Summary: the nude, the body and humanity

by bjmuirhead

The idea that the nude has meaning over and above (or perhaps below and beneath) sex and sexuality has been the focus of my thinking for some years now, and has taken me into areas I would not otherwise have investigated, which is all the better for me.

What has become clear is the the meaning of the naked body in art has not been investigated in depth al all. Yes, art historians and art theorists have written about it, as have psychologists, sociologists, feminists, and it has been the subject of much jurisprudence. In order to establish what meaning the nude may have, however, entails looking at and hopefully understanding what the body is. (Hence my dabblings in neuroscience, conceptual metaphor, theories of grounded cognition, and so forth. All of these areas tell us something about the human body and, therefore, something about the naked body in art. But the information and understanding given comes from very specific points of view which all to often appear to be glosses over the images rather than a way of finding deeper meaning.

It has become clear to me, in other words, that the type of meaning I am looking for is specific to vision, and is explicable in visual terms and that other approaches merely can point toward this. This much, of course, is obvious at many levels, just as it is obvious that we are born and we die.

What has become even more obvious is that we, as a species, push and pull ourselves away from our bodies in a vain attempt to ignore and diminish the single most human part of ourselves. Indeed, it appears that our ability to detach ourselves from our bodies has become a singular focus of Western culture. It is not possible to do so in any coherent sense, but it underlies so much of our intellectual direction (even when we are claiming to do just the opposite). Perhaps this is the foundation of our insistence that they naked body necessarily is always sexual, and that it must, therefore, be hidden from sight for fear that our moral and intellectual life will be destroyed by what has been described as our base (sexual) instincts. While we no longer use terms such as these, this is, none the less, an apt description.

The ability of our intellect to take us far from our own bodies so that we think of them almost as an alien force invading our better, our higher selves, astounds me. Indeed, the ability we have, as humans, to put an idea above what factually faces us is almost beyond comprehension. Each time we do this, we step further away from accepting ourselves as we are, we reach further into a fantasy which is not immediately recognisable as fantasy because it is so deeply a part of how we deal with the world and with each other. (This is so very human and will be the major cause of our destruction as a species—at the very least our contemporary culture cannot survive this ability to believe anything but what we see before us.)

That our bodies are the foundation of all that we are is not deniable. We may deny their ultimate existence from many points of view, but we cannot deny their fundamental importance to life, even if we want to say that they are merely matters of mind because ultimate reality is spiritual/mental.

I remember when I was at the University of Queensland, talking to the philosopher Michael Carey, who spent quite some time trying to imagine what it would be to live without senses which would be, for us, the equivalent of not having a body. An interesting thought experiment, but not one which went anywhere. Neither Michael, nor anyone else as I remember, could imagine what such a life would be. It is easier to imagine ourselves without a mind, as bodies alone.

What I am saying does not and should not be taken as an attack on the intellect and on our achievements in knowledge. It is, however, a rejection of the directions in which much of our intellectual activity has taken us. Think, for another moment, about sex:

People have sex for a variety of reasons. One is to have children, but even more important to most of us is pleasure, fun, to have a deep contact with another person (Lawrence Durrell: We touch another person’s soul when we touch their body), to be ourselves—and many more reasons, I am sure. Everything we know about our human history tells us that humans always have enjoyed sex and pursued sex. Everything we know about human history also tells us that there also have been moral rules about when one could have sex, who we could have sex with and what types of sex we could have without fear of prosecution. We even reached the absurd point that the Roman Catholic Church, when it had the power to do so, made sex illegal except at certain hours on certain days of the week, and that a favourite means of revenge amongst people was to report the neighbour for having sex at the wrong time and on the wrong day. (The church had its own courts, judgement was made and people sentenced with no reference to existing civil law.)

We also know that the vast majority of people ignored those laws, wherever and whenever they existed, in favour of their pleasure, desire, love, and so on. One would think that the powers that be would wake up to themselves, but humanity as a whole has not yet woken to itself. We continue, in all areas of life, to create intellectual fantasy structures which ignore simple realities about our lives, in exactly this way.

On this count alone, that people love sex, that it is basic to our existence, the nude is a valid subject of representation. There seems to me to be nothing wrong with the proposition that anyone is free to make nudes which sexually excite them, and that others are free to seek out and look at nudes which sexually excite them. But it is my position that the majority of nudes serve a deeper and more important meaning than this. Nudes, when looked at, bring our sense of humanity into sharper focus simply because we enter into rapport with them.

Having arrived at this conclusion, I intend to take time to look through all of my research and, probably, rewrite it all into a more interesting form.

In the meantime, I intend to do some writing about specific nudes which fascinate me, which seem to me to say something quite deep about humanity. I will write these under the general rubric “One shot”, and I will try to say what cannot be said (with apologies to the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus), to say what in fact can be known wordlessly. What should, perhaps, be left without words.