Nudity in Art

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Nudity in Art

From Brian K. Yoder

Published before 2005


Mark Junge wrote:
I have a friend who works at a conservative Christian ministry. She answers letters from teens who have questions about a wide variety of topics. She recently received a letter from a teen boy who likes paintings of nudes, not for sexual content but for the artworks' beauty. She has also gotten letters from teens who want to major in art but are concerned about taking life drawing classes because of the live nude models they would need to draw.

Many conservative Christians learn that nudity is wrong except in front of one's spouse. I once heard a guy express concerns about Adam's buck-naked body on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. I guess St. Paul made comments in the New Testament somewhere about remaining modest in one's attire, or something like that. And, of course, Adam and Eve covered themselves with fig leaves after the Fall.

So - without getting into the pros and cons of Christianity as a belief system - what would you say to a teen (or an adult, for that matter) who believes nudity in art is wrong or even that nudity = pornography? Bible verses to support your point would help, since conservative Protestants, especially, love to throw Bible verses around. I'd like to forward some thoughts to my friend.

(This is not a trick question: I'm not looking for a fight, and I'm staying neutral on this one!)

Off the top of my head, I can think of a few lines of response...
  1. Regarding the story about Adam and eve covering themselves with fig leaves, this was something that God criticized them for. He knew that they had done something wrong and that they were being ashamed of something. God made them naked in the first place and apparently thought that staying that way was just fine for him. It was the sinful Adam and Eve who were interested in covering up, not God.

  2. St. Paul asked in 1 Corinthians: “Don’t you know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” and “Don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which you have from God?". If we should treat the body as a temple does that mean that it's something embarrassing, evil, or sinful? Historically, the idea that the body and sex are evil came along primarily (and of course I am making a generalization here) not from biblical sources or the teachings of Jesus, but from St. Augustine who associated the body and sex with the worst things in life, in part because his own personal history was so influenced in that way. His teachings on this were heavily dominant in the dark ages and since the Renaissance have to some degree faded away, but their influences are still with us.

  3. The issue of modesty in dress as I understand it is an issue of everyday behavior, not a constant situation that would apply when swimming, at the doctor, or in artistic situations. Besides, isn't it talking about whether your dress should be modest rather than the dress of your models?

  4. The aversion to any nudity in any context outside of marital sex is more a cultural issue than a religious one. Not too long ago it would have been a scandal for a woman to show her ankles or calf. Now nobody thinks anything of a bathing suit or even a bikini. In some countries people think nothing of topless women for that matter. What is normal in this regard and what stimulates sexual interest depends a lot on what you are used to what is interpreted as a sexual cue, and not so much on what's being shown in particular. If the concern is about the nudity of the model stimulating sexual feelings that are impossible to handle that would lead to some terrible mental state or even crimes like rape, I think that a look at serious decent artists who do this kind of thing all the time would be instructive. Do they seem to you to be sex fiends? Seriously, if you wanted to see raunchy sexually stimulating stuff, an artist's studio is not the place to go. There's plenty of pornography in this world for people who are interested in that kind of thing. Art is something else.

  5. On the topic of whether nudity and pornography are the same thing, I think that the answer to that is clear. Nudity in general can occur for a number of reasons, only one of them is to stimulate sexual interest. Pornography by the way need not involve nudity. It's the stimulation of sexual excitement that makes something porn, not the nudity itself. Pornography is a matter of intent. If you want to make highly sexualized images there's no rule that says you can't do it with clothes on the model. On the other hand, you can make completely non-sexualized images with complete nudity. What matters most here is not the clothes, it's the mind of the artist and his intentions.

  6. Whether your reaction to seeing a naked model is sexual, artistic, getting down to the business of technical drawing, or whatever is mainly a psychological issue, and I am sure that there are some people who just couldn't handle such a thing without a great deal of mental disturbance. My recommendation for someone in such a position would be to give it a try and see what it's like. They may find that their fears are dramatically overblown or they might find that they just can't deal with it at all. You never know till you try. A trip to the beach might also provide a good indication. Do you find it impossible to enjoy an afternoon at the beach because of the scantily clad women there? Even though they are not naked, many of them are of course trying to make you look and make you think sexual thoughts and this is probably a more sexualized environment in some senses than an artist's studio would be (depending on the beach of course).

  7. Try to identify specifically what it is that you are worried about. Is it that your mind will be filled with too many sexual thoughts? That your own husband/wife will excite you less? That you will be inspired to some evil action like rape, child molestation, or something like that? That others will think you are a bad person and your reputation will be tarnished? I think that an analogy to this might be working in a bank. Seeing vast piles of cash might make some people be tempted to steal or at least fantasize about it, but a good honest person is in no particular danger in that regard. Perhaps the first day they might be amazed by their first sight of $1,000,000 in cash, but after that it's just business as usual. Would you never take a job as a bank teller for the same kind of reason? In my opinion, good and honest people have nothing to worry about in these kinds of areas. If you know that you have problems in such areas then by all means stay away from such influences, but that's something only you can know about yourself and your own levels of self control and moral fortitude. There are also ways you can set your fears aside about such things by for example, drawing in groups, not socializing with models, and so on if those things concern you.

  8. Consider all of the great Christian art that has involved nudity in the past. Was that wrong? Sinful? Visit the Vatican Museum in Rome and have a look. It's wonderful stuff. Was that stuff just pornography? I don't think so. Are those artists more or less potent agents of the religion than guys who just grew wheat their whole lives?

  9. Consider the sex of the people involved and your other exposure to nudity. Would you have as much trouble with male models as female ones? Are you worried that seeing nude male models might make you gay? If you have used public showers in gyms, etc., has that exposure to nudity caused you any trouble? If not, it seems likely that nudity in an artist's studio won't disturb you either.

  10. Consider going your own way. There's no rule that says that your training absolutely must include nude models (though I think it's a good idea), and if you are determined to become an artist then go for it anyway. Sure, you will have to miss out on some educational opportunities, some commissions, and so on, but if you go into it with open eyes in that regard it's not an impossible situation. It's just one that has some costs.

  11. Consider doing something else. Nobody is forcing you to be an artist and if your religious beliefs or your psychological aversion to the human body are so strong that you will be plagued with troubles as an artist then perhaps you should become a dog trainer or a pilot instead.
My advice is to be rational, be honest with yourself and your self-evaluation and think for yourself and do what you think is right and don't let other people cow you into making choices that you won't be happy with and don't agree with. If you do that you'll come out fine in the end, artist or not.

-- Brian