The naked, the nude, the ordinary.

by bjmuirhead

I want to begin this post with an observation from Alain de Botton: “The news likes to keep us wounded and terrified.”  This is relevant because, in Australia at least, it almost always is the case that nakedness in news reports is presented as morally wrong, pornographic, exploitative, and occasionally as embarrassingly laughable. When nudes are shown, it usually is with black lines across breasts and/or the genital area, and accompanied by an outraged or salacious voice over. In this way, often without properly seeing the offending nude , the general public comes to fear nudes and, by extension, the motives of those who create nudes and those who enjoy looking at them. Furthermore, here in Queensland at least, the nude is censored in high school art courses by the simple expedient of being left out of the majority of textbooks, or by showing details only of artworks which avoid the offending parts of the body.

In the general course of society, what remains in public awareness are works, almost totally of women, which focus on sex and sexuality. (There is a growing number of similar images of men, but they continue to be in the minority, as far as I can tell.) The point is that, for most people, the (naked) human body in art is hidden and rarely discussed except when presented as offensive or morally questionable. The difficulty with this is twofold. Firstly, the declaration that the naked body is offensive or morally questionable always is a moral evaluation which has no inherent universality even within the one culture; it always is presented, however, as universally applicable. Secondly, even if we accept that the naked body, its presentation in a piece of art or, frequently, the circumstances under which it was created, are offensive or morally questionable, it is in no way clear that this counts against the work in question. But, of course, when when stories about the nude, and especially the photographic nude, are in the news, it usually (but not always) is accompanied by some form of moral outrage, which is what makes them newsworthy. (Think of Bill Henson, Jock Sturges, Irina Ionesco.)

What this newsworthiness of the naked and the nude does, with its provocation of fear and outrage, is to hide one ineluctably important point: the sheer ordinariness of the naked and the nude.

I certainly don’t mean that the nude is ordinary because it is commonly seen. Rather, I mean ordinariness in the sense that there is nothing especially striking about a naked body unless it possesses an unusual anatomic structure, wound, or so on. A nude of Charles Edward Stratton (General Tom Thumb) or Grace McDaniels (The Mule Faced Woman), e.g., would not be ordinary or display ordinariness because neither of these people were physically ordinary. Even the most astonishing ‘super model’ has a body of extraordinary ordinariness. It takes training and all off of the techniques of photography, lighting, make-up, to create the super model in the photograph. Without all of these, their bodies remain ordinary, whatever else they may be.

The ordinariness of the naked body, however, does not alter the essence that is a nude, i.e., that the nude is a representation of the basic essence of humanity and human culture.

With the idea of ordinariness in mind, it is worth looking at some aspects of the debate about the distinction between the naked and the nude, although I need to begin with the observation that much of this debate is frivolous nonsense, and that I will not, therefore, be discussing this debate in any great detail.

The distinction between the naked and the nude seems to have been conceived, according to Kenneth Clark (1984, 3) when the term ‘nude’

was forced into our vocabulary by critics of the early eighteenth century to persuade the artless islanders that, in countries where painting and sculpture were practiced and valued as they should be, the naked human body was the central subject of art.

No doubt this need to make the nude in art distinct and special in this way was cultural and deserves detailed comment. What is most immediately important to me, however is the apparent need to defend the status of the nude by creating a distinction that elevated the status of naked bodies in art over the ordinariness of the naked body in everyday life. In presenting this view, Clark quite consciously rejects the ordinariness of the naked body in favour of the extraordinary that is perfection and idealisation.

Clark (1984, 3) says of this distinction that ‘the word “nude” carries, in educated circles, no uncomfortable overtones,’ while, to the uneducated, to be nude is to be embarrassed and deprived to our clothes in what may be a huddled and defenceless body. He then furthers this distinction by claiming that the body cannot be made into art by ‘direct transcription—like a tiger or a snowy landscape.’ (Clark 1984, 5) For Clark this was a very important point, for we have become, in his words, ‘accustomed to the harmonious simplifications of antiquity’ which ‘eliminate the ‘wrinkles, pouches, and other small imperfections’ belonging to the body of everyday life. (Clark 1984, 7)

In arguing for this Clark expresses what can best be described as disgust for the human body in its natural state, leaving his approval for the idealisations of art (as he perceives them), saying that the sight of actual bodies leads to ‘disillusion and dismay. We do not wish to imitate; we wish to perfect.’ (Clark 1984, 6) This view enabled Clark to reject photographs of the nude as unworthy of consideration: photographs show us the pockets, pouches and imperfections of human flesh which the idealisations of classical art has led us to believe should not exist in art (and perhaps not in life). In any event, Clark (1984, 25) maintains that the nude

gains its enduring value from the fact that it reconciles several contrary states. It takes the most sensual and immediately interesting object, the human body, and puts it out of reach of time and desire(.)

From this we can draw the uneasy conclusion that the nude always is an idealisation of sorts, and this certainly was the case in the majority of paintings and sculptures featuring the naked human body until the early twentieth century. In taking this position, Clark consciously rejects that ordinariness of the naked body in favour of the extraordinariness of perfection and idealisation. Whilst we may object to the idea of perfection and the act of idealisation, there is no doubt that Clark is correct when he says that the human body is the most sensual and immediately interesting object to other humans. There also seems no doubt that the nude places the body outside of desire in the quotidian sense—we cannot desire sex or intimacy with the nude we are looking at in the way that we can desire these things with the person (body) in front of us. We can be reminded of such desire by the nude, however this desire seems necessarily contemplative rather than actual.

Tracy Tainsh, Australian actress

Tracy Tainsh, 1984 “On display, without being naked.”

John Berger also famously discussed the naked and the nude in Ways of Seeing. (1972)To be naked, he said, ‘is to be oneself,’ to be ‘without disguise,’ though he doesn’t give an explanation of what he means by this. To be nude, on the other hand, is ‘to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself’ in that the naked body needs ‘to be seen as an object in order to become a nude.’ Furthermore, Berger says that ‘nakedness reveals itself’ while nudity is placed on display.’ (Berger 1972, 24)

All of this seems to me to be little more than accurate. In order to paint, draw, sculpt or photograph a human body (clothed or naked), the body must be seen and treated as an object, if only because it is an object. That this is so, however, does not necessarily entail the abnegation of the humanity and individuality of the (person) body that Berger seems to think, despite his essentially feminist-political view.

Berger’s emphasis is on the female nude, which he regards as primarily pornographic because all images are created for viewing and, in respect of (female) nudes, are created for the satisfaction of male desire.. The main point that Berger makes about nudes is that clothes encumber freedom and contact, and until the clothes are removed, the other person is ‘more or less mysterious.’ Without clothes, however, our attention ‘shifts from eyes, mouth, shoulders, hands—all of which are capable of such subtleties of expression that the personality expressed by them is manifold,’ and we focus on the ‘sexual parts’ which suggest a ‘compelling but single process’. (Berger 1972, 58–59)

The result of this is that the nude is reduced to banality, which can be escaped only by a small number of works. This occurs then the image transcends the ‘froan instant’ of time (this instant of time is more obvious in photography) and so creates a subjectivity which transcends (the) banality (of the nude), which seems to exist, for Berger, in the single and compelling process of sex.

This idea, that the nude suggests a single and compelling process is not a criticism of the nude; rather it is a comment on our attitude toward sex. The body, as I have said previously, is the fundamental object of human culture and life. Just as this is the case with the body, so also is sex and sexuality fundamental to the body. The idea that a representation of the naked human body may suggest or even directly represent sex and sexuality, therefore, is an not an adequate reason to negatively criticise or reject the nude in art. The challenge of banality, however, is an entirely different matter.

The idea that something is banal implies that there is nothing especially creative or original about it. In terms of nudes, there is a sense in which this is true automatically. The majority of human bodies, after all, are not especially ‘original’ in any sense, irrespective of its being the foundation of ‘the human world’. At the same time, the human body is the source of endless fascination for human beings, and this fascination is not always focused on the sexual organs. That this is so also stands against the notion that banality implies uninteresting. Indeed, even the most banal, ill-conceived and executed nudes often fascinate. A goodly part of the reason for this is that banality in an artwork does not necessarily equate to a lack of interest in the subject. Nor has banality ever stood against interest in any way, especially where the subject’s very ordinariness is inherently interesting to many viewers. This is even more so when we are talking about photography, which is less obviously mediated by the artist than a painting is—the way a line is drawn is obviously the choice of the artist; the photographer’s intrusion into the image, however, are more subtle and so less obvious to the casual viewer.

The point I am making, is that the banality of a particular artwork, or set of artworks of the same subject, is irrelevant to a consideration of those works and their importance. We know that it is extremely difficult to translate the ordinariness of the naked human body into art. We also know that the human body exemplifies ordinariness, and that it is invariable in the majority of ways, as is the nude, which simply always shows a naked human body in its ordinariness. In respect of this it is interesting to note that François Jullien also adopts the distinction between the naked and the nude. Along with Clark and Berger, Jullien (2007, 4) describes nakedness as implying a feeling of shame at a diminished state; no such sense is evoked by the nude, however: ‘the nude is total presence, offering itself for contemplation.’

For Jullien the sense of shame exists within context of the realisation that it is I who is naked and who realises that ‘my being is not confined to that body (…) my feelings, my mind and my possibilities extend beyond it.’ A crucial aspect of the feeling of nakedness is that

[N]akedness is me, the nude is someone else—the other. In the case of nakedness, the other is looking at me (or more precisely, I see the other who is seeing me). (Jullien 2007, 6)

This aspect of the discussion is highlighted in a story told by Leslie Bostrom and Marlene Malik (1999) of a nude model who suddenly called out someone’s looking at me! Needless to say, an entire class was looking at her. What upset her were non-class members leering at her thorough a window. Their leering reminded her that she was naked. This event can be described in many ways, from many different points of view, but for just a moment we need to consider that the ordinariness of her body was subsumed into a cultural prurience which, by and large, is irrelevant to the naked body itself. It belongs to the viewer, not to the body.
Berger, J. (1972), Ways of Seeing, British Broadcasting Corporation ans Penguin Books.
Bostrom, L. & Malik, M. (1999), ‘Re-viewing the nude’, Art Journal 58(1), pp. 42–48.
Clark, K. (1984), The Nude—A Study In Ideal Form, Princeton University Press.
Jullien, F. (2007), The Impossible Nude—Chinese Art and Western Aesthetics, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London. Trans. Maev de la Guardia.

Text and photograph © BJ Muirhead. All rights reserved