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!