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The naked and the nude have been frequent subjects for art throughout the history of human creation, and also the frequent subject of censorship. What's wrong with seeing the unclothed human body? And what is its place in art?

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Photograph in the thumbnail is a detail of A Forgotten Model, (c. 1937) by George Platt Lynes.

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Research suggests that human beings are born into the world without clothing.  Early homo sapiens didn't begin to wear clothes until they traveled North out of Africa and cold.  Flash forward hundreds of thousands of years and postcard of this painting of an unclothed human caused an art teacher to be fired when it, along with this other postcard of a painting of an unclothed human, was encountered by 6th graders in a box of cards of famous artworks stocked by their library.  How did we get here?  What's wrong with seeing the unclothed human body, and what is its place in art?  This is the case for nudity in art.

Some of our earliest surviving human-made objects depict the nude body, like this four-inch paleolithic figure whose exaggerated abdomen and breasts make some think it had a function related to fertility, but the body, sometimes with clothes and sometimes without, has been depicted time and again throughout the history of art.  Ancient Greek athletes competed au naturel and were portayed as such, their fine forms considered the embodiment of human excellence, both physical and moral.

The Greeks envisioned their gods and heroes in the nude as well, but female figures were usually clothed, at least partially, until Praxiteles started a trend, concocting a nude Aphrodite, seemingly caught unawares and shielding herself partially from view, a pose that had traction for centuries.  But these aren't glimpses of no doubt stinky, pimply, actual Athenians of yore, but ideals, visions that might please the gods or to which one might aspire.

Of course, the human body comes in many shapes and shades and sizes and positions itself in innumerable ways.  Artists of the last half century haven't hesitated to remind us of this.  Other cultures around the world have presented the nude figure in vastly different ways and in many different mediums, but ancient Greek and Roman sculpture had an outsized influence on the European and American art that followed.  

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In the tradition of painting, the nude came to be understood as figure composed in only certain ways and situations.  The term once carried so much weight that when Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase" was rejected from the 1912 Salon Exhibition in Paris, the hanging committee explained "A nude never descends the stairs, a nude reclines." 

We might blame part of this on the physical realities of models asked to pose for long, boring stretches.  Students have long sketched the resting human form in order to learn anatomy, but many have also documented it in motion, to understand the way a body moves through space, and there are definitely sprightly nudes out there, but if you do an accounting, you will find relatively few active naked bodies in the history of so-called Western art and a whole lot of inactive naked ladies reclining, very still.  So still you might confuse them with just another piece of fruit in a still-life, emphasizing their availability for consumption, an idea Linda Nochlin smartly played upon with "Buy My Bananas", her 1972 satirization of the 19th century image "Buy My Apples".

Artists and critics of the 1960s and '70s broke open the essential questions at play in depictions of nudity.  Who is being looked at?  How are they being framed?  Who's doing the framing and who's doing the looking?  Does the artist's gender matter?  Is it different if an artist is portraying their own naked figure or that of a friend or that of a stranger?  How does sexual orientation figure into a work, your own or those you're observing?  We are implicated in our role as spectator.  Who has invited us to look and what are the power dynamics at play?

This is what makes a nude problematic, but also hugely compelling.  Controversy surrounding the nude is nothing new.  Scandal followed Michelangelo's unveiling of "David" in 1504, after the Catholic clergy and many others objected, its genitalia were covered by bronze fig leaves and centuries later, when Queen Victoria balked at his cast of the sculpture she was given in 1857, a leaf was promptly sculpted and affixed.

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The fig leaf convention, of course, originates with the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible.  After they ate the fruit, they realized they were naked and were ashamed, sewing together fig leaves to cover themselves.  In the Christian faith, nudity was henceforth linked with shame and in 15th century art was a state reserved for sinners bound for hell.  Michelangelo depicted this scene, too, although this time, just about everyone lost their knickers, good and bad alike, prompting little shorts and loincloths to be added later on.

Many still object to nudity on religious and moral grounds and the fig leaves of today may have taken on different appearances but the effect is the same.  When a kid walks into a gallery and giggles at the sight of a naked human form, they're not thinking about the loaded history of the nude.  They're tittering at the sight of what they've only recently learned should be covered by dictated societal convention. 

Regardless of age, as spectators, when we encounter an image that makes us uncomfortable, we must ask ourselves why.  When is it a productive discomfort, reminding us of what advertising has trained us to expect or which figures history has largely left out and when is it a sign that something is afoul, that we are looking at an image mindlessly following tradition or wrongfully captured.  Depictions of sexual acts are another topic entirely, but looking at enough pictures of naked people will show you that a naked figure isn't necessarily sexual and neither must a figure be naked to be erotic.

Paintings of nudes now proudly hung in public galleries were once displayed in firmly private spaces.  Paintings commissioned by Spanish kings who hid their collections from the moral judgment of the church.  Where and how we present nude figures is important, not to be taken lightly, but so it is with any art, much of which, regardless of any state of undress, can be controversial and cause offense.

Nude vs naked, decent vs indecent, art vs pornography.  The semantics have been hotly debated, but the plain fact of an unclothed human body in a work of art is just one of many aspects we can use as gateways to interpret a work and see what it reveals or conceals.  

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That it contains nudity doesn't make an artwork good, but it certainly shouldn't condemt it automatically.  At their worst, nudes objectify, estrange, and exploit, but at their best, nudes celebrate the variety of the human form, its capacity for expression, assertion, and reclamation.  Nudes can show us the pleasures of having a body and also articulate the horrors.

In life, we're surrounded by other bodies and probably even more images of bodies.  How we cover our bodies and arrange them in space is part of how we communicate identity and it's an integral part of how we read other people and process the world.  Stripping that away in the context of art gives us room to think about who we are without all that and how we come to know others in both public and private spaces, a distinction that's increasingly indistinct.  

Artists for the last century have worked actively to shock us and nudity is one of the oldest tricks in the book.  Look past it, or rather, look it dead in the eyes and it has a tremendous amount to reveal.  

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