Nudity in Art: A Virtue or Vice? by Brian Yoder

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Nudity in Art: A Virtue or Vice?

by Brian Yoder

"What spirit is so empty and blind, that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful that the garment with which it is clothed?"

Michelangelo

Some people feel that the nude form is something that should be hidden away both in art and the artist's classroom. Although this may seem at first like a mere annoyance, such people frequently attempt to stop others from viewing or learning from the human form, thereby infringing on their rights to create and consume art as they wish. On the ARC website there are countless paintings and sculptures featuring nude figures. From time to time, this anti-nudity theme pops up in the ARC website feedback and on the Good Art mailing list, normally starting because someone says something along the lines of "All of this would be wonderful if only you would hide or eliminate the presence of nudity on the site."

I believe that one source of this sort of comment arises from a lack of understanding of how the best art is taught and created. All of the recommended art training programs promoted by ARC include nude figure drawing in the curriculum, and thus it has always been, back to the days of the ancient Greeks. In fact, it would be virtually impossible to teach someone how to draw accurate human anatomy without this essential tool. Even to depict a clothed figure one needs to fully understand the mechanics of what is underneath. Drawing the nude figure is the only way to accomplish this, as is the practice of learning how to draw the bones and muscles beneath the skin.

Educational issues aside, nude figures also offer important expressive tools to artists. They can show human beings in ways that are uniquely valuable. For one thing, expressions of nudes are the extreme opposite of expressions of figures wearing trench coats, hats, and dark sunglasses. They also allow the artist to show people outside of a historical context if he wishes to do so. Put any kind of clothing on a person in a painting or a sculpture and you tie them down to a time when that kind of clothing was common or popular and apart from times when it wasn't.

That said, at times the figures need to wear clothing due to the nature of what is being portrayed, yet the artist may still wish the message to be universal to all men of all times. One way of doing this has been to dress the figures in a sheet or simple cloth which is often called classical garb which drapes the figures and feels like it could be taking place in the past present or future. I like to call this placing the figures in the "ancient distant future".

Using nudity the artist can show human beings in a way that focuses the attention on the figure and not irrelevant matters like how their shirts are buttoned, how their skirts are being draped, and whether they are wearing the most stylish kind of hat. The ability of the artist to focus attention on the important aspects of what is going on and to remove distractions from this subject of focus is a common reason for the choice of nude figures as well.

Lastly, the human body can be a beautiful thing to contemplate and this can be a useful artistic tool in and of itself, just as flowers, sunsets, and mountains are similarly useful tools in the artist's toolkit. And if the point of art is primarily to express ideas about the nature of humanity, man's role in the world then it would be natural to expect that the unadorned human form would be among the most powerful of those expressive tools and indeed it is.

The reasons for these anti-nudity comments vary widely but they contain some common themes. I have collected some of my thoughts on this subjects in this brief essay to stimulate further discussion and understanding. I'm sure it will stimulate some reactions, positive and negative, so don't be shy about contributing feedback whatever your point of view may be whether on the Good Art Forum or personally at feedback@artrenewal.org.

What are the complaints? The folks who complain about nudity on art sites (and in artist training) do so for a variety of reasons, so it's worth examining and categorizing these complaints before responding to them.

1

"Looking at nudes impacts the mind in negative ways, most notably by making one obsessed with sex."

Ultimately, this is the premise of most of the complaints even if it isn't expressed quite this clearly and directly. The idea is that sexual imagery is so powerful that it needs to be locked away and/or psychologically repressed to avoid turning us all into sex-crazed beasts. This view then requires that we lock away any images that might stimulate sexual thoughts, including all nudity.

2

"I can't allow my kids to look at the website because there are nudes there."

These complaints typically come from well-meaning people who like good art but who are worried about the impacts on their kids if they see nude bodies. It comes down to mostly the same kind of issue as the one above, but with the case of children needing special protection from sexual obsession. People differ about the age at which various kinds of images are appropriate for viewing by children of various ages, often with somewhat different rules for those before puberty versus after, but all are concerned for whatever reason with children below some particular age being exposed to artistic nudity.

3

"Nudity means sex, which is bad/dirty and to be avoided."

This view really has two parts, first that nudity and sex are the same thing or highly related. By this view, any nude figure is inherently symbolic of sexual activities or thoughts. Second, that sex is bad, dirty, or shameful, and one ought to refrain from thinking of or engaging in sexual things. Thus, one ought to avoid looking at (or creating works of art containing) nudity.

4

"Nudity is pornography, which is bad and to be avoided."

This is a similar idea to the previous one except that it equates all nude portrayals with pornography rather than sex per se. Presumably the idea is that pornography leads to sexual obsession as in the first complaint above.

5

"Female nudes are an affront to the power of women because it makes them objects of male lust rather than complete human beings."

This is mostly a subset of the "sex is evil" argument, though one focused on a specific target, namely that sex between men and women is evil since the sexual role of males is "dominant" or just plain evil, and female nudes are just an example of male sexual oppression. These arguments are premised on the notion that all or nearly all interactions between people in society are part of a sexual power struggle between males and females and seen through this light, pretty much anything remotely sexual that goes on between men and women (and pretty much anything non-sexual too for that matter) involves male domination over females and this needs to be fought against in a strongly emotional and determined way.

These complaints are sometimes accompanied by concerns over the ratio of male to female artists or models selected for inclusion on the site, and on occasion, these same people sometimes complain about male nudes on the grounds that they illustrate male sexual power and prowess which acts to suppress the freedom of women.

  1. "I have religious objections against nudity."

    Of course there are a great many religious traditions out there and some do have proscriptions against nudity and sexuality outside of certain approved circumstances. However, many religions and cultures may find a large number of non nudes objectionable for one reason or another as well.

  2. "I want to become an artist but I am worried that it might be necessary for me to view nudes in figure drawing classes and I don't know if I can handle that. What should I do?"

    This is typically a corollary of the religious objection, but it is particularly difficult since avoiding nudity in art is a lot easier if art isn't directly related to one's profession.

"Infantilisation" is indeed exactly what Modernist criteria for greatness has produced. "Modernism" itself is a misnomer. Those myriad nihilistic artists, writers and critics who have systematically tried to destroy fine art for the last 100 years, have arrogated a name unto themselves that is synonymous with progress, sophistication, and a more advanced state of development. Generally, something that is "Modern" is something that is better than what came before. But Modernism in the arts is not. It is backward, retrograde, destructive, primitive and infantile. It's no accident that so many people are moved to remark: "My six year old could have done that!" upon viewing a 'modern' work. Therefore, the appropriate term to describe the movement that marked the 20th century art world is, "infantilism".

My dear Mr. Hoving sir, it is rather the skillful alignment of abstract elements into recognizable and emotionally charged universal human experiences and themes, by the hand of a well trained and highly experienced master with a poet's "eye," that creates great works of art. Piles of garbage or splotches of pigment, no matter how bright, bizarre or evenly balanced, can do this. So-called abstract art is not art at all. Works of people like Pollock, DeKooning and Rothko are not even deserving of the label of craft, for craftsmen at least endeavor to endow their work with symmetry, skill, functionality and beauty. It is only with the addition of human themes that works first deserve to be considered as fine art.

Hoving soon starts listing some of his favorite pieces. Incredibly, one of the first things he discusses is a primitive statue from the Cycladic Islands. It is of a woman, dated 2400-2600 BC. He extols its virtues with the words: "These sculptures, although totally abstract, nonetheless capture the mystery and beauty of femininity far better I think, than Venus de Milo." There was even a photo of this 'masterpiece': a stick figure with a triangular head that looked like it might have been done by any nursery school child. Now, while no one is doubting the sincerity of the Cycladic craftsman who made this statue, it is on the other hand sheer absurdity to claim that it is better than the Venus de Milo - a product of a far more sophisticated civilization -- one which gave us philosophy, musical theory, countless examples of fine art, not to mention the whole concept of democracy. Isn't there something even a little perverse in setting the highest achievements of Grecian sculpture on a lower pedestal than this stick figure idol?

"GET REAL!" Are we supposed to swallow that this Cycladic statue somehow captures the beauty and mystery of femininity? Every woman should be up in arms (Venus is missing hers) against this insult to their gender. Not only is this stick figure lifeless, but its form is ugly, it has no face other than a geometric protrusion - presumably a nose - and is totally lacking personality and character. Its stick arms are folded and it is doing nothing. Does he wish to suggest that women just facelessly stand around with arms folded doing nothing? Please tell me Mr. Hoving. I'm dying to know. Where exactly is the 'mystery' here? Actually, the artists of these stick figures were likely trying to be accurate, not abstract. However, they had not yet developed the necessary skills. If this 4500-year-old artist had been presented with the Venus de Milo, a Bernini or a Rodin, whose work do you suppose they would have thought was superior?

The Rape of Prosperpine - Gian Lorenzo Bernini The Kiss - Auguste Rodin Rebellious Slave - Michelangelo

If this is Hoving's taste, we can begin to understand why so many great masterpieces of 19th century humanist representational painting, by some of history's most important artists, were de-accessioned for peanuts under his, and his predecessors', governance of America's premier art institution. I think an accounting is in order. What happened to all of those great masterpieces that were bequeathed to the Met by Catherine Lorillard Wolfe (and others) with the rumored stipulation that they were not ever to be sold? Some of them would today be valued at a hundred times their market worth in the 1950s, '60s and '70s.

His list of favorites, while not all preposterous (he liked an unfinished Michelangelo) included such monuments of collective stupidity as Marcel Duchamp's The Great Glass and Kazimir Malevich's White on White, which he calls "as serious as a religious icon".

I cannot help but consider the unforgivable tragedy that has befallen our great artistic heritage when I realize that such was the perspective of the leader of the Metropolitan Museum for so many important years. I also can't help but ponder that if this is Hoving's "Eye"; it's a shame that it didn't meet up with a good opthomoligist a long time ago.

Published Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Co-Founder of ARC, ARC Webmaster for several years, Host of the Art Renewal Audio podcast, Founder of the GoodArt discussion group that brought the original ARC founders and board of advisors together. Brian is a tireless advocate for skill, quality, technique, meaning, and innovation in art and has been writing and speaking on the subject for many years. He is the moderator of the Pasadena Socrates Café, a live philosophy discussion group and the Ideas that Shaped History live discussion group both of which meet in his home town of Pasadena, California (for more information on these search for them on Meetup.com).

He studied Computer Science and Mathematics at Central Michigan University, and is currently the Chief Software Architect at Moffatt and Nichol. He has previously held senior technical positions at Peter Norton Computing/Symantec, US Networx, EarthLink, uWink, OpenSoft, Scalable Network Technologies, CyberDefender, and Brian Yoder Consulting, where he has worked on virus and malware detection, networking, gaming, animation, printing, simulation, mathematical, and military security projects.