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Thursday, 22 March 2012

Can Humans See Nudity in Art as Purely Aesthetic?

Posing for the camera. Group nude on a beach.
Image via Wikipedia

If you're coy, or easily embarrassed, put on your dark glasses whilst you read this. And make sure your maiden aunt is out of the room. Don't want to make her blush, do we?
I'm interested in exploring our attitudes to nudity, especially as it applies to art; art of all types, whether that's painting, sculpture, theatre, cinema, or literature. The latter, of course, is my personal concern, as a writer.

Before we look at the issue as it relates to art, we need to understand what it means in life in general. It goes without saying, of course, that we're born naked. To understand why there's so much guilt, embarrassment and general negativity toward social nudity I'd need to go on for chapters. So, I've placed a potted and personal hypothesis at the foot of this piece, for those who are interested or curious. But, for our current purposes, it's enough to accept that nudity is a subject cloaked in secrecy, guilt, excitement, passion, disgust, admiration, lust and hypocrisy.

Because this natural state has developed associations that are so unnatural, writers and artists have had to approach it with a full awareness of the contemporary spread of attitudes. In earlier times it was a little easier, since the majority of educated people, those who'd come into contact with works of art portraying nudity, were also subject to the thinking imposed by the moral authority of the church, synagogue or mosque. I exclude the eastern religions, as they have generally displayed a much more enlightened and liberal attitude to the subject.

In our current multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-ethical society in the West, the situation is fraught with danger. On the one hand, the extreme sects of the Abrahamic religions universally condemn public nakedness, probably for the reasons explained below. But, on the other, those individuals and groups who are liberal in thought positively embrace nudity as a desirable state both publicly and privately.

When portraying the human body in its natural state we, as artists, are forced to consider the possible attitudes of those we hope to entertain, educate, impress or arouse. Visual artists are constrained more by simple taste and the likely location of their works than by other considerations. So, it's fine to portray the full frontal display if it's confined to the art gallery, where people go by choice and must know that they may be faced with such sights.

'I tell you, Ethel. She was showing everything. And I do mean everything. I mean, I didn't know where to look!'
'I bet Bert knew where to look, though, Gloria, didn't he?'
'Certainly did. I hauled him out of there as quick as I could.'

However, if a pictorial or plastic portrayal is to be on general public view in the street or similar location, the display is normally neutered to some extent. Erect penises and hairless and/or detailed vulva are generally frowned on and therefore avoided. And, in advertising, the airbrush becomes the weapon of choice against truth.

In writing, we have the double-edged benefit of the genre and the sub-genre. If we want to indulge in sexual fantasy, we can do so with little restriction under the umbrella of 'erotica'. That's fine. But what about the serious writer who wants to portray the natural in a work of a more literary nature? That it can be done and even appreciated is demonstrated by the successful publication of such works as Lawrence's 'Lady Chatterley's Lover'. Though even such well-established works as this are vilified, banned, and even burned in some of the more extreme communities.

What is difficult, is the portrayal of nudity devoid of sex, though not of gender. It's as if the very introduction of nudity is considered a preparation for sex. So, the heroine who naturally chooses to do her housework free of the encumbrance of clothing is inevitably, in the minds of most readers, prepared and ready for a sexual encounter, either alone or with some expected partner. The man who prefers to swim naked in the private lake is subject, in the minds of the readers, to some expected sexual act yet to be described. In writing, as in life, it's almost impossible to remove the general association between nudity and sex.

I started this feature with the question: 'Can humans see nudity in art as purely aesthetic?' My conclusion is that, in most cases, the answer is 'No', which is a shame. The human body is possibly the most beautiful living form in existence. Of course, as a human, I'm biased in favour of the human form, and in particular, as a man, of the female human form. That's a biological essential. Does that mean, however, I'm incapable of appreciating that form without the association of the possibility of sexual activity with it? Does it mean I look at a picture of a naked woman and always wish to have sex with her? If I study a piece of sculpture am I seeking a way to enter it? As a woman, is it possible to watch a nude man dance or exercise and see him only as a beautiful form? To what extent are desire and arousal associated with nudity? Is the association inevitable?

I suppose, what I'm trying to discover is whether it's possible for us to view or read about nudity from a neutral position in which sexual interest plays no part. And the answer appears to be that we are hard-wired to associate nudity with sex. There are exceptions, of course. To the normal mind, for instance, the nude child, corpse, and victim of torture or rape, all evoke emotions far away from sexual desire. To the heterosexual, nude depictions of the same gender can be viewed dispassionately and to those who love the same gender, the nude of the opposite is something devoid of sexual attraction.

So, if I want to make my heroine both attractive and nude, I must accept that she will be viewed in a sexual manner, even when that aspect isn't intended. I must be aware that my male nude hero will excite female, and some male, readers in ways not necessarily meant. This natural response therefore challenges the writer to portray such characters with care if they are to convey the image intended. It makes the process more demanding and difficult. Perhaps that's why so few writers are willing to step into this territory, or to turn all nudity into eroticism. It's a shame, but it seems inevitable.

Why my interest? Well, I'm writing an epic fantasy set in an invented land with invented history and customs. For reasons too complex to discuss here, I've made the major religion of that land one where worship and nudity go hand in hand. It's been difficult to convey the necessary spiritual aspect without unintentionally causing some level of sexual arousal in my readers. But it looks as though I'll have to simply accept that such is inevitable and make the best of it.

I'd appreciate any input from my readers here. Suggestions, ideas, arguments are all welcome.

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My View of How Nudity Became Associated with Guilt and Sex.

The vast majority of indigenous peoples living in the tropics when first discovered by western explorers, lived as naked tribes, though some wore minimal cover. Those of us born in less friendly climates initially took to clothing as protection against the cold, since our skin no longer bore the hair of our earlier ancestors. There are different theories as to how we became the naked ape, and I'm not intending to discuss those here but I'll point you in the direction of The Descent of Woman, by Elaine Morgan, for one of the more credible explanations. (For a review of this excellent text follow this link). The simple fact, however, that we were and are, to all intents and purposes, hairless made clothing a necessity for survival.

It's likely that two different, though related, causes made us consider nakedness in public a bad thing. As long as we lived in small tribes that were extended families, sexual availability and display of gender were no problem. Once, however, we began to organise into larger communities, constant nakedness, with it's inevitable consequence of stimulus and availability, made some sort of cover essential. Otherwise people would be at it all the time, no work would get done and the women would be perpetually pregnant. At about the same time as larger communities developed, so also, as a consequence, the social contract began to be formed in a rudimentary way. Those who laboured to provide food, hunting weapons and other social needs, were defended by others who formed protection against the raids of other similar communities.

Thus, in a nutshell, was formed the basis of modern society, with leaders overseeing producers. That it all got considerably out of hand early on is a matter for a different discussion. However, as a consequence of their positions of power and all the benefits that brought, leaders needed some device to stop workers from rebelling. Thus religion came about. Early religion was cleverly combined with what were, at the time, plausible answers to otherwise unfathomable mysteries. Leaders formed associations between the powers of their gods, the invented afterlife, and behaviour in everyday life as a means of controlling their people.
In the early Abrahamic religions that now rule over most of the world the concept of guilt was introduced as a means of controlling a subjugated and resentful population. It was a convenient way of making those who served into a flock that was, to some extent, self-governing. Introduce the idea that selfish and anti-social actions will eventually result in an eternal afterlife spent feeding the flames of some sort of hell and you have a powerful tool of control.

Once guilt was established, it was a relatively simple matter, using fear and ignorance, to persuade people that reward was a divine matter used to benefit goodness, whilst punishment was reserved for those who were bad. However, it suited those in control to determine what was perceived as good and bad. It also suited them to have degrees of such qualities determined by the individual's position in the hierarchy that was the natural outcome of developing society.

So it was that a natural state, nakedness, became frowned on in public, even though such nakedness might be beneficial for reasons entirely separate from sexual activity. Many activities are actually easier whilst unencumbered by clothing; Labouring in the tropics and fishing in the shallows are obvious examples. And the relatively recent introduction of special clothing to cover us whilst we swim is a natural progression of the guilt theme.

Having established control through guilt, the leaders then discovered that they'd shot themselves in the feet. Nudity is the preferred state for sexual activity. Sexual activity is enhanced by power, which we all know acts as an aphrodisiac (in itself a matter fraught with questions). So, leaders were now in a state where they'd made clothing essential, even in places where it was really unnecessary. But they wished to have their women (by this time it was almost exclusively men who were in power, of course) naked and available for sex. Thus came about the introduction of revealing wear, especially for women, in those situations where it was permitted. Not because women necessarily wished to be on display but because their men required it.

The nature of the guilt association allowed the hypocrisy of partial cover to become an acceptable alternative to nudity. Partial cover, with its promise of the hidden and its drawing of the eye to the most sexually attractive parts, became more alluring than actual nudity, for many men. Clothes for women, initially, and more recently for men, except when there's a deliberate intention to make them plain and unattractive, are designed to draw the eye of the opposite gender. This is the hypocrisy of guilt born of religion. In hiding the sexual attractiveness of the naked genders, those in power devised a system where the clothed genders are, if anything, considered even more attractive.

Many of you, especially those with religious sympathies, will utterly disagree with what I've said here. Of course you will: you've been indoctrinated from birth by ideas that are now so ingrained that they're integral to your being. But a logical examination of the reality must conclude that what I've suggested as the development of sexual guilt as a socially protective device imposed for reasons of power is at least as credible as any other theory. The topic needs a full length book to develop properly, but those with open minds will understand my drift.
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Another silly question for you to ponder: He's been in the jungle all his life, so why doesn't Tarzan have a beard?


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