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Nudity in Art: A Virtue or Vice?

By Brian K. 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



The Complaint

ome 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 GoodArt 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 GoodArt 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.

6. "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.

7. "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.

My Replies

How do I respond to these complaints? These groups can be broken down into categories that encompass all the comments described above:

"Looking at nudes impacts the mind in negative ways, most notably by making one obsessed with sex."
I believe that this is simply false, at least for most normal people. If you look at circumstances where nudity is commonplace such as showers in gyms, nude figure drawing sessions in art schools, nude beaches, and primitive societies where public nudity is commonplace, you don't see a hyper-sexualized environment at all. Quite to the contrary, in these contexts nudity loses its sexual connotation entirely. On the other hand, in social situations where little or no exposure of the body is allowed (such as certain Muslim countries today or 19th century Europe and America for example) tame displays of the body such as exposing an ankle, a short sleeved shirt, or the ruffles of a petticoat might drive men into a sexual tizzy. If anything, it would seem that sexual hypersensitivity and obsession is far more associated with a prudish approach to nudity than to one that makes it more commonplace.

"I can't allow my kids to look at the website because there are nudes there."
Of course one should be concerned about exposing children to sexually explicit materials before they are old enough to understand it, but what does this have to do with the kind of nudity on the ARC website and in other classically oriented museums around the globe? Nothing that I can see. Sex and nudity are not the same thing.

First, I think that adults tend to project their own intense interest in sexual matters onto children who in fact don't have such interests at all. Instead, they are more likely to have curiosity about whatever "forbidden fruit" it is that their parents seek to hide away from them. In my experience, young children are likely to respond to a nude painting or statue by saying something like "Oh, so that's what a naked woman/man looks like." shrug their shoulders, and go back to whatever they were already doing. If an uncomfortable sexual situation arises, (like dogs mating in public for example), the situation is generally far more uncomfortable for the adults who are worried about being asked embarrassing questions, than for the kids who are just mildly curious about what's going on rather than blushing and becoming upset. Likewise, it is generally parents rather than children who typically have the bouts of anxiety associated with discussing where babies come from.

While many of the concerns of parents in western society derive from Freud's research and mostly discredited theories on the impact of nudity on young developing minds, it would be well beyond the scope of this article to launch into their accuracy and impact. Suffice it to say that such a discussion might well be excellent material for a possible follow up article and discussion.

Second, if parents want to avoid giving their kids a psychological obsession related to sex or nudity they should avoid making a big deal out of such things, starting at an early age. I don't mean that they should take them to strip clubs or have them watch X-rated movies by any means, but they should also not make the opposite mistake of covering their eyes when they walk past an artistic nude in a museum, scolding or swatting a dog for copulating, or becoming freaked out if the child sees a couple holding hands or kissing passionately. Children learn their early emotional responses to things by watching their parents, so if you want to avoid having them develop sexual obsessions or unduly negative attitudes about sex, the best medicine is to avoid acting in obsessive or negative ways yourself.

Third, I think it is a mistake to associate nudity exclusively with sexual activity or sexual meaning. A nude can be highly sexual or not at all sexual, just as a clothed figure can be highly alluring or non-sexual as well. For example, these artworks include nude figures even though they are not charged with sexual meaning:

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But this fully clothed figure is considerably more sexually explicit in its meaning despite being completely clothed from the neck down:

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Sexual meaning has a lot more to do with the treatment of the figures than it does with how much clothing they are wearing.

"Nudity means sex, which is bad/dirty and to be avoided."
There are problems with both of the points of view embodied in this complaint. The first is the idea that nudity and sex are the same thing, or perhaps more specifically, that a painting with nudity in it is expressing a sexual message. That this is not the case seems so clear to me that it's hardly worth mentioning. Nudity certainly can be used in such a way as to highlight sexual thoughts but it need not do so at all or may do so only to a limited extent. There's a wide gulf between artistic nudes and pornography and it is wrong to impute to one the properties of the other.

The second is that sex is something that is bad, dirty, or evil. What is supposed to be so terrible about sex even if there is something of it involved in the meaning of a work of art? I can certainly see reasons to think that obsessive fascination with sexual things can be harmful but I think that's different from what is being criticized in these cases since that's not the sort of images on the ARC website. If anything, it is the folks who are obsessed with eliminating anything remotely sexual from the world who seem a bit too obsessive about the subject to me.

"Nudity is pornography, which is bad and to be avoided."
Pornography involves the gross depiction of explicit sexual material entirely to stimulate a psychological sexual thrill. Not all art works that include nude figures have anything to do with sex, and not all art that addresses sexual matters approaches the subject from a prurient point of view. Is there some art that does so? Sure, but we don't include such images on the ARC Museum. We do however include a fair number of nude figures from the other categories. The bottom line is that there's no pornography on the ARC website.

A side question is whether adults viewing pornographic materials is harmful per se. Viewed in moderation I don't see any great harm in it myself, though in the context of these websites it's not particularly relevant since there's nothing pornographic on the site.

Does this mean that it is impossible for someone to become "hooked on pornography"? Of course not. That happens to people regardless of their exposure to nudity in art from what I can tell, and in fact, if anything, sexual repression and a prudish attitude toward nudity and sex are much more causally related to psychological problems of this kind than the availability of nude figures in art.

"Female nudes are an affront to the power of women because it makes them objects of male lust rather than complete human beings."
This view lumps a wide variety of material into a single category that most of it doesn't fit merely on the basis of the clothing worn by the subjects:

  • Non-Sexual Nudes
  • Sexualized Nudes the point of which is something other than "objectification and dominance"
  • Sexualized Nudes that do in fact express those negative ideas
Clearly the first category cannot have that meaning since its subject has nothing to do with sex at all (for example Parrish's "The Dinky Bird" above which is about carefree joy and youth rather than sex) and thus it can't be (except in the vivid imagination of conspiracy theorists perhaps) delivering that kind of message.

Images related to sexual topics can express a whole range of ideas such as "Sex is good", "Sex is bad", "Relaxing after a satisfying sexual encounter is wonderful", "Beautiful women can use their sexual attractiveness to beguile men", or "the tension between sexual and intellectual interests as a powerful psychological factor". The vast majority of these kinds of subject matter has nothing at all to do with the feminist tropes of "male domination" or "female objectification", and thus it has nothing to do with most such art, especially since some versions of these ideas are of rather recent vintage. These themes can also appear both with and without recourse to nudity. For example:

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Lastly, there is indeed some art that is genuinely and intentionally degrading (to members of whatever group or to people in general) and sometimes the nature of that degrading message is related to sex (again, whether males, females, racial/ethnic groups, or what have you), or it may be degrading or insulting in ways that have nothing to do with sex at all. Be that as it may, nudity is not necessary to create such art, nor is it sufficient. One can be highly degrading to any group portraying only people who are fully clothed or not. There's no way to tell from the use of nudity whether an artwork is ennobling, degrading, or irrelevant to that issue based on whether the people in the artwork are clothed or not. So if you want to criticize or avoid degrading art then by all means do so, but don't use the short cut of assuming that you can tell whether a work of art is like that based on the clothing or lack thereof in the work. In fact, some works such as orientalist paintings of slave markets for example, may portray degradation of people, often even vulnerable-looking nude people, to show how bad degradation is.

Below is an example of a work (Herbert Schmaltz's "Faithful Unto Death") that shows a group of figures being prepared for execution in the Coliseum. There is no doubt that they are about to be degraded and abused in the narrative of the painting, but not sexually and not by means of the artwork itself despite the fact that they are not wearing any clothes. In fact, their nudity (and their beauty) is clearly intended to make them seem more vulnerable to the animals about to be unleashed on them, but also their attractiveness also helps to generate sympathy for them and to highlight what a tragic waste of human beings this is.

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Some people may however maintain that nudity per se (most commonly female nudity) necessarily conveys in some impossible to define sense, some sort of demeaning attack on femininity or women. The very fact that they can't really identify what it is about nudity per se that necessarily brings this about, or how the artist couldn't have possibly have had some other intent than to demean in mind, or that even if the artist didn't intend to be demeaning he somehow was doing so in some kind of hidden or subconscious way should be a clue that they are basing this opinion on their own prejudices rather than anything in the works they are criticizing. To these people all I can say is that if everything in the world looks rose-colored to you, perhaps you should consider the possibility that it is your rose-colored glasses that are causing this rather than the world itself being tinted in a weird direction.

To imagine that the point of Anna Lea Merritt's Love Locked Out is somehow a message of abasement, prurience, or demeaning to the kind of person being portrayed is to completely miss the whole point of the painting out of an obsessive focus on perverse and distasteful sexual matters, the avoidance of which oddly enough, is usually given as the justification for the objection to this kind of painting in the first place. Merritt painted this after her husband of just three months had died. It depicts Cupid attempting to force the golden door of a mausoleum in grief, tragedy, loneliness, and sorrow, the roses of life withered and scattered at his feet, and his lamp discarded in frustration in the light of an autumn morning. That's not abasement, that's great art.


Art, from the beginning, endeavored to express emotions and historical facts to be understood by all human souls of all nations, without need of written words. Art uses the gestures of human beings, the atmosphere of the universe to convey thought and emotions and to record events. Without thought and emotions, it has no reason for existence.

—Anna Lea Merritt



So we can see from this that there are many works of art containing nudity that are utterly innocent of these kinds of charges and concerns, and among the rest, only a tiny portion of works of art fall into that category, and that's also not a category that we display on the ARC site. Nude figures? Sure. Degrading or prurient portrayals? Certainly not.

"I have religious objections against nudity."
While this charge varies a great deal depending on the religious background of the person in question, it commonly comes from Christians and I think that there are a number of good reasons to reject this point of view on religious/theological grounds.

1. I don't know of any direct biblical admonitions against nudity or viewing nudity. There is of course the commandment about not "coveting thy neighbor's wife" and adultery, but viewing (or even admiring) a nude figure doesn't necessarily elicit covetous thoughts or adulterous actions. And among among those with even a smidgen of self-control, they don't necessarily elicit sexual thoughts at all. One can observe, admire, and respect all kinds of the things one is not supposed to "covet" without actually "coveting" them. If it were otherwise, you would have been admonished against ever seeing any property of your neighbor's that you might therefore want to steal. Can one not see and even admire your neighbor's new car or ox without violating this commandment? This is much more about how one looks rather than at what.

2. According to the Bible, the first people were made naked and apparently never wore clothes while they were in God's good graces. They were supposed to have been in a state of perfect harmony with God, and apparently he saw nothing wrong with nudity in this story. It was only after Adam and Eve had sinned that they felt the need to cover themselves and God took this not as a sign that they were obeying his desires, but as the first outward sign that they were thinking in ways that didn't conform to his desired way of the workings of the world.

3. Most Christian denominations teach that the human body is a good and beautiful thing...a "temple". It seems odd to think that a religion would declare such a good and beautiful thing to be sinful. From what I can tell, this whole "nudity and sex are bad" idea entered the Christian culture, not through the teachings of Christ or Moses, but from the teachings of Plato and the Platonist St. Augustine. The idea that the spirit is good but the body is evil comes not from Jewish tradition or the teachings of Jesus, but ultimately from the pagan teachings of Plato (which became a commonplace part of Catholicism and later, Protestant sects) and Manichaeus.

4. The Catholic Church (which was essentially the whole of the Christian community in the West until the Reformation) was not always prudish about either nudity or sex at various stages in its history. Millions of Christians (Catholic and otherwise) visit the Vatican Museum every year which contains a dizzying variety of nude figures, yet the Church doesn't stop this (though in the past it has at certain times attached fig leaves to nude statues and paintings) and in fact commissioned many such works and adorns all its best public facilities with them (like the Vatican itself for example). The reason that the Vatican likes nudes is the same reason that artists throughout most of western history have. They represent man in his purest form, man with nothing held back, hidden, or reserved, man in his timeless nature, not as conditioned by his times or circumstances, and as God created him. You don't need to be Catholic or even religious at all to see that this is so.

I am sure that these kinds of complaints are not limited to Christians of course. The same kinds of issues arise from non-Christians as well and I think that they are mistaken for similar reasons, though whether this or that religion does or doesn't approve of nudity in art, unless some good justification for such a belief can be expressed in non-religious terms, there is no way for the adherents of that religion to expect anybody else to adopt their point of view. In other words, religion-based arguments are unlikely to convince anybody who doesn't already accept that religion. Rational arguments are more likely to be both relevant and convincing outside of religious enclaves, and rational arguments are never of the form "You should believe X regardless of whether my argument is rationally sound or not."

"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?"
My most simple and direct advice would be to "get over it". This would be the same advice I would give to someone who worries that his squeamishness about blood or dead bodies might become an impediment to a career as a doctor or an undertaker. If you really want to be a great artist then you should do whatever is necessary to accomplish that goal. It's really not bad. You won't turn into some kind of sex maniac as a result of seeing a naked person in a figure drawing class. Seriously.

On a somewhat deeper and more serious level, I would recommend that you give it a try before concluding that whatever scary and horrible things you imagine will result. You can ask people who have done it themselves if you don't believe me. It's almost certainly not what you think.

On an even deeper level, I would ask that you ask yourself seriously what you are worried about and what you think is so bad about sex and what is so bad about nudity. You may well have strong emotional feelings about these things. Many people do, but if we allowed our emotions to guide our actions we would never get an inoculation or get out of bed on a rainy day. Many people have been emotionally scarred by pressures or experiences in their lives in some way related to sex and while these emotions are very real that doesn't mean that they need to control our lives and professions. Explore the reasons for these feelings and you might discover why you react the way you do and you might be better able to make your own choices in your life by either resolving to overcome the feelings that hold you back or by accepting them and turning away from incompatible activities.

Of course, none of this means that if you can't deal with nudity or even sexuality you can't become an artist. You can avoid nude subjects, never study nude drawing, and still have a fine career. I don't recommend it, but if that's what you want to do there's nothing wrong with it. Make your own choices and live with the consequences.

Conclusion

Some people might read all of this and conclude that I'm some kind of nudist or something. The situation couldn't be farther from the truth. I'm a rather modest person myself and I think that people obsessed with nudity (for or against) are a bit strange, and have never had any inclination to join either side. I just think that a little common sense is necessary when dealing with nudity in situations like nudes in art education, works of art, and so on, and not read into nudity a whole lot more than what's actually there. Seeing a nude person isn't the same thing as having sex with them after all.

All of this doesn't mean that nudity in art doesn't disturb some people. Clearly it sometimes does, and if good arguments and clear thinking on the subject don't convince them to change their minds then they have every right in the world to choose not to look at it. But please don't ask me to stop others from seeing it or to have me spend hundreds of hours of hard work making it harder to get at nude images on the ARC website. Believe me, if someone is interested in seeing nudity on the Internet, the ARC Museum isn't the best places to go looking for it, especially if they are looking for something titillating or degrading. Theres nothing like that on the site. What we try to offer in the ARC Museum is excellent art that can intellectually inform and emotionally uplift the viewer, whether the subjects of the painting are wearing clothes or not, and that's the policy I intend to follow in the future.

So why does this matter? Is it more than a case of a few eccentrics with strange ideas cutting themselves off from a source of beauty and perhaps enlightenment on the subject? I believe it is. One area where it has gone beyond this is in education. Our schools have become extremely touchy about anything that is in any way related to nudity or sex and as a result, in many cases, budding artists are prevented from developing a full sense of appreciation for the human body and the skills required to portray it effectively. A case in point is the situation of high school teacher Pete Panse (now retired) who taught art in Middletown, New York. In 2006 he recommended that a few of his best students enroll in a figure drawing class at a nearby studio to bring up their skill level in preparation for college. He thought nothing of it until the school district decided that to make such a recommendation constituted sexual harassment and forbade him to make such recommendations again, and attempted to have him fired. (You can read more about this at http://www.artrenewal.org/articles/2006/Peter_Panse/case.php.) Cases like this have a chilling effect on the spread of proper skill development in our next generation of artists and this needs to be fought against diligently.

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There is a broader social level of concern as well. In a free society we should expect to enjoy the maximum level of freedom of expression in the arts, whether as creators or consumers of it. To put a lid on this creativity diminishes our range of appreciation of the human condition and causes us to constantly edit our expressions and interpretations in ways not unlike the way people in totalitarian societies do. What good does the freedom to fully express our ideas do us if for foolish reasons we hold back on doing so fully? If the best expression of some idea involves nudity then by all means let's see it! That way we will always have the best, both of today and also of the past, which contains plenty of nude work. Would we really be better off if all of that great art, such a Michelangelo's David, was hidden away? Destroyed? Never made in the first place? Covered with fig leaves? I don't think so.

I want the artwork I experience to be created with the best training, the best raw materials, the most creative ideas, and the widest freedom to use all of those things to make the most excellent works that best efforts can achieve. To do any less would make the world a worse place to live.


"Art can never exist without naked beauty displayed."

—William Blake



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