Thoughts on culture, morality and the nude

by bjmuirhead

There is a sense in which “culture” is a set of shared beliefs which exist in the background of each individual life, and against which we each act as individuals. It could be said, I think accurately, that culture provides the backdrop and ground against and on which we act without the need to think through every aspect of what we are doing.

As such, cultural beliefs are not necessarily easily bypassed, but nor are all cultural beliefs necessarily shared by everyone in a particular culture.

In Australia, e.g., there is a general background belief that an older man with a child, especially a girl-child, is morally suspect because the man almost certainly is a paedophile. Similarly, as an extension of this, anyone who photographs a child, especially naked or partly naked, automatically is presumed to be either a pornographer or a paedophile or both. As broad (socio-)cultural beliefs with proponents who provide material for marvellous headlines, these beliefs are very difficult to stand apart from, even if you hold different or opposing beliefs. Hence, in 2013 in Australia, when an older man was seen on a beach with a young girl, the police were called and proceeded to arrest the girl’s grandfather. An easily sorted out situation, but a potent example of a background cultural belief that was publically discussed in terms of it’s being “better to be safe than sorry” even though there had been no indication of there being anything “wrong” in the initial sighting. Similarly, men with cameras in a public park are under suspicion immediately, and there are several instances in Queensland of professional and amateur photographers being assaulted by outraged protectors of “innocent children”. 1

Needless to say, the Bill Henson débâcle of some years ago in Australia, the arrest of Jock Sturges and the confiscation of his images and equipment (and, apparently, a copy of Lolita) in 1990 in the USA, and many more less famous incidents, are acts taken on the basis of (background) cultural beliefs which have been brought to the foreground in specific instances and by specific people (those who have made a complaint).

On the other side of the coin, of course, are those who do not automatically believe that an older man with child necessarily is suspicious, who believe that a man with a camera in a public space is most likely to be innocent, and that photographs of children may be—merely photographs of children, or even artworks of high quality and value.

Importantly, these particular (socio-)cultural beliefs, which I am not going to attempt to discuss or outline in detail, are moral beliefs in essence, concerning the manner in which we view particular types of situation and artefact.

The idea that each culture has a, more often than not unquestioned, moral dimension, that, in fact, each culture has competing moral dimensions, is not necessarily an idea which the majority of us consider under normal circumstances, especially when we remember that the majority of examples encountered are quite extreme, or are presented as extreme, even when they are not. At least partially this is a moral and cultural imperialism—our way of seeing the world and our behaviour in it, is the right way. Hence we disagree with each other from the basis of our foundational beliefs, which we rarely discuss or analyse. However, it is not clear just how we should think about matters such as female circumcision, which from our cultural point of view can be thought of only as genital mutilation, even whilst male circumcision is relatively well accepted in some Western cultures, without immediately being thought of as mutilation. Similarly,the marriage of teenage women to older men can be thought of only as paedophilia, rape, abuse, and so on.

In the most straightforward sense, there is no simple answer as to whether these two cultural behaviours are moral or not. The best we can say is that there is no single human activity, especially sexual, which has not, at some time, somewhere, been the accepted social (cultural) norm.

Over a century ago in Australia, the age of consent for females was 11, and marriage to older men at a very young age was commonplace. That this is not the case now generally is regarded as an example of “moral progress” even though the idea seems to be a nonsense in a way the the idea of “scientific progress” is not. The latter is the discovery and refinement of a specific type of knowledge; the former, however, is argumentation about which behaviours are acceptable, and which behaviours are not acceptable, and it seems to me that although the arguments change, the activities themselves are not so changeable—humans continue to do the same things, irrespective of their morality or legality. What is involved, this is to say, is a change of viewpoint and attitude rather than an increase or refinement of knowledge or a definitive change in human behaviour.

Needless to say, this is not a congenial view for the moralists amongst us, who are completely certain that their moral beliefs (“knowledge”) are correct, and that any others are wrong necessarily. Hence the intractability of argument concerning sexual behaviour, or even the acceptability of nudity and the nude body in art. Quite simply, there is no common ground apart, possible, from the behaviour and/or object in question.

(An argument can be made, of course, to the effect that our moral “knowledge” now finds a foundation in contemporary psychology, which many claim to be a “hard” science. My only answer to that at this moment is that it depends on which psychological theories you happen to believe are correct, and which theories oppose which other theories. This is a subject which does not seem to fit easily into what I am saying here, but it is worth noting that consensus between psychological theories is about the same as that between competing moral theories, although both areas like to act and present their ideas as though there is a great deal more consensus than there actually is.)

A nude shoot

A nude shoot, with male model

What is important about the observations I’ve just made is the somewhat simplistic notion that we all believe our own opinions. This is to say that

We think and talk as if our assertions are true or otherwise, and true or otherwise in virtue of states of affairs which exist independently of our knowledge of them; which is in part to say, as if the referents of our expressions exist independently of our use of those expressions.2

What this means in the current context is that when we say something like “it’s wrong for an older man to marry someone younger”, or “all nudes are merely pornography”, we talk as though this is true at all times and in all places, and we intend, because of our belief in what we ourselves say, to mean just this, even though the clear absurdity of such statements (as universals) is evident with but a quick perusal of history and other cultures.

It’s true to say, of course, that there are vast numbers of people who realise that there are competing moral views, and that not everyone shares their beliefs. Unfortunately, this does not necessarily entail an acceptance and tolerance of opposing moral beliefs, if only because we do tend to believe our own statements and, of course, our own beliefs. (Yes, this is circular, or ovoid at the very least, but this is the case with much of human life.)



There is no doubt that I am offering a simplistic view and explanation, but what I am discussing is something which I believe is simplistic at is very base:

  • Cultures and their belief structures change.
  • Morals and moral prescriptions change.

Even the Roman Catholic church changes its culture and moral prescriptions, albeit, in modern times, at the speed of an uphill glacier.

What this means , ultimately, is that we never can be confident of our moral ground if (and perhaps only if) we wish to be fair and open minded about what people do and don’t do. We may believe, e.g., that a particular form of sexual activity is morally wrong, and we may have many reasons why we believe it is wrong, but these reasons arise out of our background cultural beliefs, which themselves almost always remain unquestioned.3 But this position also seems to be a nonsense in that we cannot, in our everyday life, stop and question every moral and/or cultural presupposition and belief we have (unless, perhaps, we are Friedrich Nietzsche reincarnated). At the same time, it seems to me that this is exactly what we need to do, and not merely in terms of genital mutilation (male or female) and childhood marriages.

The relevance this has to the nude is obvious, and rather banal on a moral level: The use of naked bodies for decoration or contemplation in art, architecture or in any other way, is wither morally acceptable, or not, depending on the (sub-)culture and its moral preconceptions.

Seen from this point of view the body inevitable is and will remain a “cultural” body in that it and its uses, aesthetic or otherwise, always will be viewed from our own cultural perspective—from the generalised background beliefs we have concerning

  1. The rôle of the body in society, and

  2. The generalised background beliefs our particular culture holds concerning humanity and its “place” within the “world”.

The importance of the second point rests in what we believe our most fundamental human nature to be. If we believe, e.g., that humanity and the universe we live in was created by an all powerful god, then we will hold a different set of background beliefs about the body and what is acceptable or unacceptable in terms of its use. Christianity, with its belief that “man” is created in God’s image, was able to portray God, in the form of Jesus, as a nude, as an ultimate ideal. Islam and Judaism, on the other hand, saw God (ultimate reality) as veiled and unknowable (in a way that Christ was not, being the image of God), but both saw the human body as the creation of a God and as, therefore, holding a special place within the world, and as deserving particular treatment accordingly. However, the majority of contemporary Western society is secular, holding no particular beliefs in this respect; rather, humanity is believed to be a “creation” of evolution, with no particular supervening importance in creation such as that given via the idea of creation by a god. But—and this, I imagine, is my central point—the human body is common to all cultures, irrespective of specific beliefs about it. In this sense, the body seems to me to be inherently non-cultural and cross cultural. Specific cultural beliefs about the body and its significance are impositions on the commonality of the body, i.e., it is the interpretation of, attitudes toward and beliefs about the body that differ, not the body as such. This much is immediately and self-evidently obvious. Just as obvious, though not discussed in anything I have read, is all (human) cultures are founded and built by (human) beings with a (human) body. In as much as the (human) mind, at the very least, is co-extensive with the (human) body, it seems clear that every culture ultimately is founded on the commonality that is the (human) body.

What this means is that whenever we look at a naked body, we are looking at much more than a mere cultural (object) body—we are looking at the common foundation of all cultures; and this means that we always are looking at something which is both “inside” and “outside” of culture, because it is both the foundation of all cultures and a part of every specific culture.



The obviousness that the human body is common to all people, and therefore common to all cultures, does not in itself entail that the body is the foundation of culture. The reason for this, partially, is that as well as bodies, we all have minds, and it is these which we use to create the ideas and beliefs and objects which, for most of us, are our culture. Our minds, however, are not separate to our bodies. The idea of embodiment, however, does not in itself answer the question of how our bodies are the foundation of culture. The reason for this is simply that an embodied mind, as I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog, simply tells us that the mind is, at the very least, a part of our sensory-motor apparatus. If we leave it at this, then it is simply the case that the mind and explicit knowledge continue to to primary, and in many ways this surely is the case. When we consider experience and tacit knowledge, however, the nature of my claim becomes a little clearer:

Our experience, and our tacit knowledge, are entirely corporeal, until such time as we make them explicit in some way. Similarly, much of our thought is tacit, until made explicit in some way.

This may be a claim too far for some, and it becomes quite profoundly confused when we realise that our experience of the explicit world of thought and culture also is tacit. What this means is that at the most basic level of our existence, thought is founded in our tacit and experiential relationship with “the world” and “the culture” in which we live. Furthermore, because the mind is embodied, it is clear, to me at least, that the entirety of our culture is founded ultimately on the body, via which all thought and knowledge exists and, indeed, is made explicit.

What this entails is that, irrespective of the specific culture in which we may happen to be living, when we look at a nude—or merely a naked person—we are looking at the most fundamental human reality because we are looking at the body out of which all culture is created prior to any particular ethical or aesthetic understanding of the body itself. Hence, the nude (the naked body) represents and shows (and, perhaps, even explains) humanity more effectively than any other human product.

1Unfortunately I have lost the relevant references for all of these instances.

2A. C. Grayling, 2007, Truth, Meaning and Realism, London and New York: Continuum, p.2

3Of course, they also arise out of personal experience, but our personal experience occurs within the context of our background cultural beliefs. The only aspect of our beliefs which may not be within culture, is our tacit knowledge as it arises from immediate experience. But our tacit knowledge is converted to and discussed within terms of our explicit knowledge almost immediately, so quickly, in fact, that it barely seems to exist separate to our culture and explicit beliefs. Simplistically, again, it is difficult to hold the immediate experience and tacit knowledge separate to our interpretation of it.

The sculpture installation in the male nude  shoot (above) is copyright Wendy  Mills, Australia.