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Is Nudity in Art Permissible?

March 30th, 2010 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Is nudity acceptable, when it's in art?

And should that even be a question?  Or is the more appropriate question (as Sherri suggests) whether there is s there any "legitimate argument against the nude human form in art?"

It's a conversation worth having in depth.  But it's also a conversation that I suspect most of my peers think is, well, no longer necessary.  In my experience, folks my age have settled it with a decisive and final answer in favor of creating, and viewing, nudity within the artistic context.

But the conversation is still worth having, if only because it highlights many of the intrinsic difficulties with the body and embodiment.  And yes, 'difficulty' seems to be an appropriate word.  My favorite section, in fact, of the Theology of the Body is the extended treatment of the question, a treatment which offers this observation:

"These dimensions concern concrete, living men, their attitudes and behavior.  Works of culture, especially of art, enable those dimensions of "being a body" and "experiencing the body" to extend, in a way, outside these living men.  Man meets the "reality of the body" and "experiences the body" even when it becomes a subject of creative activity, a work of art, a content of culture.  Generally speaking, it must be recognized that this contact takes place on the plane of aesthetic experience.  In this plane, it is a question of viewing the work of art (in Greek aistha nomai: I look, I observe).  Therefore, in the given case, it is a question of the objectivized body, outside its ontological identity, in a different way and according to the criteria characteristic of artistic activity.  Yet the man who is admitted to viewing in this way is a priori deeply bound up with the meaning of the prototype, or model.  In this case the prototype is himself--the living man and the living human body.  He is too deeply bound up with it to be able to detach and separate completely that act, substantially an aesthetic one, of the work in itself and of its contemplation from those dynamisms or reactions of behavior and from the evaluations which direct that first experience and that first way of living.  By its very nature, this looking is aesthetic.  It cannot be completely isolated, in man's subjective conscience, from that looking of which Christ spoke in the Sermon on the Mount, warning against lust."

Two points to note:  first, the visual experience in art is not simply a looking, but a gazing--an intentionally directed action that opens the gazer to certain possibilities.  Because it requires a level of concentration and focus to be done well, it opens up the possibility of training the viewer to see beautiful human forms, while simultaneously (and in our culture, this is the more likely possibility) opening the viewer to the danger of misdirected or misguided gazing.

Second, the above paragraph indicates that total objectivity within art is a myth.  There's always an element of subjectivity at work, as we always see the form as a human form, which means as a person. This also opens up both the possibilities for artistic training and the possibilities of lust.

This is, of course, only the starting point.  But it's worth bearing in mind, especially in our over-saturated age, where the central question is not whether nudity in art is permissible, as whether artful nudity is possible.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.