Why Nude?

The topic of nudity is a controversial one, even among artists. The nude form has been a common aesthetic subject as far back as we have historical evidence, but the context in which it has been viewed by different societies throughout the ages has been ever-changing.
The “classical nude” most Westerners tend to evoke in their mind’s eye comes from Greek statuary via the Renaissance. Nearly everyone has seen Boticelli’s Venus and Michelangelo’s David, and it is these idealized representations that influence most people’s views of artistic nudity.
Two central themes have been present in Western philosophy regarding nudity. The Greek “ideal” philosophy suggests that only those classically considered beautiful, or even perfect, should be represented, most especially nude. The Christian “shame” philosophy holds that nudity is a reminder of the Fall and that the nude figure should only be used to suggest the subject’s shame.
In the modern age, these two themes are joined by a third influenced by modern advertising. This “sexual” philosophy is meant to place in our subconscious the idea that when a person has their clothes off, they are either being sexually active, about to be sexually active, or have just finished being sexually active. The idea is easy enough to understand – if a naked person is de facto considered to be having sex, and they show a naked person using their product… well, obviously if you use their product, you can have sex too.
All three of these concepts are so hard-wired into our brains today that we tend to not even realize that when seeing a nude body our automatic reaction is “they’re beautiful… and having sex… which is dirty.” Of course, from this reaction to the nude, it is no leap whatsoever to translate all depictions of the nude into pornography. Which makes any artist who has the temerity to create such art susceptible to the charge of being a pornographer.
Such an artist today has to stand up against a bizarre combination of the entire culture of Greece, the teachings of the Church Fathers, and Madison Avenue. Can there be any hope?
Obviously there is, since figurative art is not some small out-of-the-mainstream subculture. Culturally, creating images of the nude form is not necessarily an invitation to widespread condemnation. However, the artist who creates such art – and indeed, the viewer who views it and the collector who purchases it – must give some thought to the philosophical and aesthetic minefield which he or she enters.
Now that I’ve established a background to the idea of artistic nudity, the time has come to switch to the first-person as I examine my own subjective thoughts on the subject.
One of the reasons I’m putting those thoughts down on paper (such as it is) is a question I was asked a few days ago by a good friend who has always been very supportive of my work. It was a simple one: “Why nude?” The context to the question was that we had been discussing the fact I would be doing some portraits of a mutual friend later that evening, and he would likely be doing some nude modeling at that point.
As with most simple questions, it was difficult to give a simple answer. Of course, I could have given a banal one – he had once expressed an interest in doing some nude modeling, so I figured this was a good opportunity. But that wasn’t the answer to the question she was really asking. What she wanted to know was, why would I want to take a picture of someone with their clothes off.
The most basic answer I can give is this: as with almost all my photography, I believe that the most beautiful things I can portray are those things created by God. This doesn’t stop me from taking pictures of altered landscapes or buildings or anything else, but I have found that my best photography is nearly always of what I simply consider Creation. So the real reason behind any of my nudes is that I believe the unclothed form to be the most profound example of the human form.
This explains the reason I would do nudes in the first place, but it does not fully explain the conceptual framework through which I view my work with nude figures. Perhaps the easiest way to do so would be to lay down a number of theses.
1: Every body is the perfect body. Standards of physical beauty have changed throughout history, and even today they are vastly different from one society to the next. But for most Americans I think we have a shared view of what a beautiful person looks like. This person is young, slender, perhaps athletic, likely tall, with an unblemished complexion and no physical irregularities. For most men, and a number of women, this person is also female. I disagree with this notion. Of course there are some people to whom I am more attracted than others. But the definition of a beautiful person is to me completely separate from those for whom I feel physical attraction. I believe everyone is beautiful. In fact, this is one of the basic tenets of my philosophy of portraiture – everyone is beautiful, and it is up to the artist to show that beauty. The same holds true for the body.
2: The nude form is not necessarily about sex. Notice “not necessarily.” Of course sometimes it is. No body is asexual. Sometimes the context of a photograph will give the portrayed figure a sexual context. And because the viewer is an integral part of the meaning of a picture, it should be taken into account that there are some people who will never see a nude body without thinking of it in a sexual context. All that said, I do not think that just because a person’s clothes are off they must be thought of in a sexual context.
3: The nude form is not necessarily about the nude form. This one takes a bit of explaining. Thus far in my work, I have used three conceptual ideas when working with nudes. The first is that of a figure study, in which I do a prolonged series of photographs of a nude person, to fully examine their body from an artistic perspective. The second is a more abstract view. A close-up of a body part such as a shoulder or knee, or studies of body hair patterns, often takes a photograph out of the nudity paradigm altogether. The third idea is that of the nude portrait. In this sense, I am taking a portrait just as I would if the person was fully clothed. However by removing the clothing it isolates the person from the context of time or culture and gives a more pure resemblance of the body. Socrates felt that nudity was a form of honesty.
4: The nude form is not necessarily about femininity. Repeat after me: men are just as beautiful as women. It is shocking how often straight men insist that the male form is ugly and the female form beautiful. There must be a clearly understood distinction between aesthetic beauty and subjective physical and sexual attractiveness. Just because you have no interest in sleeping with someone doesn’t mean they aren’t a beautiful human being.
5: Depictions of the nude form should not concentrate on primary or secondary sexual characteristics. You all know what I mean by this one. Female nudes often concentrate on the breasts, and male nudes often concentrate on the genitals. I remember once reading a critique of a male nude that said the representation failed because the penis was out of focus. The photographer replied that since the penis had not been an important part of the composition of the photo, he had made the decision to render it blurry. The critic (a straight male who knew that the photographer was a gay male) could not understand that the photographer would not have been concentrating on the penis. The nude body as a whole is beautiful, and a stomach or a leg is just as valid a body part to concentrate on. And with reference to my nude portraits, sometimes the face is what you’re concentrating on, the model just happens to be undressed.
So these are five of the thoughts that I keep at the forefront of my mind when examining nudes, both my own and those of others. There are more, but I think these are enough to be getting on with.
I welcome any conversation on this topic. Comments will not be moderated, but if any threaten to stray into a sexual line of discussion, I will delete them. I should also like to note that I have drawn from two essays in my thinking for this one:

The topic of nudity is a controversial one, even among artists. The nude form has been a common aesthetic subject as far back as we have historical evidence, but the context in which it has been viewed by different societies throughout the ages has been ever-changing.

The “classical nude” most Westerners tend to evoke in their mind’s eye comes from Greek statuary via the Renaissance. Nearly everyone has seen Boticelli’s Venus and Michelangelo’s David, and it is these idealized representations that influence most people’s views of artistic nudity.

Two central themes have been present in Western philosophy regarding nudity. The Greek “ideal” philosophy suggests that only those classically considered beautiful, or even perfect, should be represented, most especially nude. The Christian “shame” philosophy holds that nudity is a reminder of the Fall and that the nude figure should only be used to suggest the subject’s shame.

In the modern age, these two themes are joined by a third influenced by modern advertising. This “sexual” philosophy is meant to place in our subconscious the idea that when a person has their clothes off, they are either being sexually active, about to be sexually active, or have just finished being sexually active. The idea is easy enough to understand – if a naked person is de facto considered to be having sex, and they show a naked person using their product… well, obviously if you use their product, you can have sex too.

All three of these concepts are so hard-wired into our brains today that we tend to not even realize that when seeing a nude body our automatic reaction is “they’re beautiful… and having sex… which is dirty.” Of course, from this reaction to the nude, it is no leap whatsoever to translate all depictions of the nude into pornography. Which makes any artist who has the temerity to create such art susceptible to the charge of being a pornographer.

Such an artist today has to stand up against a bizarre combination of the entire culture of Greece, the teachings of the Church Fathers, and Madison Avenue. Can there be any hope?

Obviously there is, since figurative art is not some small out-of-the-mainstream subculture. Culturally, creating images of the nude form is not necessarily an invitation to widespread condemnation. However, the artist who creates such art – and indeed, the viewer who views it and the collector who purchases it – must give some thought to the philosophical and aesthetic minefield which he or she enters.

Now that I’ve established a background to the idea of artistic nudity, the time has come to switch to the first-person as I examine my own subjective thoughts on the subject.

One of the reasons I’m putting those thoughts down on paper (such as it is) is a question I was asked a few days ago by a good friend who has always been very supportive of my work. It was a simple one: “Why nude?” The context to the question was that we had been discussing the fact I would be doing some portraits of a mutual friend later that evening, and he would likely be doing some nude modeling at that point.

As with most simple questions, it was difficult to give a simple answer. Of course, I could have given a banal one – he had once expressed an interest in doing some nude modeling, so I figured this was a good opportunity. But that wasn’t the answer to the question she was really asking. What she wanted to know was, why would I want to take a picture of someone with their clothes off.

The most basic answer I can give is this: as with almost all my photography, I believe that the most beautiful things I can portray are those things created by God. This doesn’t stop me from taking pictures of altered landscapes or buildings or anything else, but I have found that my best photography is nearly always of what I simply consider Creation. So the real reason behind any of my nudes is that I believe the unclothed form to be the most profound example of the human form.

This explains the reason I would do nudes in the first place, but it does not fully explain the conceptual framework through which I view my work with nude figures. Perhaps the easiest way to do so would be to lay down a number of theses.

1: Every body is the perfect body. Standards of physical beauty have changed throughout history, and even today they are vastly different from one society to the next. But for most Americans I think we have a shared view of what a beautiful person looks like. This person is young, slender, perhaps athletic, likely tall, with an unblemished complexion and no physical irregularities. For most men, and a number of women, this person is also female. I disagree with this notion. Of course there are some people to whom I am more attracted than others. But the definition of a beautiful person is to me completely separate from those for whom I feel physical attraction. I believe everyone is beautiful. In fact, this is one of the basic tenets of my philosophy of portraiture – everyone is beautiful, and it is up to the artist to show that beauty. The same holds true for the body.

2: The nude form is not necessarily about sex. Notice “not necessarily.” Of course sometimes it is. No body is asexual. Sometimes the context of a photograph will give the portrayed figure a sexual context. And because the viewer is an integral part of the meaning of a picture, it should be taken into account that there are some people who will never see a nude body without thinking of it in a sexual context. All that said, I do not think that just because a person’s clothes are off they must be thought of in a sexual context.

3: The nude form is not necessarily about the nude form. This one takes a bit of explaining. Thus far in my work, I have used three conceptual ideas when working with nudes. The first is that of a figure study, in which I do a prolonged series of photographs of a nude person, to fully examine their body from an artistic perspective. The second is a more abstract view. A close-up of a body part such as a shoulder or knee, or studies of body hair patterns, often takes a photograph out of the nudity paradigm altogether. The third idea is that of the nude portrait. In this sense, I am taking a portrait just as I would if the person was fully clothed. However by removing the clothing it isolates the person from the context of time or culture and gives a more pure resemblance of the body. Socrates felt that nudity was a form of honesty.

4: The nude form is not necessarily about femininity. Repeat after me: men are just as beautiful as women. It is shocking how often straight men insist that the male form is ugly and the female form beautiful. There must be a clearly understood distinction between aesthetic beauty and subjective physical and sexual attractiveness. Just because you have no interest in sleeping with someone doesn’t mean they aren’t a beautiful human being.

5: Depictions of the nude form should not concentrate on primary or secondary sexual characteristics. You all know what I mean by this one. Female nudes often concentrate on the breasts, and male nudes often concentrate on the genitals. I remember once reading a critique of a male nude that said the representation failed because the penis was out of focus. The photographer replied that since the penis had not been an important part of the composition of the photo, he had made the decision to render it blurry. The critic (a straight male who knew that the photographer was a gay male) could not understand that the photographer would not have been concentrating on the penis. The nude body as a whole is beautiful, and a stomach or a leg is just as valid a body part to concentrate on. And with reference to my nude portraits, sometimes the face is what you’re concentrating on, the model just happens to be undressed.

These are just a few of the thoughts I’ve had and try to keep at the forefront of my mind when analyzing and discussing nude photography. I could probably keep going and greatly extend an aleady lengthy essay, but I felt this was a good place to stop for now. Once I composed it several days ago, I sent it to several friends whose opinions I trust and respect. Their comments have given me new trains of thought to pursue, but have not changed my original thinking at all. So I’m going to post this now, with a follow-up sometime in the next several weeks. I invite you to be a part of this conversation as well, by posting a comment or emailing me a reply. Just please keep in mind that the point is to consider nudity from an artistic viewpoint, and any lines of discussion that threaten to go in a sexual direction will be promptly cut off.

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~ by David Cupp on August 3, 2009.

6 Responses to “Why Nude?”

  1. I really enjoyed this article. It would be totally neat to have some images for illustration purposes. Nothing drives home a point like having an image to support it (especially the “rules”)…

    • Until I decide how to make sure I am in total compliance with US laws (or they are declared unconstitutional), I’ve made a conscious decision not to feature any photographs featuring obviously exposed “swimsuit areas” on either my website or the blog. But I think your photographs give a clear example of “fine art” nude photography. Even though it’s often obvious you’re naked, even when your penis is exposed it’s very rarely the point of the photo. And even when it is, it is for artistic rather than lurid purposes.

      For readers unfamiliar with Tudor’s work, I highly recommend a few hours with his (sometimes NSFW) flickr stream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tudor/, particularly the self-portraiture under “Vanity Projects.”

  2. Thanks, man. I totally wasn’t fishing for a compliment … hehehe. It’s always interesting to see where other photographers draw the lines and which images end up on one side of the spectrum vs. the other.

    Again, I found your article really clear and awesome. I just didn’t know about your laws ;).

    But hey, you can totally move to Canada. Ha!

    • It’s an abundance of caution thing. So many of my portrait subjects are minors, I just find it easier not mixing them. I might think about adding some links to illustrative photos (and other art forms), in a future update.

  3. Given this essay’s clarity and research I have found out a lot of things about myself. I’m uncomfortable viewing nudity. I dislike looking at my own nude body. I believe what I tend to do is group a nude body with the idea of sex and stereotypical beauty which tends to be based on lust rather than love. So what I have done is treat all nude photos the same whether they were taken to promote lust or love. And so I don’t enjoy looking at nude bodies. I realize that is a wrong way to go about art. So when I see nude art I’ll try very hard to be open minded about it. Thank you for the essay.

    • I’m really glad you got something out of it. My whole point in writing out how I feel about these things was to stimulate others to think on the same topic, so I’m glad it had that affect for you.

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