Considering Nudity, Sexuality and Art

The hidden meaning is better than the obvious.

~Pablo Picasso~

On a recent cruise, I noticed the reproduction of a classic sculpture of a nude male athlete in the fitness center. I found it inspirational. Outside the exercise room I noticed an almost identical sculpture in an area occasionally traversed by teens and children. This sculpture sported a strategically placed scallop shell.

When I returned from the cruise, I installed a digital art exhibit, my latest project. Two of the pieces had whimsical mermaids as subject matter. Questions arose as to the appropriateness of displaying images of mermaids with breasts included. They were eventually fitted with their own shells before display.

These two experiences got me thinking about the topic of this column. The human body has served as a subject for art since the Stone Age. Artists celebrated the human form for centuries. Throughout the history of Western Art, I think it would be safe to say that the historical figure most often depicted nude was Jesus, mostly as a baby.

Things changed with the Puritan and Victorian times. Over the years we have become squeamish about depictions of the human body. Other than in art galleries, sexuality in our culture is often relegated to the realms of advertising and pornography. Sex is used to sell just about everything. Pornography is considered evil by many but remains the most popular topic on the Internet.

I recalled the story in Genesis of Adam, Eve and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Upon disobeying God by eating its fruit, they realized they were naked, felt ashamed and sought out fig leaves as clothing. This passage was the first association of nudity with shame. I have never quite understood the connection between sin and being ashamed of our bodies. Yet here we are at our stage of human history caught in a rather schizophrenic view of the human body.

Perhaps part of the problem is that we confuse the motivations behind the display of sexuality. Rick Goslikov suggests three such motivations. One is to cause sexual arousal which could suggest pornography or more tasteful nude art. The second is to “capture some element or aspect of sexuality or sensuousness.” The third is to “express or communicate something in pictorial form about sexuality or sensuousness.” He does not mention the use of sex in advertising to seduce us into buying things because they make us feel sexy.

For us to regain a more innocent perception of nudity and sexuality, we would need to let go of our more sordid interests such as viewing people as objects, subjugating others and looking only to our own needs and desires. Then maybe we could rejoice in the human form as we do the rest of nature without a sense of shame. I don’t know if this can ever happen or what it would take to accomplish. In the mean time, maybe we can work on ourselves.

Life Lab Lessons

Look honestly at your feelings about sexuality.
Can you share your feelings with others?
Get to know your own body.
Learn to love it if you don’t already.
Enjoy the beauty and complexity of the human body.

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