Art and the Naked Body

I have been upfront on this blog about how my pornographic past, along with the purity culture of which I was a part, warped my sexuality in ways that are still damaging. Of the various effects my past has had on me, one is that it has so warped my desires that I have had trouble appreciating the beauty of the human form. In this post, I will lay out some of my story regarding my porn use and the way that has affected me, I will then discuss the value of non-sexual nudity, and finally I will discuss the value of nudity in art as an antidote to both purity and pornographic cultures.

(In order to give credit where credit is due, a lot of my thinking on this topic has been informed by this excellent essay by Anna Rose Bain.)

Just a warning: what follows is a frank discussion of sexuality and nudity; paintings depicting nudity are also included.

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I’ve written before that purity culture (the prudish hiding of the body) and ponographic culture (the libertine exposure of the body) are two sides of the same deformed coin of sexulaity. The prudish culture insists that there are body parts that are too sensitive, that the naked body is innately sexual. And, since sexuality is properly reserved for marriage, then the naked body is reserved solely for marriage. Pornographic culture similarly insists that the naked body is innately sexual; it simply insists that you should partake as much as you can in that sexuality. Both purity and pornographic culture reduce the naked form to mere sex and, in the process, train people to see any exposure of the naked body as overtly sexual.

I first started looking at porn when I was thirteen largely because I was curious as to what the naked body looked like. Some of the first searches I put into Google were for body parts. It wasn’t long before this curiosity landed me in the jaws of pornography. Pornography trained me to objectify women by understanding them solely as sexual objects. My addiction would only finally subside ten years later, the last time that I looked at porn being about a month before my wedding. Those ten years (the last five of which I seriously waged war against my addiction) of gazing upon human bodies degraded by the perverse desires of our depraved hearts have left an indelible mark upon my sexuality that I am still grappling with.

Similarly, the religious environment in which I grew up just did not discuss sex. I had the talk with my father, of course, and I basically understood (because modesty rules were enforced in my youth group at church and at church camp) that good Christian girls should hide their bodies beneath appropriate length clothing, but I did not have (because I was either never taught or I was too dull to understand) a robust biblical and incarnational account of human sexuality. Aside from the divine force that sat behind injunctions against having sex or getting close to having sex before I was married, I did not have any conception of why God cared about such things. It seemed pretty straightforward to me (and this was reinforced by my time in college at the church I attended then) that nakedness was shameful and innately sinful. I absorbed from the purity culture around me (as part of my war at this point on pornograpy) that sexual desire for a woman was lust. The fleeting thought of what a woman might look like unclothed was lust. The appreciation that a woman had sexual appeal or, even, was simply beautiful was lust. And lust, though constantly present, was to be resisted primarily through avoiding and averting. If, for example, I noticed that a woman was sexually appealing, I would force myself to look away and to think about something else. If I felt particularly attracted to a woman, I would avoid her. In this way, purity culture confirmed that women were primarily objects of sexual desire but, unlike in porn culture, they were to be avoided.

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I’ve been thinking about the topic of nudity in general lately because I have been teaching my students about the Italian Renaissance. Part of what I do when I teach the Renaissance is that I show them several works of art, including paintings and sculptures that depict nudity. These include great works like Michelangelo’s David and The Last Judgement, as well as my favorite painting of the era, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (which I have written about here). Something I have to explain as I teach these works of art is that while they depict the naked body, and may at times do so sensually (Titian’s Venus of Urbino and his Danae do this), the point is not titillation. The point is to depict the naked human form in order to make some kind of point (more on this below). I think one reason it is very important to show these works of art to the students is because without giving them an appropriate and good way to handle the naked body, they will fall directly into the over-sexualization that is the focus of both purity culture and pornographic culture.

Additionally, as a father, I feel the weight of my responsibility to teach my daughters to view their bodies and gifts from God, and to view the human body generally as God’s good gift. Our bodies, the forms of our souls, indelibly shape our identity. Having a healthy appreciation for the body is vital. In so many cultures the world over, human nudity is on display for kids to see growing up. They watch their mothers and aunts and older sisters nurse. They learn that breasts are a source of life. They observe childbirth, learning that a vagina is as much an origination point for new life as it is a sexual organ. Etc.

Lately my two-year-old want to “help” in the bathroom. I assume most parents experience this. Ellie helpfully hands me toilet paper and flushes the toilet for me when I am done. It makes me uncomfortable to have her in the bathroom with me because I am ashamed of my nakedness. I code nakedness as sexual (see above) and am largely discomfited by being naked in front of anyone who is not my wife, especially my daughter! I’ll do it for the doctor (because I understand the necessity), but that is it. But when you are a parent, you realize pretty quickly that nudity is a regular occurrence. For one thing, babies are naked more than they are clothed. And you, as the parent, also have the joy of handling their bodily functions. My kids have no privacy, and they won’t for some time to come. Furthermore, having kids usually means that there are nursing mothers. Breasts are designed for a lot more than arousing men. They are actually designed to feed babies, and to do that job they need to be exposed. And besides, when a group of people share a small space (including bathrooms), clothing the naked body gets less and less important.

But of course, there is more than just the natural nudity that comes with having a family. There are people, like my wife, whose job regularly exposes them to the nudity of others. If you have any familiarity at all with hospitals, then you understand that you wear the flimsy gown as a sort of concession to the idea of clothes, but that clothes will only get in the way of medical professionals examining you and performing necessary procedures. And there are other circumstances where not being fully clothed is acceptable by most everyone, like the pool or the beach. And while our culture has done its best to sexualize swimwear, it is still relatively true that most people’s standards of acceptable dress (and thus what is considered non-sexual) are largely relaxed for swimming for the very practical reason that it is hard to swim in lots of clothes. It seems clear, then, that we are at least capable of acknowledging several situations in which nudity is both acceptable and non-sexual.

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While the above seems to indicate that nudity can be non-sexual when it happens in the family, when it happens for medical reasons, and when it (relatively speaking; I understand what a swimsuit is) happens while swimming, there is another long tradition that asserts that there can be non-sexual nudity when we are dealing with art. The instinctive conservative evangelical response to the idea of nudity in art is to recoil, to assert that nudity can never be depicted in art because nudity always carries within it at least latent sexuality. I want to reject that claim and, instead insist that nudity in art can be quite edifying for non-sexual reasons.

The first way in which nudity in art is an unmitigated good (and perhaps, in my mind, the most important function that art has) is that nudity in art can demonstrate beauty and innocence. Paintings (for example) that are focused on depicting ideal femininity or ideal masculinity, or in capturing the essence of either, must rely on nudity. And, for the Christian, this should be obvious. The psalmist tells us that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. The scriptures are clear that we humans are the pinnacle of God’s creation. And, after the resurrection, we will be taking our bodies with us. At its best, depicting the nude body in a realistic way on canvas or in a sculpture captures what is most beautiful about our humanity through both the concrete beauty of our bodies and through the symbolism that sits inside naked innocence. None of the paintings below are sexual in the slightest, yet each contains nudity that points beyond itself toward beauty. God is glorified in such art.

Our first example, and my favorite Renaissance painting, is Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. In it one sees the pure innocence of ideal femininity. Venus, modeled on the beautiful Simonetta Vespucci, is clothed only with her golden hair. Her beauty, in fact (because of the context; she is a goddess after all) puts us in mind of the divine.Birth_of_venus

Our second example is Jeremy Lipking‘s Venus. This painting is clearly modeled on the long history of depicting Venus. Her hand is over one breast, as is common in depictions of the “modest Venus” and she, like Botticelli’s Venus, through both her porcelain skin and the flowing of her hair captures something essential about feminine beauty and unfallen innocence. lipking-venus

Our third example is Scott Burdick‘s Forest Beauty. This painting, through its use of color and its gentle depiction of the feminine also renders something essentially beautiful on canvas. Innocent nakedness in nature is depicted; uncorrupted natural beauty at its finest.942forestbeauty

Our fourth example is Susannah Martin‘s River. Different from the depictions of ideal femininity above, this painting takes the same idea about idyllic innocence and portrays it through the relationship of a father and a son. We have the same use of nature and the same innocent nakedness on display.o-hyper-900

Our fifth example is Anna Rose Bain‘s Nurturer. Similar to the previous painting, we have the innocence of childhood mirrored through the innocence of nudity. And we further have the feminine depicted not merely as beauty, but the specific kind of beauty that a mother possesses. We have here they archetypal mother. This is one of my favorite paintings in no small measure because I have now seen Amanda feed two children out of her own body. There is a deep and mysterious truth here. nurturer

Our sixth and final example is Anna Rose Bain’s Colorful Expectation. It, like the previous painting, captures through the essential use of nudity the archetypal feminine. This is a beautiful pregnant woman, glorious in her expectation. colorful_expectations_14x11sm

The second way in which nudity in art can be useful and not focused on sexual arousal is through the frank depiction of shame. In Christian art, nakedness has a long history for standing in for vulnerability and exposure, both good and bad. To be naked is to be open to the gaze of another. There can be no secrets. This feeling of exposure and vulnerability (which at its best is being known by another like a spouse and at its worst is a violation) is so essential to what it means to be human, that depicting it in art is deeply important.

Our first example is Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement. This is, of course, one of his most famous paintings. While there is an unbelievable amount of valuable things I could say about the painting, I will content myself with pointing out that at the final judgment there will be no hiding. Adam’s fig leaves will be removed and we will stand naked before the almighty. Notice in the painting that those destined for Heaven seem confident in their nakedness while those destined for Hell seem ashamed. 5388358235_282023a3b8_b

Our second example is Anna Rose Bain’s Unmasked. I think the title says it all. This painting does an unbelievable job of capturing someone at their most vulnerable and exposed. She can’t hide.unmasked

The third way that nudity in art can avoid titillation and be very meaningful is through honestly depicting sin, even sexual sin. This has to be done very carefully, but if done right, the work of art is able to capture the basic truth of the human condition: we break everything that we touch. Putting our depravity on display in a non-gratuitous way can grab hold of the heart in ways that admonishment or commands simply cannot.

Our first example is Ed Knippers‘s Prodigal in the Far Country. This painting, of course, depicts the depravity to which the prodigal son sank when he had left behind his father and squandered this inheritance. Is this not a most arresting image? Can’t you sense his loneliness and his self-hate? Don’t you pity the women that have been bought with his money? This is haunting.1999_32x24_prodigalinthefarcountry

Our second example is Ed Knippers’s Sampson and Delilah. Like the previous painting, we are haunted by Sampson’s fall from grace. And we pity Delilah for the the circumstances and personal decisions that have driven her to this. Can you even see life in her eyes? Open and exposed, she has been used. And she hates it. And herself. 1998_6x8_samsonanddelilah

One final way in which nudity had be useful in art is by its ability to depict poverty. Poverty has a long track record in art of being depicted as naked people who cannot even afford clothing and have been left to the mercy of the elements. The nakedness of such poverty is usually indicative of injustice; what was theirs has been taken.

Our example of this is Ed Knippers’s The Stoning of Steven. In this painting both Steven (from whom everything but his faith in God was taken) and those who are abusing him are naked. Steven’s nakedness suggest his material poverty, his subjugation to the ruling authorities. In contrast, the nakedness of his tormentors suggest their spiritual poverty; their ignorance before God. ed-knippers-the-stoning-of-steven

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One of the reasons I have done so much thinking about this lately is because I continue to struggle with the legacy that I inherited from both my purity culture and pornographic past. I am tempted, every time I look at these depictions of nudity, to see in them sexuality and to, in turn, code them as wrong or at least suspect. I remain skittish of my own nudity and the nudity of others because I have never learned to love what is beautiful in the human body. But I want to. I want to learn how to move past anxiety about nude forms. I want to learn how to affirm the essential feminine captured in a painting like Lipking’s Venus (which is just breath-taking) without worrying that I am somehow falling into lust. And so, to that end, one of the things I am doing is learning more about and studying fine works of art that depict nudity. If I can learn to appreciate the human body as natural and not just as sexual, then I think I will be able to learn how to rightly love what is beautiful. In this I see the work of sanctification, the right ordering of my affections. The submission of my will to God’s. May he make it so.