Friday, March 13, 2009

Let's talk about nudity.

(I bet that got your attention).

Today on the Boundless blog, Ted Slater asks about nudity in visual art such as illustration and film: "When and how is it appropriate to include nudity... in various forms of art?"

It's a good question because it brings into focus two distinct arguments: that God made the human body as the marvellous crowning glory of His creation (see Psalm 139:13-16), and that the naked body has a particularly remarkable effect on many of those who view it.

The naked body has been portrayed -- and revered -- in visual art since there was art to be made. This doesn't offer an exception to Christians pondering the appropriateness of nudity in art; it simply shows us how deeply flows the belief in the value and necessity of the nude form in art.

There are, however, exceptions to most rules. In this case, married couples are, of course, given the freedom to look on each others' nakedness, and a male doctor might be required to tend a female patient. That same doctor will also likely have studied detailed depictions of anatomy in the course of his education, which I think provides a clear example of when nudity in art is appropriate and when it is not.

All art is created for a reason, even if the reason is so basic as a guiding compulsion to create, or for the sheer joy of making something. But art also invokes a response, and I think it is this reason and response which provides the best guideline for the appropriateness of the portrayal of nudity. What is the underlying reason behind the portrayal of a naked woman in a painting? What is the response of the viewer?

It is impossible to deny that humans -- particularly men -- struggle with lust provoked by visual stimulation. Is it ever right for us to create a piece of art that could add to that struggle? To say that someone's struggle over sin is their own battle to fight is not enough. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we are obligated and privileged to help one another, to "spur one another on to love and good deeds." And our role as disciples goes beyond simply helping: we are called to avoid doing anything -- even unintentionally -- that could cause someone else to stumble.

Jesus said, But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea (Matt. 18:6).

Being exempt from similar struggles ourselves -- or being firmly convinced of the beauty and loveliness of the human form -- does not excuse us from meeting our obligations to our fellow believers. The following Scripture relates specifically to food; if we substitute the word "art" in its place, we are offered a challenging insight into our role as creators of art:

Do not, for the sake of [art], destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he [views] (Romans 14:20).

There will be nudity in art as long as there is art. But should Christians be creating visual art which includes portrayals of nudity and sexual images? These Scriptures convince me that the answer is no.

But what's your take? (You can disagree if you want; it keeps us all on our toes!)


  1. I'm no artist, but nude art does bother me. I like your argument; it makes a lot of sense. No fuel for interesting discussion from me, sorry! :)


  2. I vote yes to art that portrays the human body. Because it is beautiful. It is lovely. It is a creation of God and I think that artists seek to honour that aspect of the body.

    But no to 'sexual images'. all seems to come down to intent, in the end.
    And also a lot of censorship comes down to context- I'm not going to hang a semi-pornographic image in our church entry way.
    But I WOULD have a problem with sheltering school children from the venus de milo, or the sistine chapel fresco of creation, or Michelangelo's David for 'proprietie's' sake.
    I do not think we can ever control people's reactions to things, but we can still invite them to enter into something beautiful with us.

    Tops blogging, D.
    I like your topic of choice :)

  3. Just quickly, thanks for the post DD. :) Great to hear and a good scripture...I love that whole Romans 14 bit and into the 15th chapter too.

    Staish, I agree. What needs to be considered I think, is how children are introduced to beautiful art. As a life long love parents need to communicate their appreciation for art, (even non-controversial art) for unfortunately, children will spoil it for each other by dictating what is/is not cool or beautiful. This seems to be a big disadvantage of mass education. :)

  4. I definitely agree with you about the medical images. ALL of the body must be studied, and treated/cared for. So obviously that would be different from walking around the shopping mall, or posing for an artist.

    But I am not sure that nakedness should be shown anywhere except for medically (except to a spouse of course).
    I Corinthians 12:23 : "the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty." I would translate that the torso and pelvic region must be covered, because they are "unpresentable".

    Interesting topic Danielle : )

  5. But I could be wrong!!

    Forgot to add that very important fact... : )

  6. Well, having studied art and capturing the human figure for many years, I can definitely say that learning to draw what is under the clothing is definitely necessary in learning to correctly draw normally clothed people. Working from a live model is best. There is a very special and rigorous decorum associated with having a live model posing for an artist or a group of artists, though. Both the artists and the model cease to interact with the model as someone and let him or her become something during that time (I used to work as a model, though not nude).

    I say this to point out that anatomy texts are not the only time when people are "reduced" to form for the sake of study.

    See how cleverly I added to the discussion without actually stating my views on the morality of nudity in art? ;-)

  7. Alright, fine, I won't be a coward. Or not a BIG coward, anyway. ;-)

    I'm not a fan of sexual acts being explicitly depicted. I'm very much not a fan of scenes which blatantly encourage bondage/domination/etc. to pleasure the dominating party (Scenes in TV, film, music, paintings, etc.).

    But the human body is glorious and beautiful. And it is something very powerful and yet normal, since each of us has one. This makes it an incredibly rich way to connect with people. When I write that "she felt as if there were caterpillars searching through her abdomen" - you're probably going to know what I mean, and it will connect with you not only mentally, but almost physically. It is a very powerful method of connection.

    It's also the way that we represented ourselves to the world (before the internet, anyway, unless one was a writer). And even on the internet, well, my friends poke me to look at their photos on Flikr and Facebook all the time (which I like doing, btw). We ask ourselves, "who am I?" and part of that answer definitely includes the face that blinks back in the mirror.

    So of course it is appropriate to use the body in art. Necessary, as well.

    As for clothes, they are a ginormous industry, headache, delight, and daily ritual. We spend a lot of time covering and thoughtfully revealing our bodies. But what if I want to show you who I am without the trappings? I might depict myself as naked.

    (To be perfectly honest, most of the people in my pictures have no clothing on. But, as they are depicted either as outlines or silhouettes, it doesn't end up that they are really nude, either. Just... themselves. Stripped down to a suggestion, an essence of humanity. Like the main character of a story whose head you are very much inside, but who doesn't have a name....)

    It is up to each person to learn his or her own limits and struggles and avoid the things which trigger those. I'm not going to watch a film with gratuitous violence or gratuitous sex. But I have to decide what the definition of that is. (To be perfectly honest, I usually have to turn my gaze away if a couple so much as kisses. It seriously upsets me to see that... because I can't have it... so I avoid chick flicks to spare myself this emotional torture.)

    The human body is erotic or not depending on the context and the person who is looking. We've mentioned doctors and models already. Cadavers are bodies, but... ok, enough. So the looker is strongly involved, too. And, to a large extent, the one responsible for his own reaction to the piece.

    It is possible to make ANYTHING sound dirty by the tone of voice. "I'd like to file her documents." can be quite the lustful statement if said in the right tone of voice. So, too, can any picture with a body be considered sexual, if the viewer is so inclined to interpret it in such a way (and yeah, it's really annoying when they're walking through the Hermitage at about the same pace as you are, loudly commenting to their friends). Actually, anything can be considered sensuous by the truly imaginative. And vice versa is true, too. Doctors are not supposed to be turned on by their female patients.

    Artists can intend to push people in a certain emotional and physical direction, but a lot of the responsibility remains with the viewer.


    If you need to use a nude form to convey what it is you are conveying with your art, and you are morally ok with the message in that art, go for it.

    If you have a problem with lust, don't go looking through art encyclopedias or wandering around galleries. Or hospital corridors.

    (Sorry for being rambly; was that understandable?)

  8. Ooh, smart people read my blog! This makes me happy :).

    Thanks for adding to the dialogue, folks. I found your comments thought-provoking and stimulating. And although I still feel incredibly strongly that it would be wrong for me personally to create art that incorporates nudity -- sexualised or "innocent" -- I wonder if this might be one of those issues where the Scriptures say, "each one must be fully convinced in his own mind"? I know that's very postmodern of me, but just thinking out loud.

    Asea -- are you who I think you are?

  9. Depends on who you think I am. ;-)

    If you think I'm Aseas_Words over on LJ, you'd think right. :-D


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