Nudity: Art or Pornography
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People often end up on the opposite sides of the argument concerning the fine line between art and pornography. Artists sometimes include nude depictions or descriptions of the human form in their work. The artists and many other liberals and citizens of the art world argue that it is important for artists to feel the freedom to express themselves in any way that they wish. The problem with this liberty is that many people find the nude body offensive and believe that these images should not be considered art but pornography instead. This is a valid and important dilemma, but as Dennis Barrie describes art in a speech that was published in Art Journal, “…sometimes art is not beautiful, and sometimes it’s challenging, and sometimes it’s even offensive, and yet it can be art, even if it’s all those things” (Barrie 30). Artists should always be allowed to express themselves fully and not fear public reprimand despite the risk they may run of offending people who cannot appreciate their work.
The United States has always prided itself on being a free country that values its first amendment. Many people agree that the most important right in the United States constitution is a citizen’s right to freely express him or herself. The problem in this situation is that people also value living in a country without fear of being offended. Our laws are created to protect one’s self as well as others. So, it is important to attempt to meet everyone’s needs as much as is possible in a free society. Dennis Barrie, director of Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati, was indicted and eventually acquitted for the exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, depicting nudity and human bondage. In 1991 Barrie spoke of the events surrounding the situation at the seventy-ninth annual convocation of the College Art Association in a speech called “The Scene of the Crime”. When Barrie described the day that the police entered the museum to remove the photographs he makes an important point, “More than anything, that image—that image of policeman in uniforms pushing patrons out of a museum because of what is on the walls—is the image that’s going to haunt me for the rest of my life. Because that isn’t our country, or it shouldn’t be our country” (Barrie 30).
Barrie is recognizing our basic rights as United States citizens to create unique art and view it as well. He expresses his disgust at the thought of his country changing into a place that would send in its soldiers to take those rights away from us. This freedom is the basis of our country’s strength and at the center of every one of its citizen’s patriotic streaks.
A lot of people would agree that we must define obscenity and draw a line that an artist cannot cross. So, where do we draw the line when we don’t want to offend people yet we want everyone to have the right to freely express him or herself? It is not fair to any artist to expect him or her to only partially convey themselves in their art. It is impossible for an artist to express him or herself if we say, “You can do anything you wish up until this point.” And even if it was, it is impossible to draw that line. Today in American society it is very difficult to distinguish what is appropriate and what is not. As Walter Berns says in his article “Pornography Versus Democracy”, “…it is not easy to formulate a rule of law that distinguishes the non-obscene from the obscene”(Berns 2). His point is that everyone sees obscenity as a different thing. Diane Chisholm wrote an article called “Obscene Modernism: Eros Noir and the Profane Illumination of Djuna Barnes”. In the article Chisholm says, “ In the United States obscene art won the right to protection under the first amendment provided it could demonstrate sufficient artistic merit—or the supposed equivalent, ‘social value’—to justify its obscenity”(Chisholm 168). The problem with this decision is that no one can estimate the social value of anything. So, who decides what pieces have artistic merit and social value?
To define what obscenity is it may help to define where we got the idea of obscenity. Humans are, as far as we know, the only creature capable of shame and self- reflection. Humans have created every rule for themselves. The question is where did American culture get the idea that nudity should be a shameful and private state? For centuries there have been cultural stigmas strengthening this notion. Larissa Bonfante touches on the history of nudity in her article “The Naked Greek: How Ancient Art and Literature Reflect The Custom of Civic Nudity”. She says, “ we see this clearly in the Bible, for example, where nakedness was a mark of poverty, slavery, and defeat” (Bonfante 30). She says that in the art from classical Greece women who appear naked are usually meant to represent prostitutes (Bonfante 33). She also says, “To Homer nakedness still represented shame, vulnerability, death, and dishonor. In the Iliad, Thersites, a despised member of the Greek army, is threatened with being stripped and run naked through the assembled forces” (Bofante 30). She gives several examples of eras and places where nudity was treated with hostility and represented negatively.
While American culture has grown apart from the cultures of ancient Greece, the strongest cultural influence for most Americans is religion. The majority of Americans consider themselves some type of Christians, therefore, the Bible is a huge influence on most Americans lives whether they believe in it or not. The Bible has many examples of depicting nudity as disgraceful. The most influential and seemingly most important appears in Genesis when it says, “And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them” (Genesis 3.21). According to the story there was no need for clothes before sin. It is easy to make a correlation between the two and decide that the message is that clothing is designed to cover our sins and that lack of clothing should be a very shameful situation. Covering our bodies is a form of symbolically showing God that we are embarrassed of our sins and we do not wish them to be known. If we are nude then we are flaunting our sins for everyone to see and we may even seem proud of them, which is not a view of sins that is at all accepted by the Christian community. Therefore, to be a good Christian no one may exhibit his or her body to others. This makes even non-Christians feel shamed by nudity, because they live in a culture highly influenced by Christian beliefs. As a result nearly no one feels entirely comfortable with the idea of public nudity.
Also, we need to consider how differently our entire society’s view of obscenity has changed as a whole. Many things that were considered not at all acceptable one hundred years ago we now laugh at the thought of being even remotely obscene. Many great artists in the past have received negative feedback for their work in their own time. For example: in Christopher Macy’s book, The Arts in a Permissive Society, he claims, “[Thomas] Bowdler achieved the impressive feat of eliminating from the text of Shakespeare’s plays ‘those words and expressions which cannot with propriety be read in a family’” (Macy 29). In Shakespeare’s time his work was appreciated, but often considered too explicit. Today in American society Shakespeare is not at all considered vulgar or too explicit. Our children read many of his plays in our high schools and universities with no complaint. Another example of this is the beginning of censorship. Robert Atkins wrote an article called “A Censorship Time Line” where he attempts to pinpoint every situation that marked a new age of censorship. Atkins says, “It [censorship] can be traced back to the early nineteenth-century Baltimore, where residents were outraged at the appearance (short-lived) of busty neoclassical goddesses by Hiram Powers” (Atkins 33). Today the image of a “busty goddess” is nowhere remotely offensive. Atkins goes on to describe the beginning of modern censorship. Atkins claims that the organizer of modern censorship was a young food clerk named Anthony Comstock, “Starting with a police-assisted raid on a bookstore that sold mildly salacious books in 1868, the twin goals of Comstock’s crusade were the elimination of obscenity and the criminalization of abortion and contraception” (Atkins 33). Today any reasonable adult agrees that illegalizing contraceptives would be nothing but irresponsible, and contraceptives are promoted not hidden. We have grown up a bit and begun to take responsibility for our actions. Also, Atkins says, “ …[Comstock] instigated the arrest of the art dealer Herman Knoedler, raided the Arts Students League in New York in 1906 for its use of nude models, and cautioned that ‘obscene, lewd and indecent’ photos are ‘commonly, but mistakenly called art’” (Atkins 33). Today it is almost impossible to find a school of art that does not offer and possibly even require a class in which the student is to use a nude model for reference. It is a very professional practice that rarely receives objections, yet less than one hundred years ago people were arrested for the activity. So, not only are everyone’s idea of obscenity different, but society’s in general changes throughout time. This inconsistent view of obscenity makes it extremely difficult to decide what constitutes it and how to regulate it.
Other societies have embraced nudity in art and have seen nothing wrong with it. Bonfante describes the social view of male nudity in ancient Greece. She says, “Athletes exercised and competed in Olympic games and other pan-Hellenic contests nude; warriors trained for battle without clothing, their trim, naked bodies an inspiration to fellow warriors and to poets who would extol their heroic deeds…For men, nudity was becoming heroic, divine, athletic, [and] beautiful…” (Bonfante 30). Not only was male nudity entirely accepted, but was praised and admired. Nudity was believed to give protection from spells, bring love, and strengthen the witchcraft of the nude person (Bonfante 31). Soon nudity found its way into Greek art and depictions of nude males as well as male phalluses became the most popular subjects of most artists. These depictions were not only customary but also important in their society. Bonfante says, “…The erect penis served as a reminder of the powerful magic of the alerted male member. In Athens, herms [male busts mounted on pillars on the front of which were carved erect phalluses] functioned as protectors of the city” (Bonfante 31). This view of nudity, totally opposite from ours shows that each society makes up their own rules concerning obscenity. Once again it is nearly impossible make rules about obscenity in art if the idea of obscenity is so subjective.
When ancient civilizations bring us nude and sexually explicit art that was respected in its time or even sometimes not respected in its own time we often have no problem accepting it. When art is brought to us from a credible and socially acceptable and/or respected source it is automatically disqualified as anything remotely resembling pornography. For example: Michelangelo’s David is a well-known and well-respected piece of artwork depicting an entirely nude man standing in a non-suggestive pose. Today when David is spoken about among scholars it is obvious that the nudity is not at all the reason why Michelangelo’s David is a household name. Marilyn Stokstad describes it in her book Art: A Brief History, saying, “Although the statue embodies the antique ideal of the athletic, nude male, the emotional power its facial expression and concentrated gaze is new [to the society to which it was first introduced]” (Stokstad 284).
Another example of this is the Kama-Sutra written in the third century AD. The Kama-Sutra was written as a guide to the sexual experience, but was very explicit and technical (Ahmad 282). Adil Mustafa Ahmad describes the book’s ascendance above pornography in his article “The Erotic and the Pornographic in the Arab Culture” published in The British Journal of Aesthetics. He says, “A book meant to be a technical guide to carnal joys and delights, it proceeds in a free and explicit manner to present what it considers fundamental facts of life hence in that sense acquires a quasi-religious tint. Thus it is raised, in Hindu culture, high above the pornographic…” (Ahmad 282). The Kama-Sutra is being compared to a religious text and is in no way considered pornographic, to most it is considered a very important piece of literature.
A final example of this is The Song of Songs from the Bible where a man describes his love to his bride. It reads, “…Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that feed among the lilies…your lips distill nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue; the scent of your garments is like the scent of Lebanon…”(Song of Solomon 4:5-11). While this passage is no longer considered highly erotic, this type of writing was when it was written and for centuries following. The groom then says, “I come to my garden, my sister, my bride; I gather my myrrh with my spice, I eat my honeycomb with my honey, I drink my wine with my milk. Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love” (Song of Solomon 5:1). Even though this passage seems entirely nonsexual often, in the Bible, the acts of eating and drinking allude to sex. The bride responds with, “My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him” (Song of Solomon 5:4). Again, by today’s standards this is not thought to be too explicit, but when written it was. But because of its place in the Bible it was never thought of as a danger. The Song of Songs was never considered to be a piece of literature that could be harmful to society and is of course highly respected among Christians. Because it was published in the Bible it has long been accepted as a religious and entirely acceptable piece. To consider any of these pieces of artwork pornography would be outrageous. So, society seems to show a different temperament toward artwork with more credibility and that is highly respected for other reasons.
The question of nudity having the capacity to be considered art or just pornography is a difficult one to answer. There are so many factors in this issue that create a gray area, which makes it difficult to reach a decision. When artists feel the need to include nudity in their work it is important for them to be able to do so. There will never be any final decision made that can correctly determine what should be allowed in our museums and what should not. However, no one should attempt to tell an artist what is obscene and what is not, or more specifically what is acceptable subject matter and what is not. It is important that artists continue to produce new and different pieces of art that stimulate our culture even if that means the inclusion of nudity. To insure that they are always in the position to do that, we must always defend an artist’s first amendment rights, even if the art he or she is creating is offensive.
Ahmad, Adil Mustafa. “The Erotic and the Pornographic in Arab Culture.” The British
Journal of Aesthetics 33.1 (1993): 278-283.
Atkins, Robert. “A Censorship Time Line.” Art Journal 50.1 (1991): 33-37.
Barrie, Dennis. “The Scene of the Crime.” Art Journal 50.1 (1991): 29-32.
Berns, Walter. “Pornography Versus Democracy.” Society 36.6 (1999): 16.
Bonfante, Larissa. “The Naked Greek: How Ancient Art and Literature Reflect the
Custom of Civic Nudity.” Archaeology 43.1 (1990): 30-35
Chisholm, Dianne. “Obscene Modernism: Eros Noir and the Profane Illumination of Djuna Barnes.” American Literature 69.1 (1997): 167-195.
Coogan, Michael D., ed. The New Oxford Annotated Bible: Third Edition. Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2001.
Macy, Christopher, ed. The Arts in a Permissive Society. London, England:
Pemberton Books, 1971.
Stokstad, Marilyn. Art: A Brief History. New York: Prentice Hall, 2000.
Comments from the Author
“Nudity: Art or Pornography” is a persuasive essay designed to allow its readers to have a slightly more educated view on nudity in the art world. It brings together several reasons for the American culture’s intolerance of nudity as well as pointing out several reasons why there can be no line drawn between nude art and pornography. The essay attempts to explain the importance of every artist’s ability to express himself without being hindered by censors