The fixed immobility of the nude
Much of what I have been writing about the nude here has been designed to expose the parameters which apply to the ‘meaning’ of the nude, without referring to or depending on extant aesthetic or cultural theories. One of the difficulties, for me, with the theoretic approaches I have been avoiding is that they all too often rest on assumptions which I do not find acceptable, even though they are difficult to avoid. Hence, a lot of my thinking has revolved around body-mind-knowledge-experience as, so to speak, an inter-penetrating continuum. Given that these all are fundamental to human life, it always has seemed obvious to me that there are important things to say about them which are not, in themselves, cultural or culturally based, but which are pre-cultural in at least a logical sense.
The difficulty with this is that the manner in which we talk about the body necessarily is based in culture. We can, however, point toward the pre-cultural body. (In this respect, one notion I am exploring is that the pre-cultural body is a non-object in François Jullien’s (see 2009) sense, i.e., it always is something on the cusp of objecthood, and perhaps even more so in respect of nudes.)
Pointing toward the non- or pre-cultural body requires that we show just how it is that the body is cross-cultural. It would not make sense, after all, to deny the ‘cultural body’ as the only available body, if we cannot show that all cultures share (and are based on) the ‘same’ body(-mind).
One approach is provided by the work of Paul Ekman, which showed that facial expressions have ‘the same meaning’ across cultures. Simplistically, we understand the (meaning of the) facial expressions of people from other cultures. What this indicates is that there is something common, across cultures, besides the brute fact of the body.
The brute facts of the body are vitally important, however: everything we recognise as thought and emotion depends upon the body. Neither thought or culture could exist without the body, and its sensory-motor apparatus. (This seems to me to be the case irrespective of any possible or proposed disembodied existence, the nature of which eludes us, except by imposing the idea of a disembodied ‘body’ and disembodied ’senses’.)
Discussion of the relationship between the body and the mind has a long history in philosophy, and now in the sciences also, and it certainly is nowhere near resolved. None the less, the position I have been arguing for on this blog is that of an embodied or, at the very least, partially embodied mind.
On the view that I have been exploring, at least some aspects of mind are bodily processes in their entirety, including the acquisition of non-explicit (tacit) knowledge and its utilisation. This much is obvious, I think, at a very basic level. Our sight, e.g., no matter how the physiological process occurs, provides tacit knowledge, only a portion of which can be explicitly described, identified and expressed. Some of this tacit knowledge necessarily remains tacit, and is expressible directly only in some visual form (visual thinking) or, indirectly, through the creation of images in some poetic/literary form. With this in mind it is clear that when we create a nude, we are creating something out of and with our tacit powers; moreover, as a representation of the body-mind (the embodied mind), it is obvious that we are being shown something more than the body alone. The a nude, from any time or place, provides tacit knowledge of the fundamental ‘object’ of all (every) culture, which in turn makes the nude (the naked human body) the most important subject of art.
This easily stated view has been the main thrust of what I have been writing here. Ultimately, however, when we look at a nude or a naked human body, these theoretic considerations are irrelevant, by and large, for the simple reason that the majority of us look at the nude from the preconceptions of our culture, and fail to attempt to discover the presence/existence of humanity within the nude. But this is, and always has been, the most important, ever-present, aspect of the nude, and always is present behind whatever any particular cultural view we may espouse. This is possible because, in and of itself, the nude is invariable. (Jullien 2007, 3) It always already (sic) is a naked human body, over which different cultures and sub-cultures lay various clothings and meanings.What is naked, clothed, merely revealing, moral or immoral differs in different places and at different times. This much is a cliché in most contemporary Western societies, even if it is not universally accepted in these societies. Moreover, nudity is fundamental to our preconceptions and unconscious assumptions about the nature of humanity, humanness and what it means to be both human and naked. (Barcan 2000, 145) Humans are clothed, irrespective of how any particular culture defines clothing; being naked (without clothes) is a special circumstance. In this sense, therefore, a nude always is a curious object.1 In terms of art and our contemporary response to the nude, this is highlighted, firstly, by the almost permanent association of nudity with sex, (see Barcan 2000, 200) especially in art and, secondly, by an ongoing uneasy feeling that nudes in art may not be separable from exploitation. These are not associated with art theory, but are important background to the situation wherein it seems true to say that ‘the nude has (…) fallen into a strange limbo, not banned outright, but not easily accepted as a legitimate icon for artistic use.’ (Philbrick 1999, 14)
Much of the difficulty with the acceptability of the nude and nudity rests on the interactions of the two main traditions which form the cultural history of Western civilization:
the Greek tradition (based on a metaphysics of nakedness), wherein the naked (male) body signifies ideal humanness, and the Hebraic tradition (based on a metaphysics of clothing), wherein the Godhead is conceived of as metaphorically veiled, and hence nudity figures as a deprivation or loss. Both traditions—the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ meanings of nudity—persist strongly in the contemporary West. (Barcan 2000, 145)
Both nudity and the nude in art sit uneasily in this mix of traditions, especially if we refer to the Christian tradition where the only readily accepted naked body was that of Christ as a child, or crucified on the cross, (though, of course, his genitals have been draped since the Renaissance). (Plate 2006, 84) The supposition behind fully naked figures of Christ was that he was both God incarnate and completely innocent of all evil (like Adam and Eve) and that, consequently, there was no shame in his nakedness. (Plate 2006, 84) The nudity of mere human beings could not be forgiven in this way, and could be tolerated only in paintings of mythological and religious subjects. The nude was, in a sense, hidden behind its justifications.
In contemporary terms, the nude continues to exist. However, as one academic put it to me,2 no one takes the nude seriously any more: it’s a subject of some ill-repute that has been criticised on several fronts—culturally, aesthetically and on feminist grounds—and is no longer a subject of interest. None the less, artists continue to work with the naked body, e.g., Vanessa Beecroft’s performance installations of naked models; and there are many famous exponents of what might be called the ‘traditional’ nude, especially in photography, along with an apparently endless supply of nudes produced by amateurs.
That so many nudes continue to be produced by amateurs and professionals highlights the ‘openness’ of the nude, which can signify ‘heroism, at one end of the scale, degradation at the other, and “ordinary humanity” somewhere in between.’ (Barcan 2000, 146)
But these are cultural meanings, written over the fact of the body itself. But this is inevitable, if only because the nude is artificial. As Jullien (2007, 26) says, ‘the nude is discovered in fixed immobility (the pose),’ and this artificiality has the effect of separating the nude ‘from the body as such and from the life that animates it.’
In terms of photography this seems rather odd, firstly because all photographs of living creatures extract the subject from the world, from whatever it is that animates the subject. More importantly, however, it seems odd because we are accustomed to thinking of a photograph as showing us the what and who of the world. Hence, Barthes’ (2000, 79) statement: ‘Photography’s inimitable feature […] is that someone has seen the referent […] in the flesh and blood, or again in person.’ Moreover, we commonly talk about photographic nudes as though they are people, primarily on the basis, as far as I can tell, that we treat photographs as references to the people, objects, landscapes, that were photographed. As references to whatever actually is photographed, photographs are treated as evidence of something else, rather than as images in their own right, for which the original subject is irrelevant. It seems to me, however, that we cannot always adopt this position in a coherent fashion.
The point of this is that photographs are inherently ambiguous, and the best we can hope for is an oscillation between the photographs as evidence and the photograph as representation/art. This is highlighted clearly when we consider photographs (e.g., portraits, rather than nudes, with all of the associated problems) of unknown people: the separation between the body (in the photograph) and the life which animated that body is obvious. We are willing to claim that there once was such a person, but we do not have a sense of their life (living presence) apart from the photograph itself. What we do have is a representation of that person, out of which we can pull interpretations which may or may not accurately reflect explicitly expressible knowledge of that person. But this much is true also of portraits in other media, such as painting, drawing and sculpture. The primary difference in respect of photography is that we are prepared to say that the representation of the person in the photograph necessarily is a representation of some person who at some time, existed and was photographed. (Digital photography, of course, raises the possibility that this may no longer be the case. What we see in the photographs may be a composite creation of a person who never actually lived.)
That we believe the photograph shows someone who once existed, or who continues to exist, does not hold our interest necessarily, however. Rather, if we continue to study the portrait, it will be because there is something about the eyes/lips/shape of the face, which continues to capture our attention, without our being able to say why this is the case. This can be thought of in terms of Barthes’ (2000) punctum and studium, where the latter is the information we interpret out of the details of the photograph, cultural, technical considerations, etc., and the former is whatever small item appears to be inexpressibly meaningful to us.
The same is true, though perhaps less obvious, in the case of nudes of people whom we do not know, and are never likely to have the opportunity to know. The fixed immobility of the nude or portrait is not only the immobility of the image (representation), but also an immobility of knowledge—because we do not know the person, we cannot read that personal knowledge into the image. All that we can do is read cultural notions into the image, or contemplate the image for enough time that the cultural impositions evaporate from our consciousness, leaving the tacitly pre- or non-cultural.
Unfortunately, in a culture where art’s existence is justified only by theory (a culture in which much art exists only because of its critically theoretical interpretation) this idea of contemplating/looking our way past the theoretical (and for some the erotic/sexual) in order to encounter the representation itself, is automatically and necessarily abandoned without thought.
Text and photographs © BJ Muirhead. All rights reserved
Barcan, R. (2000), ‘Home on the Rage: nudity, celebrity, and ordinariness in the Home Girls/Blokes pages’, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 14(2), 145–158.
Barcan, R. (2004), Nudity: A cultural anatomy, Oxford and New York: Berg.
Barthes, R. (2000), Camera Lucida, Vintage Books, London. Trans. Richard Howard.
Jullien, F. (2007), The Impossible Nude—Chinese Art and Western Aesthetics, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London. Trans. Maev de la Guardia.
Jullien, F. (2009), The Great Image Has No Form, On the Nonobject through Painting, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London. Trans. Jane Marie Todd.
Philbrick, H. (1999), The nude in our time: A brief runimation on the nude in contemporary art, in ‘The Nude In Contemporary Art’, Ridgefield, Connecticut: The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, pp. 9–29. Exhibition Catalogue.
Plate, S. B. (2006), Blasphemy: Art That Offends, Black Dog Publishing, London.
1Indeed, it could just as easily be said that being naked is a curious state to be in, and for many people and cultures, it is just that.
2David Akenson, personal communication.