Have you ever seen a picture of Michelangelo’s David or been lucky enough to see it in person? It’s a stunning sculpture art, with incredible attention to anatomical detail. It’s arguably the most famous sculpture in the world. Oh, and he’s naked. Totally exposed. Maybe you heard about Poppy Jackson’s 2015 performance piece, Site, in which she straddled the roof of a house in London for several hours, completely naked. Or what about Katsushika Hokusai’s The Dream Of The Fisherman’s Wife? She’s not just naked—she’s deeply involved with an octopus.
On TV (in the US, at least), that kind of thing would get blurred out or relegated to late-night HBO. But in marble or on canvas, we treat it somewhat differently. That’s not to say that nudity in art is uncontroversial—Edouard Manet’s Olympia had to have a security detail to prevent irate viewers from damaging it when it was first presented. But it’s treated differently, even when it’s explicitly erotic (check out that Hokusai again, folks). Why does art nudity occupy a special place in the cultural consciousness?
No Shirt, No Shoes, No Place In Polite Society
Part of the answer to this question is in our tension with nudity in general. Everyone has a body—it’s a basic human thing. Give or take, half of those bodies have female genitalia and half of them have male genitalia. We all know what they look like. But the first thing Adam and Eve were worried about once they bit into the fruit of the tree of knowledge was that they were naked, and we’ve been worried about it ever since.
We can’t show nudity on TV and it will earn at least a PG-13 rating at the theater. It’s also illegal to be naked in public almost everywhere in America. And consider the uproar over public breastfeeding. It’s the actual purpose for which breasts exist, but people are outraged about it happening where other people can see it.
But that still leaves the question—why?
When You Say One Thing, But Mean Your Mother
There are some obvious answers, like religious objections or concerns about protecting the youth, but those don’t get to the root of the issue. Why is nudity objectionable to religion? Why is it dangerous to children?
The issue is deeply psychological—being naked at school or work is one of the most common anxiety-related dreams. It’s also learned. Babies and toddlers aren’t worried about being naked until we teach them to be. Psychologists suggest that the reason we’re so concerned about nudity is actually a fundamental part of the fabric of society. According to this theory, we cover up so that we’re not as sexually tempting to each other, which could threaten our basic family units. In other words, we developed a social stigma against nudity because we were worried it would literally tear society apart. Like Helen of Troy, but everywhere, all the time.
Naked Freedom, Living Vicariously
Of course, the fact that we wear clothes doesn’t mean we don’t think about sex. That’s also a fundamental part of our psychology. Perhaps nudity in art is a way to split the difference. It lets us express that fascination safely. We can look at a nude painting and appreciate it but it’s not the same as facing actual naked people. We look at Marc Quinn’s “Siren” and see a naked Kate Moss without actually being in a room with naked Kate Moss. It allows us to satisfy our curiosity without being so satisfying as to threaten the fabric of society.
The idea of art as a safe outlet for sexuality actually begs another question—if the issue is just whether the nudity happens in person or not, then what’s the difference between art and pornography? Both are depicting naked people, sometimes involved in sex acts (again, the Hokusai and Koons). But one goes in a museum while the other gets blocked by parental controls. One is judged safe for schoolchildren on field trips and the other is 18+. What gives? You’ll have to tune in next time to find out.