The Ventriloquist

An online publication at and outside the boundary of evangelical Christianity.



February 2012

Nudity and Art

by Tim Cuffman & Danielle Early, on Art, February 2012

  1. Imagine that you are naked right now.

  2. Imagine that you are standing in front of Michelangelo’s David.

  3. Imagine that you are watching film footage of Jews stripping off their clothes in a Holocaust death camp right before they head into the ‘showers.’

In each of these scenarios, the common thread is ‘nudity’ and our interaction with it. Many students were outraged last year when Cedarville showed a not-entirely-censored version of Schindler’s List in the theater. The Cedarville powers-that-be censored a few scenes within that film which portrayed sexually-explicit nudity, but refrained from censoring scenes which portrayed the full-frontal nudity of Jews being examined and degraded in the concentration camp.

We take this outrage to be characteristic of Christians’ engagement with the portrayal of nudity, stemming from particular values and beliefs regarding nudity, sexuality, and art. Our project does not directly address the explicit portrayal of sex acts (e.g. a sex scene in a movie or the painting portraying sexual intercourse). Rather, this article is primarily aimed at the general portrayal of nudity, particularly in non-sexual contexts (e.g. paintings of a nude Adam and Eve and nude portraiture, National Geographic photographs which contain nude figures, artistic nude photographs, nude figures in film which are not engaged in sexual acts, etc.), although our argument surely has implications for explicit depictions of sexuality.

People commonly think that to view the nude human form is to play with fire; presence of nudity will cause people to stumble into lust. We grant that lust can happen, but stress the value in our striving to change this very fact and transform ourselves into individuals who benefit from viewing nude depictions of the human form.

How is this possible? To answer this question, we must first understand nudity.

Clothing keeps us warm, it keeps us dry, it keeps us comfortable, it keeps us fashionable – it serves a function. Only one of these functions of clothing is to cover up the naked body to prevent lust or the sexualizing gaze. Like clothing, nudity also serves a function – it keeps us cool on a hot day, keeps our clothing from getting wet, and weighing us down, etc. To attract the gaze of a sexual partner is merely one possible function of nudity.

In the same way, the portrayal of nudity in various media (film, photography, painting, sculpture, etc.) may have several modes and functions. Portraying nudity in a film for the sake of titillation may be considered pornographic, nudity in art serves a variety of functions beyond that of sexual arousal. Being true-to-reality is one such function.

A nude image is not inherently sexual in the sense that it neither is necessarily aimed at provoking a lustful gaze nor has the effect of provoking lust. Context is deeply significant when considering the propriety or impropriety of nudity. Contrary to a popular line of Christian reasoning, the marriage bed is not the only ‘proper’ context for one’s nakedness to be revealed to another person, although it may be the case that a sexually-objectifying gaze is only proper ‘within the bounds of marriage.’

Consider nudity within the medical profession: Doctors regularly view a patient’s nude form, both male and female. But this medical nudity is (presumed to be) not of a sexual nature – when I go to a doctor for a medical examination, I do not expect to be the object of a sexualizing gaze or to be molested, perhaps despite the discomfort which derives from my revealed nudity. Rather, when I enter into a medical office, I expect to be viewed as an individual who requires medical attention (perhaps for a sexually-related issue) rather than an individual who is posing for a pornographic photo shoot – there are two very different notions of sexuality in play here. Just as I can view my mother as a woman, as my mother, as an accountant (or as a practitioner of whatever profession), or as a friend, my nude body can be viewed as an object for medical study or aid, as a sexually-provocative object, or as merely another individual’s body with no insidious sexuality.

Both universities and high schools portray nudity in a variety of forms for educational purposes. From classes on anatomy and physiology to seminars which include cadavers, students of different ages are exposed to nudity through drawings, videos, photographs, and human specimens. The human reproductive system is one such object of study which is not subjected to a sexualizing gaze in these educational contexts – the sexuality of a cadaver in the context of a laboratory is of a much different sort than the sexually-objectifying sort of pornography.

How do we explain these phenomena in which humans can view nudity in a non-lustful manner? Are these contexts inherently different from pornographic contexts? The ability of individuals to condition their behaviors and cognitive habits in relation to stimuli is deeply significant. Rather than assuming that those who are now doctors were simply born with the ability to look upon nudity without sexualizing or that the context of a doctor’s office necessarily precludes a sexualizing gaze, it seems plausible that doctors underwent a process of conditioning in order to reach a level of professional detachment.

No image, even an image of the nude human form, is inherently unclean. The potential problem comes in the image’s manner of production and consumption. The cases of the doctor and the anatomy student merely represent two possible non-sexual and proper manners of engagement with the nude human form. There exists a wealth of examples throughout human history of individuals who were and are able to interact with nudity and find a value there that isn’t tied to or necessarily related to the sexual.

It is well-documented that residents of certain African villages, South American jungles, and so-considered exotic islands are regularly nude just as Americans are regularly clothed. The Tupari people of the Amazon jungle only wear clothing for ceremony, for example. In a study about ancient Greek attitudes toward nudity, Anthony J. Papalas wrote, “When a Greek wished to dance or work, he simply slipped out of his clothing and proceeded. It was the natural thing to do, and no one was dismayed by...seeing a nude person dancing or working.” Public nudity was commonplace in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, into the Middle Ages in certain regions of Europe without the same sexual significance that it would hold for us.

A lustful, or sexually-objectifying, gaze and nudity are only contingently connected. Lust directed toward a person is not necessarily a function of the amount of clothes that person wears. There is an equal possibility of a naked woman receiving a lustful gaze of a man (or vice versa) as there is for a woman in a burkha to receive a lustful gaze from a man. It is not the case that clothing is irrelevant, but it is the case that focusing on clothing and bodies as the most morally-significant issue relating to nudity in art is an incredible case of missing the point.

This point underscores the deeply contextual nature of propriety while begging a much more basic, but often un-asked question – What constitutes ‘nudity’? Technically-speaking, any revealed portion of the body (head, elbow, kneecap) is nude. But revealing skin is not objectionable, per se. Objectionable nudity is revealing a sexualized body part or an otherwise ‘immodest’ region and/or amount of skin within a particular context. The offensiveness of revealing certain body parts or portions of skin is deeply culturally-contingent and, within a particular culture, context-contingent.

When we talk about nudity in film, for example, we are usually talking about the exposure of three areas – a female’s breasts, a male/female butt, or male/female genitalia. Depending on a particular standard or a particular person’s conscience, ‘nudity’ might be limited to these three categories or might be extended to a female’s cleavage, male chests, male/female stomachs, legs, necks, hair, feet, and so on.

But, regardless of the specific body parts in question, let us examine the idea of oft-considered ‘sexual body parts.’ To attach (whether by conscious decision or by mere matter of fact) a sexual property to a body part is to create a fetish out of that part, for we have made a sexual object out of a non-necessarily or -inherently-sexual object.

Female breasts, often considered to be the most sensual (and sexual, by relation) parts of a human body, are milk-producers for children. In a great many artistic scenes depicting the shame of Adam and Eve after their sin, complete with their new fig leaf coverings for their genitalia, Eve’s breasts (shockingly, for some) remain exposed because the breasts carry sexual significance for only particular cultures, ours among them. The butt is often considered to be a sexually-provocative body feature, but what is sexual about the part of the body from which fecal matter is excreted? Feet, stomachs, legs, necks, ankles, hair, mouths, and eyes have all become prevalent fetishes in our culture. For some, furniture, balloons, robots, and wool clothing are fetishized.

Simply stated, revealing a nude foot to a person with a foot fetish prompts a much different response than revealing a nude foot to a person without a foot fetish.The point is that the sinful effects (e.g. lust) of revealing certain body parts have nothing to do with traditional nudity, per se, and even if we could determine the parameters of ‘nudity,’ it would not necessarily have anything to do with a lustful gaze. In the same way that we have attached a sexual aura to a woman’s slender or hourglass-shaped body or a man’s muscular body, we have sexualized the nude human form. Whatever constitutes nudity, it is not inherently sexual in nature. Nudity is simply the possible (not necessary) object of a sexualizing gaze. It is demonstrably possible (and arguably beneficial) to view portrayals of nudity without a lustful gaze: through maturity in our engagement with art.

How one views art will determine how one views nudity in art. If art is merely entertainment, surely there are better, more edifying ways of spending one’s time than to view nude images, even in small doses – this equation of art and entertainment is the dominant mindset in American culture. But there would be great benefit to our reconditioning ourselves with regard to nudity and with regard to art. There is value to viewing visual art (e.g. movies, photography, television shows, etc.) not merely as entertainment, but also as means to learn, grow, and transform ourselves for the better.

It is in virtue of this that we ask the readers to consider the possible benefit the presence of nudity can have for our society. Obviously, it has performed a great service within our health and medical fields – in fact, it is hard to imagine what science or medicine would be like if images of nudity were banned. In the same way, it is also difficult to imagine how we would understand our own history if nudity in art or various media were constantly censored. How would we fully understand the indignity suffered by victims of the Holocaust if we simply cut clips in which they were forced to undress, shower, and move about in public without their clothing (consider the particular scenes of Holocaust nudity in Schindler’s List, which Cedarville, wisely in our minds, left included)? Somehow the words, ‘then the Jews were forced to remove their clothing and run around in an undignified fashion’ does not carry the full effect offered by seeing video images or photographs of humans being stripped of their dignity in this way, as the Jewish people (and others) were. There is an honesty and deep emotionality infused in images such as these that can be utterly and positively transformative. Should we not be stirred to a full and mature response for what humanity has actually experienced and who we actually are?

Through Genesis we understand that Adam and Eve lived fully naked and unashamed of their nudity. Perhaps a depiction of the nudity of these two figures is the most poignant means by which we really can comprehend the difference between their innocence and naivety and our depraved world. How could we understand the utter shame portrayed in Cesari’s Adam and Eve Expelled From Paradise if the depicted figures were clothed? Would clothed figures still be stumbling forth from the garden while turning their bodies from God in shame? There is so much we can learn about our humanity, our history, and our relation to God through these sorts of images, of which nudity is integral.

The transformative process offered by a mature engagement with art requires that we learn more about ourselves, our world, our history, and come to terms with our own human sexuality. There is an acute difference between the lustful, sexualizing gaze and the embrace of our nature as sexual creatures. I can look at a naked form and understand that I am viewing another sexual creature, just as I am a sexual creature myself. It is through this process that we may come to terms with our nature as God has created us, but this is distinctly different than a sexually-objectifying gaze.