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.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

6 Comments

  1. I have to agree with Sherri’s comments. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to think about this due to my vocation as a missionary, being exposed (no pun intended) to cultures that think much differently than American culture. My experience is that by making the body taboo it actually objectifies people. This might seem counter-intuitive, but I’ve seen it proven true again and again. I’ve made this observation before with others, but it may be helpful to repeat it here:

    As a missionary, I’ve witnessed women pulling up their blouses and breast feeding quite openly during church services. On one occasion a pastor’s young son was with us, sitting up on stage, witnessing a panoply of breasts during our long service. Another visiting Western Christian commented afterward that she was sorry he had to experience that. I told her I was glad he did. What a better way to see what breasts are for, than to watch dozens of devoted Christian women feed their babies with them, in church no less.

    I was at an art museum a few years back and we were looking at a colonial American display. The center piece was a large painting of an operation being done on a women that had her breasts exposed. A family came in the room behind us and the mother told the ten year old boy to cover his eyes. The way it was said made me think that this was a routine admonition and I think the family was Christian. I cannot not think of a better way to develop prurient thoughts and attitudes of objectification in this boy.

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  2. Christof Meyer March 31, 2010 at 8:40 am

    I’ve always liked this question – for two reasons. One, the human body is almost always beautiful (yes, even strangely formed bodies) and always interesting to look at and… Two, learning to see the depth of the beauty of the human form is hard work, real work, but valuable and transformative work if one is lucky enough to have a good teacher.

    I’m not quite sure about the difference between looking and gazing. These words can be used interchangeably it seems, for example in Ovid’s Pygmalion we have a man whose gazing (at a statue) leads him not to contemplating the object of beauty but the object of his hands. Which seems like a very bad idea.

    On the other hand, we don’t really have a good word in English for “intentional, hard-working looking”. I think Annie Dillard called this something like “fully attending to your eyes” or something. And these words, while helpful, aren’t really elegant.

    It seems to me that nudity is constantly conflated with nakedness, which is at least partly to blame for the confusion about whether nudity should be permissible. Classically, Christians weren’t ever permitted to view naked persons (of any sex!) because the nakedness was seen as being connected in some way to the Garden and, thereby, to God’s instruction to cover up. Nudity, on the other hand, is almost always ok. The definition of nude here, being something like “the unencumbered human body presented in a way that does not appear to be undressed”. Racing, swimming, sculpture, and SOME paintings fit this definition. But the simple addition of a pile of clothes on the floor, a naughty look, or ‘come hither’ suggestiveness immediately transform the nude form in an object for the viewer to possess.

    I think it was Edward Knippers who discussed the difference. He basically says that “clothing” (verb) Christ, in a painting, disembodies Him a bit and this is a shame. Here is his quote:

    “The human body is at the center of my artistic imagination because the body is an essential element in the Christian doctrines of Creation, Incarnation, and Resurrection. Disembodiment is not an option for the Christian. Christ places His Body and His Blood at the heart of our faith in Him. Our faith comes to naught if the Incarnation was not accomplished in actual time and space – if God did not send His Son to us in a real body with real blood.”

    Portraying a naked body brings the viewer into the fore – we become the powerful actor – and the naked body becomes an object for OUR viewing… Nude figures are not there for your viewing. They are there, in a very real way, for God’s glory.

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  3. That’s a really good question. Sometimes I wonder if the prevalence of porn might lead Christians to overreact the other way in terms of viewing and interpreting nudity.

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  4. Very interesting comments! I don’t mean to ignore them, but I’m just wondering if Matt could provide the reference (either page or section number) for that quotation from the Theology of the Body? Thanks.

    Also Matt, I appreciate the danger of your bibliography growing so long that you never start writing, but on this topic will you be looking at Leo Steinberg’s famous The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion?

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  5. Okay, one by one here…..

    Pan, I think your experience is very interesting. Thanks for bringing it up. I wonder if there’s something about the nature of the uncovered body that affects the ethics of viewing (this is, I take it, Christof’s point). To use a famous counter-example from my high-school days, the scene in Titanic where Leo draws Kate Winslet is certainly an unveiling, but I don’t think it was good *at all* for any male to watch it. But certainly what Winslett was doing was what breasts “are for” as well. But there’s a sense of proprietary privateness about the act of unveiling that I think is healthy (or, at least my intuitions have been shaped by my upbringing to think it’s healthy!).

    Christof,

    I’m not sure where I picked up the looking versus gazing distinction, but I like it and want to explore it more (gaze is a pretty prominent term in the feminist literature). I agree that (alas!) there’s no good word for intentional looking, but gaze is as close as I can think of. To gaze at someone suggests to look longingly (we ‘gaze into the distance’), and almost has a hint of errancy about it. At least, that’s the sort of phenomenon I want to capture with it–it’s helpful and important, but dangerous.

    One other (weird) point on this to note: the earliest Christians were actually baptized naked. See Margaret Miles’ Carnal Knowing for the full argument about this, but it’s pretty clear that in a lot of cases, nakedness was the norm.

    And where did the Knipper’s quote come from? I’m curious.

    Brad,

    I think that’s probably right. I’ve sometimes argued, in fact, and might in this book that learning to see nudity properly (as Pan’s story hints at above) is crucial for overcoming the pornography addiction that many young men and women have. (I am, by the way, *really* looking forward to the book!).

    Nobody,

    It’s from “The Human Body: Subject of Works of Art,” general audience of April 15th, 1981. I’m using the bad, inconsistent translation of TOB, just FYI. It’s what I read the first time, and I’ve never switched.

    And I wasn’t planning on reading it, as not starting to write is increasingly a danger for me. I have cruised through about 40 books so far, and have probably another 40-50 to get through before I start…

    At least, that’s the plan. We’ll see what happens.

    Matt

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  6. Christof Meyer April 1, 2010 at 11:30 am

    The Knippers quote is from his artists’ statement on his blog (at least, probably other places as well), but it seems to be down at the moment. Not sure why.

    The idea of being baptized in the nude is probably something that Knippers would approve of – assuming that the community was actually made up of people that know each other (no, not “know” in that sense :-)

    Also, the distinction between nude and naked might still be important. Taking off your clothing to be baptized could either constitute nakedness or nudity depending on the circumstances. Countless hours have been spent by Christians throughout the ages explaining this fine distinct in various contexts. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it IS important, but I still tend to think it is. Anyway, at Biola, we had to, as a matter of curriculum, work out these distinction in every art history semester module – of which we were required to take (at least) 6. I definitely consider myself a rookie in this arena, so for further (better) reference I’d recommend:

    Ken Clark’s (dated but still relevant) The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. Bollingen Series 35.2. New York: Pantheon Books, 1956.

    From the intro:

    “The English language, with its elaborate generosity, distinguishes between the naked and the nude. To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word “nude,” on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone.”

    And for a good example of something that is ostensibly about a nude, but actually about nakedness, see Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass – http://www.artlex.com/ArtLex/r/images/Luncheon%20on%20the%20Grass.jpg

    Gazing? I guess we could just sort of “recapture” the word for this purpose. I definitely like the word… I just wish we had a word that also incorporated the intellectual side of it. Gazing seems sort of rose-tinted with a hint of sleepiness, whereas Dillard’s “hard-working look” would beat “gazing” in a debate without ever cracking a book. Still, gazing has a power all its own. “Transfixed by her gaze” is a powerful statement.

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