience. He dreams of a future where natural genitals of both men and women will be left intact.

Pienaar and Parsons won't be repeating their performances. Callender, however, plans more one-man shows, booths at street fairs and foreskin-pride demonstrations. The Holy Prepuce is said to have remained on earth after Jesus ascended into heaven as the Church debating the matter for nearly two centuries. Four Italian churches claim to have preserved bits of the relic. Neither David, the replica in Palazzo Vecchio nor the original now housed in the Accademia, has felt the chisel since Michelangelo.