Examining the Controversy of Nude Art

Examining the Controversy of Nude Art By Melanie Wood

(This is a re-post of a post that originally appeared in Melanie Wood’s blog, posted Nov 12, 2011)

Recently I attended “Unclothed: Exposing the Art Nude,” an exhibition and panel discussion held at the Stutz Building as part of the Spirit and Place Festival. Given the nature of the topic, I didn’t expect a big turnout. Despite having a vibrant art scene, Indianapolis isn’t exactly the most progressive city. I was really excited, however, to see a standing room only crowd and to be part of a fantastic, thought-provoking discussion on what can be a truly divisive topic.

The first question posed to the panel was about Indianapolis’ community standards. We know we aren’t Paris, New York or LA, but where do we stand on the issue of nude art? Shannon Linker, director of artist services at the Arts Council of Indianapolis, brought up a good point: we haven’t really had any major controversies to help us figure this out.

The only recent example in Indy is Fred Wilson’s proposed E Pluribus Unum sculpture. The controversy isn’t related to nude art, but rather the depiction of a freed slave. Someone also referenced the 1987 photograph Piss Christ, which depicts a crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s urine. Many people were outraged over the image without even seeing it. To me, that’s the heart of the problem with people who condemn “controversial” art: You can’t criticize art without participating in it.

The panel kept circling back to a central question: where does the controversy come from? It doesn’t come from the art itself, but rather from the outside, from the person interpreting it. Certainly when artists create a piece, they have a specific message or theme in mind. But when that piece is displayed, it’s like a blank canvas. Everyone who views it can experience something completely different and take away a different meaning. It’s one of the reasons I love art.

If a piece of art makes you uncomfortable, it’s likely because it draws out some discomfort that already existed in you. You may not even realize it’s happening, but art is often like a mirror – we project our thoughts, emotions, fears onto the piece and it reflects them back. Nude art especially can make us uncomfortable because, as noted by panelist Tim Ayers, teaching pastor at Grace Community Church in Carmel, it exposes our vulnerability.

A gallery exhibition of nude art work was on display at the event. The most poignant piece was a black and white photo called Symmetry by Gary Mitchell. In the photo, a woman in her mid-20s is sitting spread eagle, completely nude, with everything on display. The best part? Her expression. She is completely unashamed. If you felt embarrassed or disgusted by the photo, I would argue that it says less about the photo itself and more about you and how you may be ashamed or disgusted by your own body and/or sexuality. Personally, I was jealous. I admired her extreme confidence.

It’s an interesting concept: is art inherently controversial or do we project controversy onto it? Does nude art make us uncomfortable because we are in some way uncomfortable with our own sexuality? The panel also raised questions about desire. It’s natural to be turned on by nudity, even if the piece isn’t sexual in nature. But does the desire come from the art itself or the interpreter? Is it even possible to remove desire from nudity? If nude artwork is not explicitly sexual, does that make it less controversial?

There’s no simple, easy answer to the questions raised during the panel but they’re certainly interesting ponder in the broader discussion of the place of nude art in Indianapolis. And that’s exactly what good art, controversial or not, should do. It should create discussion and leave room for interpretation.

So what’s your interpretation on the controversy surrounding nude art? Share your thoughts below!

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7 thoughts on “Examining the Controversy of Nude Art

  1. I believe that art certainly inspire a variety of interpretations. To me a piece of art that is a nude drawing, painting or sculpture is one I want to spend some time looking at and thinking about. I am an artist, and
    I enjoy creating nude drawings very much. I think that is because I believe that our bodies are beautiful, especially if we take good care of ourselves.

  2. As I turned the excellent discussion in my head the next day I came to much the same conclusion as you. It is the lack of shame on the part of the subject of the artwork that surely must bother us the most. I suspect few people are ever nude the way the models are. We hide our bodies because we perceive they lack perfection. Absent perfection we hide them from our partners and even ourselves. To see people (primarily women) showing themselves completely without shame and guile causes us discomfort
    .
    I also noticed the lack of full male frontal nudity in the show in particular and in figure work in general. I know there is a shortage of male figure models Indianapolis but even so most nude figures in shows are women. Is the dearth of male models? The discomfort of depicting men in nude work? Or as mentioned Friday night, perhaps, artists self censor what they create to be marketable?

    Random neuron firings on a Thursday afternoon.

    • It’s interesting that you mentioned the lack of male models. My mom came to the event with me and we noticed the same thing. We thought it was interesting considering how a long time ago, male models were the standard. Think about all the Greek and Roman statues for example. We pondered what happened to shift the focus but didn’t come up with anything solid.

      Thanks for adding your thoughts!

  3. It may be our individual perception of nudity (lewdly splayed legs or an erect penis) which may cause us to speculate as to the validity of the art peice. We may also think that we, when we look at a nude, see ourselves and all of our inhibitions, (or lack there of), spread right along side the canvas for all the world to see, which may be the root of our perceptions. It may be our own uncomfortable embarassment which causes a negative perception to those “artistic” things.
    Is good art only those works where the artist is trying to say something? If so, what does a lewd nude say? What does a “tasteful” nude say? What do either say about ourselves? What do they say about the artist? And the questions and arguements keep coming…
    If an artist is inclined to raise an occasional eyebrow and call controversial attention to one’s self, then a photo which may be perceived as lewd, raunchy, or dirty by the majority staus quo, may be the best commercial device ever conceived within the art world. The fact is “nudes” make the majority uncomfortable, especially in mixed company. It may be that we, the audience, are the true offenders. It may be that’s exactly what the artist wants us to see.
    Personally, I don’t think we need to see anatomical views of female or male genitalia which we might find in Hustler Magazine. Those poses, and photos are devoid of worthwhile artistic quality and are specifically designed only to incite sexual arrousal; those who disagree with that assesment are kidding themselves into desperately attempting to induct themselves into the “Artistically Artsy-Fartsy Arts Club Community”. (I hate that pretentious crap! ie: “OMG, Steve, that dog vomit is representative of man’s inhumanity towards man.”)
    That being said, I believe the human body, in all its forms and sizes is a beautiful thing given us by the creator. I feel that Unartistic/ distasteful nudes are best left for the porn industry and the sorts who frequent those areas of our society. Give me nourishing and good art from an artist who’s trying to better themselves as well as leave this world a bit better than the way he found it…or perceived it…?

  4. “The panel kept circling back to a central question: where does the controversy come from? It doesn’t come from the art itself, but rather from the outside, from the person interpreting it.”

    I think that is true when speaking of a categorical aversion to nudity.

    The other side of the equation is the artist’s intent. Nudity can represent many things. I would say Maxfield Parrish nudes could represent purity. Norman Rockwell skinny dippers could represent innocence. In other cases the the objective probably IS prurient or shock value.

    The human body itself is a common bond to humanity spanning all socioeconomic levels, occupations, and time. A nude human body in 2011 looks the same as a nude human body in Michelangelo’s time. Add clothing and you add clues about the time in history, the occupation, social class, etc.

    The hypocrisy is that mainstream TV, movies, billboards, and print media bombard us with overtly erotic imagery (barely clad or otherwise) and everyone goes about their business. And yet benign nudity in fine art is somehow shocking.

    I share your observation that female nudes are more broadly accepted than male nudes.

  5. As an artist who LOVES the human body as God created it, and who LOVES doing artwork that depicts the nude male and female bodies, I have been censored three times in the past several years for simple nudity. There was NOTHING illicit or explicit in the pieces that were censored. As a matter of fact, one of the pieces was a tiny sculpture of a banshee screaming. The person who complained about this piece thought it was a woman’s vagina, in spite of the fact that EVERYBODY ELSE who looked at the piece saw the banshee’s face, open mouth, etc., and didn’t see anything that remotely looked like a woman’s vagina.

    Another piece that was censored was a 3″ x 2″ sculpture of a male nude buttocks and upper legs with ONE testicle showing between the legs. Really?

    While I was still in art school, at the ripe old age of 47 (I was the oldest student on campus at that time), I discovered my talent for drawing, painting, and sculpting the nude figure. I wasn’t afraid to SEE nude figures and I certainly wasn’t afraid to create artwork that depicted the nude. I went out of my way to create artwork that revealed the beauty of the nude body, whether it was male or female, and other artwork that poked fun at people’s prudish mentality regarding the nude figure. I still do.

    Because of my stance related to this subject, I have been called a pervert and a heretic. Someone who didn’t like my nudes once told a group of people that they “should save [their] children from Michael.” Again, I ask “Really?!?!” A woman who heard this person say what they said about me retorted with this comment: “On the contrary, Michael is the ONE MAN I would trust my children with!”

    IF someone who sees a naked body has a problem with that naked body, it isn’t the naked body that’s at fault for the offense – it’s the “fault” of the one offended. Why? Well, as a follower of Christ, I would say that that offended person is offended at GOD’S artwork, and I don’t think God takes kindly to those who are offended by the Creator’s own artwork. God called the naked bodies of Adam and Eve “Very good,” in Genesis 1:31, and in Isaiah 5:20 the prophet states, “Woe to him who calls evil good and good evil…”

    Basically, I believe we are scared to death of the “dangly bits,” as our English brothers and sisters might call them. Somehow, the female nude has been given the high status of “art,” but the male nude has somehow become “pornographic.” I would beg to differ. I, as a male artist, am eternally grateful to have been created male and to have the beautiful male parts I have. I enjoy what those parts are for. Any man who says they DON’T enjoy sex or a good piss is lying.

    With that said, I just wished that people who are offended by the nude figure in art would simply build a bridge and get over it! I am NOT going to stop creating nude art! If you’re offended by my art, maybe you should ask the Sculptor of your body why YOU have a problem with HIS masterpieces!

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