Nudity in the privacy of our homes? We seem to be fine with that – well, sort of. But then there’s nudity on the beach, nudes in advertising, nudes in music videos, in film, and of course on the Internet.
Of course there are occasions where nudity has no place. Unless you live in a Nudist Colony, you’re not doing your visiting in the buff. And we can probably identify many places where overexposure is nonsensical and utterly gratuitous – including in fashion, media, and entertainment.
Partly, this discomfort with nudity is due to the way our (Puritanical) American society is programmed; naturally, we go about our business clothed for practical reasons, and in the privacy of our homes for learned reasons of culture and identity.
So isn’t this a matter of common sense? Context? Could it be that we are lightening up when it comes to nudity? Are we less likely to be shocked by every aspect, in every venue?
I think so. Yet conservative factions continue to churn up clouds of concern that seem overwrought and unwarranted.
Are there no limits to what social norms should permit?
Personally, I think there are limits to everything to do with human behavior – but my limits (and my tolerance) may be different from yours.
(Not) hot, but bothered
Yesterday, a friend told me about a web site that promotes the green movement, and various peace initiatives. It’s a site run primarily by women, called Peace Paint. Apparently, its banner image and some illustrations feature the female figure, discreetly painted with 60s peace symbols, flags, text, and various emblems evoking an idealized, integrated, and socially responsible planet.
The use of nudity comes across as innocent (in a free love sort of aesthetic), and certainly isn’t offensive. Not to me, anyway.
Yet a small brouhaha is brewing over the use of these innocuous images, which blend appropriately with the tone of the site, and in which there is not so much as a nipple to be seen.
What’s so wrong with the human body as a lighthearted and natural means to promote a platform of peace?
History, history, history
The nude is a timeless fixture in art history: sculptors, painters, and photographers all pay homage to human attributes – strength, beauty, fragility, and more – by continually reinterpreting human form. In the hands of an artist, the body becomes a vehicle for symbolism and philosophy, for examination and creative process, as well as a universal landscape that is both unique and transcendent.
Nudity in art – there, can we agree?
Since art forms vary tremendously (as does taste, and opinion on what is tasteful), even in the realm of art, we’re unlikely to agree on what is appropriate, beautiful, artful, provocative, erotic, or for some – pornographic.
Nonetheless, fine art is filled with fine examples of the human figure. And incidentally – what we take today for high art was often, in its day, controversial.
Consider Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (c. 1485), or Une Odalisque (1814) from Ingres.
Perhaps you prefer the nudes of Albrecht Durer, Peter Paul Rubens, Camille Corot, or Auguste Rodin, who not only created monumental sculptures (among them the very famous Thinker, and The Kiss) but he also produced what were considered erotic Lesbian drawings and watercolors that many of us find exquisite.
The reclining nude is a common theme throughout art history (as in the Odalisque, as in Edouard Manet’s Olympia, which was shocking at the time, or as in Corot’s Bacchante).
When nudity expresses our most vulnerable selves
Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele painted at the turn of the 20th century. There is something tortured and painful in his work. His nudes are not only erotically charged, but poignant and disturbing; sexuality and vulnerability unite in a powerful combination.
(Take a look at this wonderful selection of Schiele works on YouTube.)
Photographers like Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, and Man Ray depicted our humanity through the lens. Their black and white nudes are among the most elegant and iconic of the 20th century, realistic and surrealistic interpretations of beauty and art as embodied by the naked form.
More familiar photographic images?
What could be more innocently sexual than the fetching Red Velvet Series of Marilyn Monroe by Tom Kelly? Tame by today’s standards, 22-year old Norma Jean seems more vulnerable than sexual.
Contemporary art nudes as concept, statement, and image
And the nudes we find in contemporary art? Images are often as much about social statement or concept, as they are about the process of painting or sculpting, or representing the artist’s vision of the human form.
South African born Marlene Dumas is acclaimed for her unsettling imagery that explores sexual, racial, and gender identity, as well as themes of sexual and political violence.
Note: For those who can get to the NYC area, Paul Kasmin Gallery’s “Naked!” (through September 19) looks worth the visit.
Read more in their press release.
Nothing sells magazines like a great cover. And nothing works quite as well (for many publications) as highlighting the nude female figure. Nudity sells, just like sex sells.
In some instances, we’re curious. We want to see how we stack up against models, celebrities, and other “regular” people. In other instances, nudity serves as an awakening, a kind of liberating force in an over-moralizing society.
Case in point: Demi Moore’s 1991 Vanity Fair cover did more than just cause a stir. It allowed pregnancy to be publicly perceived as beautiful. Pregnant women were suddenly “out of the closet” and not only comfortable in their skin, but glamorously so.
There’s no question that baring all (or almost) is a tried-and-true advertising trick. And why shouldn’t Peace Paint use it in the name of laudable objectives?
Nudity is especially effective in fashion or lifestyle spreads, and in promoting certain personal care products and services. The advertisers are selling us those bodies, directly or indirectly, so isn’t there some logic to that?
Fear of the erotic
Perhaps the concern, for some, is based on fear of the erotic. But let’s remember that modesty is learned in childhood. Likewise, shame of our bodies and discomfort with our desires.
That discomfort is often encouraged through repressive culture, especially for women, and comparisons that add to the same we feel with “less than perfect” bodies.
Nudity is a natural state; sexuality is a necessary one. When will we cease fearing – and judging – what is both beautiful and irrepressibly human?
So what about nudity on the Internet?
Is titillation or arousal always the objective? Or is it the fact that it’s a possible consequence that remains so troubling?
The line between appropriate and inappropriate, or erotica and pornography, is likely to be an individual judgment call. And each of us is entitled to our own opinion.
Here are some thoughts:
- Nudity can be art – but not very sexy.
- Nudity can be sexy – but not art.
- Nudity can be erotic, and sexy, and art.
- Nudity can also address other objectives and achieve other results; it can be innocent, funny, matter-of-fact, educational, clinical, therapeutic.
- Nudity does not equate to an open invitation to “inappropriate” acts of sexuality.
The Internet provides ample expressions of sexuality, generally with some amount of nudity, for a wide range of tastes. But nudity in and of itself should not be confused with behavior or condemned across the board.
Nudity as freedom, and healing force
A young woman I once knew underwent a mastectomy before the age of twenty. She was sensual, sexual, and had an otherwise “perfect” body.
On a nudist beach on the Aegean, she was able to sunbathe free of stigma. Since no one wore a bathing suit, she got little more than a routine glance, like everyone else. She was just another swimmer, another body on the beach.
In those moments, she told me, she felt free.
If we choose to celebrate the human form – preferably in a range of shapes and sizes – who knows… might we come to appreciate ourselves as we are, as art?
What if we looked at our sexuality as both extraordinary and natural?
If you want explicit sexual imagery online, there is no shortage. The extent to which we protect ourselves and children (minors) from what we deem inappropriate is a legal and moral matter, as well as an issue of safety – and not one I take lightly.
But if you are searching for beauty and eroticism of nudity on the Internet, rest assured, it’s there. And plenty of it is tasteful.
Is it also artistic? Sexy? Will we go back for more and feel fine with it?
I hope so. But it’s really up to each of us to choose for ourselves.
Please note: Reproduction permissions were received wherever possible and proper attributions provided. If I have missed an attribution or misunderstood reproduction rights, please use the About page contact information and let me know. I will modify attribution or substitute with a thumbnail as required. My intent is educational, not commercial.
You May Also Enjoy