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Nymphs and Satyr, by William Bouguereau (Detail)
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  • Response to "Nudity in Art: A Virtue of Vice?"

    by Michael Planta

    I am very glad to see the Art Renewal Center tackling this issue. It is my opinion that a great deal of re-education is required on the importance of the nude figure in art and art training. I speak from personal knowledge because I have run up against this prejudice myself several times.

    I want to tell some stories that hopefully will illustrate why work needs to be done with regards to educating people in this area. Until recently I lived in a small town in rural Texas. At one point a friend and I decided that we would organize small figure drawing sessions for ourselves and our friends so that we all could practice and improve. We needed a space and we approached the only gallery in town about using their back room as a location, which the gallery was happy to do. But before sessions could begin the city council stepped in and stopped us - they had authority to do so because the gallery was partially funded by the city. No one at the gallery had a problem with the idea of nude figure drawing and interestingly most of the people on the city council were okay with it too, or at least they seemed persuadable, but they all feared community backlash. We were told we could proceed with clothed figures (such as in bikinis or boxers, etc) which we did in the hopes that once things had been going on a while they would relax and perhaps be persuaded to allow us to return to nude figures. After about three months we brought it up again but were told very forcefully that we could not use nude figures and one council member actually suggested that we were trying to create a "strip-club atmosphere"! Non-artists simply have no idea what is involved in drawing a figure - how much effort is involved and how focused one must be. It's astonishing to me that anyone thinks a life drawing session could have a "strip-club atmosphere," but they do!

    As another example, one of the two local colleges does not offer any nude life drawing for fear that private donations to the school would suffer.

    And even if you did somehow learn how to draw/paint a competent nude, good luck exhibiting it. That same gallery I mentioned earlier was unable to exhibit any artworks showing nudity, likewise nudity was not allowed at the downtown art fairs which occurred periodically. A different institution did host an exhibit of figurative works that included nudity but they were obliged to cover all the windows of the gallery and put a sign on the door warning away anyone that might get offended. All of this, again, done preemptively, out of fear for how the community would react. I want to emphasize how unfair to realists this is. A non-objective painter could show anything they wanted obviously, but even representational artists could get away with it as long as the work is sufficiently abstract. I knew a man who made sculptures that were basically abstracted genitals. He knew it, he talked about it openly, it was no secret. But he was allowed to exhibit publicly because they were sufficiently abstract that it provided a sort of cover for everybody. There was plausible deniability. But since a realistic image can be readily interpreted by anybody, they had to be policed more aggressively. I know some people who were unable to exhibit their best works because of this, and eventually that can become self censorship, where you stop making nudes in the first place, even if that is your real passion, because it is wasted effort.

    As far as I can tell it is all because of what you describe - people are convinced that nude figures = sexual immorality. End of story. There is a small museum in that town that I worked at for a time and I encountered this idea even among the staff! They had a dozen or so academic life drawings, which they almost never display, because, as the curator told me, "they attract too much negative attention." I thought he was surely exaggerating, but one day a coworker and I were cataloguing these drawings and she asked me why "so many artists make porn?" She saw no distinction between these drawings and, say, a photo in Penthouse and she worked at a museum! I hate to be blunt, but this is ignorance and like all ignorance it needs to be countered with education. I applaud the Art Renewal Center for being a generally excellent website and resource, but I also applaude you for bringing up this topic and defending the importance of the nude in art! If you think it would be helpful or of interest to anyone, feel free to repost this wherever you see fit (on the forum or the website), and most of all, keep up the good work!

    -Michael

    2012-01-21 00:10:09