on writing photography life

Category: Aesthetics

Pornography, eroticism and the “art” category

I have been experiencing a great deal of difficulty thinking through eroticism in art. On one hand it seems that there is a lot to say, while on the other hand saying more seems almost pointless, if only because the term “erotic” is so broad that it can contain almost any idea related to the perception of the sensuality of the human body. Perhaps the one view that most (but only most) people agree on is that “the erotic” signifies something other than blatant sexuality and does not include (in art, at least) representations of actual sex acts intended to arouse sexual desire and/or sexual feelings. Beyond this, however, the term seems to include all representations of the (primarily naked) human body.

The distinction between the erotic and the pornographic, however, is not clear cut (nor is the role which the erotic and the pornographic play in our culture), and artists often are accused of producing pornography rather than art. The reason seems to be that different people and groups of people within the same culture use different criteria for their definitions of pornography. There are those, e.g., who believe that the mere fact of nudity in an artwork renders the work pornographic, irrespective of any other consideration. Their definition of pornography depends on the belief that all nudity is morally reprehensible, and that the naked body is inherently and provocatively sexual merely by being naked, and therefore is pornographic if displayed in any fashion or context; but we can ignore views such as this—they don’t allow even the possibility of an acceptable nude. Of more interest are those views which claim that some nudes are art, whilst others are pornographic. The possibility that a particular work may be both art and pornographic is considered rarely, Robert Mapplethorp’s work being one of these rare instances. The reason for this, simplistically, is that discussions of this nature usually occur within the overall framework of what is called an exclusive disjunction: something either is p or is not p, but not both.

In order for this type of distinction to be made, there needs to be some means of distinguishing between art which is not pornographic and art which is pornographic (and which, therefore, is not art). For Roger Scruton (2009 , 158–162) the two are distinguishable by appealing to the notion of the embodied person and contrasting it with sexual feelings and their arousal: if a representation of a nude shows the embodied person (their subjectivity) and does not arouse sexual interest in the viewer, then the work is erotic. If, on the other hand, the representation does arouse sexual feelings (interest, fantasies), then the work is pornographic. Simplistically, the point Scruton is making is that pornography is bad because it focuses on sexual desire and acts, and is intended to arouse sexual desire in the viewer contra erotic art which is at least acceptable because it focuses the viewer’s attention on the (subjectivity of the) embodied person and leads to contemplation of the nature of sexual feeling without arousing sexual feeling in the viewer. The former is interest in the body, the latter is interest in the embodied person. (Scruton 2009 , 159)

Before going on to consider Scruton’s example of a work which hovers on the edge of being pornographic, it is important to note that what is at issue is argument about the criteria by which we determine that a particular image is pornography and not erotic art. The assumption behind such argumentation is that there is such a thing as pornography, and that it is morally suspect, if not outrightly reprehensible. A goodly part of this certainty that pornography exists and is reprehensible arises from our cultural history and the contained cultural story lines about how the world works. (see Cherland 2008 , 273–274 for an interesting take on this.) This is relevant simply because our Western tradition has “the nude”and pornography. Other cultures do not necessarily have a categories. China, for example, does not have any art form which we can designate as the nude (i.e., as works publicly exhibited) but it does has an ars erotica (usually intended for private viewing) in which naked bodies appear, and which were intended to be of sexual interest. (see Jullien 2007 , 42–49) This work, along with similar work produced by Japanese artists, would, on Scruton’s view, be deemed pornographic or, at best, on the borderline between acceptable art and pornography. The point, of course, is that the depiction of sexual activity was not rejected in their original cultures. (The cultural and moral imperialism of the Christian West, however, is changing this, and has been doing so for quite a long time.)

Anonymous, Woman Reading, Japan, circa 1910s

Anonymous, Woman Reading, Japan, circa 1910s

In contrast to images such as Woman Reading, Scruton’s offered example is Boucher’s Blonde Odalisque. There are several versions of this work, which is assumed to be of Marie-Louise O’Murphy, who was mistress to Louis XV. This painting, according to Scruton, (2009 , 161) encroaches on “the bounds of decency” in at least two ways. Firstly, the woman is shown in a position she could never adopt when clothed, a position which has no place in life except in terms of the sexual act. (Whilst this was the case in Eighteenth century France, it is not the case now, where clothes permit this position, and when clothed variants of the position may be seen in public parks and in films, for example, without necessarily implying availability or willingness for sex.) Secondly, she is alone in the painting and doing nothing other than what we can see; her position, however, invites us to fill the place of the absent lover—we are, in the most blatant of terms, invited to fuck her.

It is, I think, pointless to discuss Scruton’s observations in detail—they are well supported by (conservative) cultural and feminist, as well as being supported both by historic precedent and in respect of interpretation, and common cultural opinion. It is worth noting, however, that Scruton (2009 , 154) says of Titian’s work (a specific painting is not identified, but he seems to be referring to the Venus of Urbino) that we do not detach the unclothed body from the face and personality, with the result that Venus is not being shown to us as an object of desire, but “is being withheld from us, integrated into the personality that quietly looks from those eyes and which is busy with thoughts and desires of its own.” (Scruton 2009 , 155) In contrast, Boucher uses “off-the-shelf stereotypes” which enable the face to act as no more than a pointer to the body, with the result that Boucher’s nudes show us possible objects of our own desire, of fantasy.

Francois Boucher, Blonde Odalisque,1740

Francois Boucher, Blonde Odalisque,1740

The erotic in art, from this point of view, not only does not, but cannot excite or attract the viewer sexually because it does not focus only on the body and the viewer’s (sexual) fantasies. Rather, the erotic takes us into a consideration of the nature of the erotic desire of the people pictured—and art fails if it provokes any other, more personal response because it ceases to be erotic and becomes pornography. (see Scruton 2009 , 159–160) This is to say that any nude which cannot be viewed from this “aesthetic distance”, and so studied for what it tells us (intellectually) about erotic desire, fails to be art according to Scruton. (2009 , 160)

As a means of distinguishing between the pornographic and the non-pornographic in art, the maintenance of aesthetic distance contra personal (sexual) interest, fails for many reasons, not the least of which is the nature of human sexual interest and feeling. The types of people, bodies and situations which can lead to the arousal of sexual interest in another is so wide and varied that it seems absurd, if not impossible, to claim that there is any nude that will not arouse sexual interest in someone, that there exists a nude which always will be viewed with aesthetic disinterest by some person. Furthermore, it seems to me to be impossible to represent or show a (recognisably) human body in a manner which does not also carry information about either the person represented, or about humanity generally. The representation may be poorly done, it may be emotionally and intellectually shallow, it may utilise stereotypes. but it always will convey meaning beyond itself, beyond whatever it is that actually is shown—it always will show an embodied person.
In Scruton’s thought the idea of the embodied person is an aesthetic ideal elevated to a moral principle which claims that only a specific type of representation of the subjectivity of an embodied person is “art”. What is left out of this type of idea, what is not considered at all, is the truth that sometimes people simply are sexual, that sometimes the seductive and the blatantly sexual are the full extent of the “erotic”, and that this therefore is the representation of the subjectivity of an embodied person. One’s subjectivity, this is to say, sometimes may be purely sexual, and on this basis alone “art”, even “great art”, also may be pornographic in the most obvious and simplistic senses.

Such a view runs counter to common opinion and to Scruton’s view which, as previously noted, places Boucher’s painting on the dividing line between the sexual and the aesthetic. In order to prove a point which is more moral than aesthetic, Scruton adds one further piece to his argument by contrasting the “tits and bums on page three of The Sun” with paintings of naked women. (Scruton 2009 , 161–162) Our thoughts and sexual feelings are not provoked by the women in the paintings because they are not “real, ready and available” in the manner that photographic models are. The distinction is that paintings provide “representations of fiction” whereas photographs provide “representations of reality,” and this apparently is the case even when we know that a painted nude is a portrait of a particular person, e.g., Boucher’s Odalisque, or Peter Lely’s painting of Charles II’s mistress (thought to be either Nell Gwynn or Barbara Villiers). In this instance, the model’s actual identity matters less than the certain knowledge that the woman represented existed—surely any contemporary of the model, knowing that it is a portrait, would be able to think of the model as “real, ready and available”? Irrespective of this, however, Scruton’s point is that we do not need to know anything about Boucher’s Odalisque or Lely’s portrait in order to appreciate their effect. The tits and bums an page three, however, are photographs of real people about whom we may have a fantasy of sexual contact, by which Scruton may mean a sexual fantasy designed to excite one’s own sexual response, or he may mean an erotic daydream—a fantasy of sexual contact without the element of actual physical sexual excitement.

Peter Lely, Venus and Cupid (Portrait of Nell Gwynn)

Peter Lely, Venus and Cupid (Portrait of Nell Gwynn)

Leaving aside the nature and importance of erotic daydreams for the moment, it is the case that I cannot and would not want to deny that there is a vast difference between a painting and a photograph of a naked body. Rather it needs to be noted that Scruton leaves out of consideration cultural and historic factors which seem to stand against his view. He fails to take into account, e.g., the explicit sexuality of much of ancient Greek and Roman art; nor has he taken into account the repressive Christian morality which has, over many centuries, placed restrictions on sexual behaviour and representations of the body. He also ignores that pre-photographic representations of sexual activity and the nude were intended to, and apparently did, provide sexual excitement and fantasy.

Perhaps more interestingly, Scruton did not mention male nudes which apparently (on the basis of being ignored,) hold no possibility of exciting sexual interest, feelings or excitement. Needless to say, such an idea is obvious nonsense: heterosexual women and homosexual men clearly can, and almost certainly do, entertain a sexual response to representations of naked men.

The obvious answer to these omissions is that they do not negate Scruton’s argument—because art does not excite sexual feelings, any representation which does so automatically fails to be art. But this claim can be made successfully only if the idea of sexual feeling is as clear cut as Scruton appears (in this text) to believe it is; he merely indicates that sexual feelings and interest lead us away from art, which brings us back to the central questions of What is art? What do representations of naked bodies mean?

Whatever else art is, it is at least two things. Firstly, and obviously, art and the concepts of art which we use to talk about art are cultural. Secondly, art is a means of embodying human meaning in visual, aural, tactile (etc.) forms.

Beyond these two things, however, we are faced with the historical (cultural) invention of a category, “art”, for which “aesthetic quality” is the only criteria which need be applied. As Dave Hickey (2009 , 99) notes, “this category (…) is not really a category of art but a categorical way of looking at art (…).

It is this “categorical way” of looking at “art” which I have been struggling with whilst remaining within the category. Scruton’s argument in this particular book has been aimed at defining the categories “art” and “pornography” in such a way that they mutually exclude each other. As such, his argument fails simply because his primary criterion, the “embodied subjectivity” on which his argument hinges, contains hidden moral criteria as to the acceptable form of embodiment. (I include “aesthetic distance” in respect of the nude as a moral criterion, it’s sole purpose, after all, being to render the nude morally acceptable by placing psychic distance between the viewer and the viewed in order to prevent “sexual response”. It has no aesthetic function beyond this that I can see.)

The point about art—painting, drawing photography, etc., is that the very process itself necessarily entails the embodiment of meaning and of subjectivity in the finished work. It merely is the case that it may not always be the type of subjectivity which Scruton believes to be appropriate. Boucher’s Odalisque, for example, may be sexual, arouse sexual feelings and lead us toward sexual fantasy in exactly the manner Scruton suggests, but it seems undeniable that the Odalisque shows (represents) the subjectivity of an embodied person, specifically the erotic daydream if a naked woman. (Whether it is before or after sex is irrelevant.) Perhaps this subjective state could have been more effectively painted (represented), but it cannot be denied that what is represented is the subjectivity of an embodied person who, in this instance, happens to have been an actual person.

If the painting was of two people engaged in a sex act, the same would apply—it would show (represent) the (sexual) subjectivity of two people. What should be at issue is not the moral description and nature of the subjectivity, but the quality of the representation: How effectively has the work been executed?

As for sexual feelings, fantasy and arousal, Freud made the following instructive comment about “perversion”:

In every healthy person a supplement that might be called perverse is present in the normal sexual goal, and this universality is sufficient in itself to suggest the pointlessness of using the term “perversion” in an accusatory sense. It is precisely in the area of sexual life that we encounter particular and currently insoluble difficulties if we wish to draw a sharp distinction between mere variation within the physiological range and pathological symptoms. (2006 , 136)

Scruton has not suggested that sexual response to an artwork is perverse, but he has morally joined the suggestion of perversion (vide inappropriate sexual response) to whether or not something is art. What brings Freud’s comment into play for me is the sheer diversity of experiences, sights, objects and situations which result in some form of sexual arousal and or thought. A “healthy” person might be thought perverse if they respond in some sexual form to an ankle (or they may merely be so deprived of the sight of an unclothed body that they respond to the slightest amount of usually hidden flesh). When we are talking about sexuality in the manner of Scruton, what happens is that we pretend that sexuality is a simple simple matter that is easily understood and used as a criterion. This, however, simply is not the case. It may be a hand, an ear or nose, a face, a particular shape, a particular type of landscape, the type of tree, the presence or absence of a stream which leads to the type of thoughts and feelings which Scruton feels mark the distinction between a naked body as art and a naked body as pornography.

What becomes important when we accept this—and some will not—are very general questions about the nature of erotic response.

It is to a consideration of this that I will now turn in my next post.

©B.J. Muirhead, 2015. All rights reserved

The images in this post have been sourced from wikimedia commons.

Cherland, M. (2008), ‘Harry’s girls: Harry potter and the discourse of gender’, Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 52(4), 273–282.
Freud, S. (2006), The Psychology of Love, Penguin Books. Translated by Shaun Whiteside; Introduction by Jeri Johnson.
Hickey, D. (2009), The Invisible Dragon, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.
Jullien, F. (2007), The Impossible Nude—Chinese Art and Western Aesthetics, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London. Trans. Maev de la Guardia.
Scruton, R. (2009), Beauty, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

The naked, the nude, the ordinary.

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

Thoughts on culture, morality and the nude

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.

The body and the mind

The obvious point of what I have written here so far is that everything goes back to the body, and to the senses. We experience ‘the world’ through our senses, and out of our sensuous experience of the world we create explicit knowledge and thought processes on the basis of our tacit knowledge—the experiences themselves, which necessarily remain bodily (sensuous).

The more we think explicitly, and the more importance we attach to explicit thought and its products, the more we ignore and/or fail to take into account bodily (tacit) knowledge and the body itself. This is a process of almost wilful ignorance that has been going on for as long as humans have been thinking about ourselves. It is, perhaps, also one reason reason why visual art has been held in high esteem throughout human history—visual art, irrespective of any specific uses at any particular time, always has focused on the senses and the body, thus bringing us back to ourselves, back to physical realities. But there is much visual art, our ‘high’ art in particular, which no longer performs this function, and which leaves the ordinary viewer entirely nonplussed, and this may well be one of the unspoken forces behind the ever growing popularity of photography as an artistic medium: photography keeps us in contact with the senses, with a bodily awareness of our physicality within the world. This ‘keeping in touch with the world’ is particularly important when we remember that the majority of our ‘perceptual knowledge’ (tacit knowledge) arises from movement of our own body and through interactions with moving (and stationary!) objects. Moreover, the first thing of which we make sense is our own bodies, and we do this without the use of words or explicit thought processes.

This type of bodily, perceptual (tacit) ‘sense-making’ is the standard by which our sense-making of the world unfolds. (See Mark Johnson, The Meaning of the Body, Chapter 1)

To say this, however, is to tell half the story at best, for it still does not tell us anything about what the body may mean.

The idea that the body may mean something beyond its immediate functions and existence seems to be an odd notion, especially when the body clearly has meaning in various obvious senses. It clearly is the case, e.g., that a naked body often is taken to mean sexual availability or desire, or it may be taken to be a symbol of sexual oppression (either positive or negative, depending on the society in question). Meanings such as these, however, are not universal; as we all know, the ‘sexual meaning’ of the naked body, and of the nude in art, vary from context to context, place to place and time to time. What matters here is whether or not we take meaning to refer to ‘things known or conceptualised, or whether we take it to refer to the fullness of our experience, logically prior to our useful abstractions from it. The question I am asking refers not to our explicit abstractions, but to the fullness of our experience.

It may be that this is not a coherent question, in that the type of meaning commonly sought in answer to this type of question is some explicit and abstract statement of meaning within some cultural or social context. The notion that the naked body always in sexual and always carries a sexual meaning is just such an interpretation of the body and one of its functions. As an interpretation it relies, for the most part, on explicitly formulated moral beliefs which do not take into account the possibility of a non-sexual nudity, which tends to be ruled out as being impossible, irrespective of evidence to the contrary. Such meaning is an interpretation of the body separate to what may or may not inhere in the body in all cultures and at all times.

This type of search for universality is very difficult, perhaps impossible, of only because it does not seem possible to step outside of our own culture. None the less…

Driving Force

Driving Force

The bluntest and possibly most poetic statement of the type of position I am edging toward belongs to Nietzsche, and comes from the speech On the despisers of the body in Also Sprach Zarathustra. In this speech Nietzsche has Zarathustra proclaim that the ‘awakened and knowing’ say I am body alone and that Soul merely is a word for something about the body. Moreover, within each of us is a ‘ruler’ or ‘unknown sage’ who, in fact, is your body, and that it is the body which created spirit as an instrument and plaything.

The appeal that this particular Nietzscheanism has for me should be obvious. Rather than placing the mind (the spirit) in the central position, Nietzsche declared it to be the creation of the body or, at best, an aspect of the body.

Without wanting to debate points of Nietzschean scholarship, it can be seen that the rôle the senses and experience play in creating perceptual/tacit knowledge, and our subsequent rendering of as much of this as possible into explicit form, reflects the Nietzschean idea that the mind (the soul, etc.) arises from the body to become what it is, rather than being a superior aspect somehow imposing on the body from ‘above.’

What fascinates me about this is the implication that the body is the self in some deep manner, and that the mind is an extrusion, so to speak, of the bodily self.

The closest contemporary approach to the Nietzschean position are theories of the ‘embodied mind’, which revolve around the idea that cognition and cognitive states (loosely: thought and the mind) exist, in part or in whole, within or as an aspect of the bio-mechanisms of the human body. Cognition and cognitive states, this is to say, are regarded as being grounded in our body and/or sensuous experience, situations, (mental) simulation, and so on.

Thought and mind have been regarded as grounded in some manner throughout most of recorded history (see Barselou 2008), but this changed with the Cartesian assumption that thinking is not required for sensing and acting in the world. This assumption is possible only if we identify ‘thinking’ with ‘higher order reasoning and abstraction of the type displayed in language use, i.e., explicit thought. It was the belief that humans are the only animals possessing thought which enabled the conclusion that thought was separate from the senses; if this was not the case, then cats and dogs and horses and earthworms would need to be regarded as possessing the ‘human characteristic’ of thought. For Descartes, however, it was clear and obvious that nonhuman animals do not possess the ability to think, ergo thought cannot be an aspect of sensing and acting in the world. (The famous Cartesian split between mind and body.)

This Cartesian distinction between (i) sensing and acting within the world, and (ii) thought, marks the boundary between the tacit, sensory, experiential dimension (of thought), and the amodal, symbol manipulation of (explicit) thought (cognitivist theories). However, as I’ve pointed out previously, there is no sharp either-or-but-not-both boundary. The two types of thought are clearly linked to each other, and amodal, abstract, symbol manipulating thought seems to ‘grow out of’ sensory, experientially based tacit thought. 1

Of course the idea that sensory perception (the mere use of the senses) may be a type of (tacit) thought is not an idea which sits easily in contemporary consciousness. A goodly part of the difficulty here is that we are not accustomed to thinking of the senses in this way. Rather, we tend to gloss over our senses with the idea of experience—experience is something we have of the world, and our senses merely are the conduit for knowledge (albeit tacit) of the world, which we then experience ‘within ourselves.’ The gloss of ‘experience’ disguises and hides from us the possibility that our senses are a part of us and never can be, as far as we know, in any other relationship to our body.

I don’t want to get rid of or dismantle this gloss (it is too useful), but I do want us to be aware that it is a gloss in the sense that we do not (cognitively) reflect on an experience, say, of touching a lover’s skin. The initial touch, and our initial reflections (thoughts) are sensory. This is to say that the initial cognitive response is sensory in and of itself. That we immediately translate, or are able to translate, this sensory (and necessarily tacit) cognitive response (evaluation, pleasure, thought, etc,) into explicit thought processes which may be stated or written down does not stand against this; it merely obfuscates our awareness of the situation that oour senses engage in thought processes.

The types of thought processes (cognitive operations) involved in (engaged in by) the senses are: analysis and synthesis, the grasping of essentials, comparison, completion, correction, problem solving, combining, separating, contextualising. As Rudolf Arnheim put it, these processes are ‘the essential ingredients of perception itself.’ (p.13) As such, perception qualifies, in some sense at least, as thought (cognitive processes and/or states).

One of the most important aspects of this for me is the strong implication that the human mind and body are inseparable in any coherent sense, hence John Dewey’s term body-mind. Perhaps more important, however, is the suggestion that we may see more deeply into a person when we look at their body and/or face than we ordinarily believe. Furthermore, and just as important, is the suggestion that experience is something we undergo, as I have read in many philosophic and psychological texts. Rather, it suggests that experience is an ongoing tacit cognitive process, and that what we explicitly conclude via reflection on our experience, is in large part merely a translation into explicit statements of the conclusions we have arrived at perceptually with the senses. (This has been termed ‘perceptual thought.’)

Having said this, it is particularly important to state that these suggestions do not deny the importance of learning, culture and ongoing experience. Nor should they be taken to imply that cognition somehow arises, sui generis, in each of us as we grow and perceive the world. Rather, it is important to remember that


Perception is not determined simply by the stimulus patterns; rather it is a dynamic searching for the best interpretations of the available data. The data is sensory information, and also knowledge of the other characteristics of objects. (R.L. Gregory )


To the extent that this is the case, we none the less cannot be sure to what extent the interpretation of perceptual data is necessary at the beginning of life, or as life continues.

How much does a baby need to learn in order to recognise another human? Or are we ‘hard wired’ to recognise particular types of shapes? And so on…

Questions such as this are and have been the subject of ongoing thought and research. For my purposes, however, the obviousness of mind and thought as grounded in the senses, coupled with the obviousness of various thought processes occurring as an aspect of sensory perception is sufficient. Neither of these prove or in any way show that our bodily existence and the senses are all that make up mind and thought. Indeed, this is the old debate between empiricist and non-empiricist approaches, i.e., the old debate between those who believe that all ideas and thought processes arise from the senses, and those who believe that there are many a priori ideas with which we are born and which are used to guide the senses and understand sensory information.

This is a debate which I am happy to leave to others at this stage. What is important to me is not that one or the other view of mind is absolutely, one hundred percent correct; what is important is the undeniable nature of the rôle of the senses in providing (tacit) knowledge and their cognitive nature. The point, in other words, is to stand against the separation of mind and thought from the body, but without thereby claiming that thought and mind are solely an outgrowth of the senses and body.2

in thought i spied her

in thought i spied her

The point of everything I have written here about experience, tacit and explicit knowledge, thought and mind, has been to show that a nude, especially a photographic nude, provides much more than a mere erotic thrill. It can and does provide real but tacit knowledge which grounds our conception and awareness of ourselves. Indeed, all photographs, and most likely all art, does this.

Needless to say, a summary and clarification of this, and its importance in respect of the nude in art, is my next task. Part one of my work will then be complete, but for revisions, additions, and perhaps a change of mind here and there….

1Whether or not this is the case is irrelevant for my purposes; my subject continues to be the nude, and in this context it is enough to note the distinction.

2What I mean is: it may well be the case that some, or even all, thought is a process of manipulation of amodal symbols, but it may also be the case that many of the amodal symbols are manipulated derive from modal sensory perception. This would not alter my main point, it merely would add another layer to the process. In any event, modality should not be taken to stand against amodality, nor vice versa.

The qualities of beauty

Of the many difficulties associated with talking about beauty, perhaps the most basic is that ‘beauty’ always is a generic concept which can be and is applied to a wide range of objects, phenomena and situations. That beauty is a generic term in this way implies that there is some common element shared by all ‘beautiful’ things—chairs, landscapes, trees, animals, people, cars, and anything else we can think of.

This seems to be an inherently confused and confusing notion, but it is one which is based on common human experience, and which has had currency for a very long time. Take, e.g., A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful (1756/1757) by Edmund Burke. In this essay Burke attempts to define beauty (and the sublime) in terms of the qualities shared by all beautiful objects, and he was, I think, startlingly successful in his project. He ultimately failed, however, especially in contemporary terms, because of what he was looking for. In Part III, Section XII, he says:

Beauty is a thing too much affecting not to depend upon some positive qualities. And, since it is not a creature of our reason, since it strikes us without any reference to its use, and even where no use at all can be discerned, since the order and method of nature is generally very different from our measures and proportions, we must conclude that beauty is, for the greater part, some quality in bodies, acting mechanically on the human mind by the intervention of the senses.

In saying this Burke is maintaining an ‘objective’ notion of beauty, which is thought to exist as a part of—a property—of the beautiful object. Hence he proposes (ibid.) that we need to consider ‘in what manner those sensible qualities are disposed, in such things as by experience we find beautiful[.]’ Burke’s conclusion (Part III, Section XVIII) is that those qualities which act upon us  to create beauty via the intervention of the senses are:

  •  To be comparatively small.
  •  To be smooth.
  • To have a variety of direction in the parts.
  • That the parts are not angular, but are ‘melted […] into each other’.
  • To be delicate, without any remarkable appearance of strength.
  • To have clear and bright colours, but not strong and glaring colours.
  • Any glaring colour is to be ‘diversified with others’.

As much as we may like to dismiss ideas and arguments of the type offered by Burke, they are not so easily dismissed as we may wish, even if the reason for this is no more than cultural. The simplistic reason is that we do, e.g., tend to think of small, elegant and smooth objects as beautiful, and these are qualities of an object which we can identify as belonging to the object, furthermore, these qualities  apparently are quite separate to our perception (experience) of the object.

It may, of course, be the case that the qualities of a specific object which arouse exclamations of beauty from one person, fail to affect the another person. That this is so is not an argument against beauty or against the notion of a beautiful object (phenomena, situation, person, etc.) but highlights the one truly common factor shared by all beautiful objects—the experience of beauty by a human being or group of human beings.

I want to say, and I think it is self-evidently true, that is is the experience which counts more than the qualities of the object. To me this seems obvious, just because not everyone experiences the same objects are beautiful. The difficulty with this approach, however, is that it appears to take ‘beauty’ away from the object and its qualities, and to make it an almost entirely subjective matter that may be written off as merely, and perhaps shallowly, psychological, even if we can appropriately and adequately identify the objective qualities which lead us to the experience of beauty.

The point, of course, is that specific objects appear to us to be beautiful in and of themselves. Moreover, beauty can and often does affect us profoundly, and beautiful objects and people have high stature and value in human society and life. But not every experience of beauty transports us into the nether realms of (aesthetic) joy (a peak experience in Abraham Maslow’s terms); we are, this is to say, not always transfixed by a beautiful object. Sometimes what we experience is little more than a passing pleasure and the willingness to experience it again by revisiting that object (phenomena, situation, etc). Sometimes, the beauty of an object fades in our experience, and sometimes it intensifies until we experience something profound and deep.

The one obvious common element in all possible variations of the experience of beauty is the experience itself, specifically, our own experience of beauty, but this does not seem to be an answer to the many questions we have about beauty. As common (pop) psychological belief has it: we all experience the world in our own way, according to our own preferences, past experiences, psychological outlook (Weltanschaung), the (sub-) cultural groups we ‘belong to’, and so on. All too often, pronouncements of this variety, at different levels of intellectual skill and depth, are thought to e enough, simply because it boils down to what appear to be irredeemably personal issues and concerns. Therefore, beauty must merely be a matter of psychological affect which tells us little or nothing about the world, but which can and does tells us about individual and group psychology.

What this means is that we seem to be caught between the error of believing that beauty is some type of objective quality of objects, and the view that it is little more than a motivating factor within our personal (and cultural) psychology, with the senses as some sort of intermediary between the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ worlds. Neither of these views seem satisfactory, although Burke’s old-fashioned view (that what is beautiful about any particular object is its qualities) seems to me to have a lot going for it, and in fact to incorporate both views: whenever anyone is questioned about why they think something is beautiful, they refer to the qualities of the object and what those qualities mean to them.

The idea that beauty ‘means’ something over and above any pleasure we may experience on looking at a beautiful object is what carries us into the realms of philosophy (it needs to be noted, by the way,that  many now look to the neurosciences as the best area for their philosophising), and is an idea which we cannot shake off easily. It also leads to making judgments about the worth of beauty, of beautiful objects, in ways which often don’t seem to make sense in terms of the nature of the object itself, but which refer to the qualities of the object. It seems that, as human beings, we cannot escape the feeling that the beautiful object (phenomena, situation, person, etc.) has certain apparently inherent qualities which we perceive (experience) as possessing the extra quality of beauty. Traditionally, especially in the writings of pre-modern artists and theorists, this extra quality has been taken to be the relationship between the various properties (qualities) of the beautiful object. Initially, such an observation opens the door to (at least) two issues:

  1. Because beauty is thought to be related to (experienced because of) the relationship(s) of various qualities, the ‘beauty’ is thought to be another, supervening or emergent quality of the object. On this type of view, the supervening or emergent property of beauty continues to be thought of, in most cases, as belonging to the object rather than to our perception, although the latter argument also is frequently made.
  2. It also provides a justification and argument for formalism in art, where this refers to formal compositional elements of an artwork—an idea which has been substantially rejected by many academic theorists and ‘high’ artists of the modern and postmodern world.

That there is no easily (objectively) discernible extra quality ‘beauty’ inhering in ‘beautiful’ objects, apart from our experience, suggests that beauty in fact is only the manner in which we experience some parts or aspects of the world. It is, as Mary Mothersill might say, the apprehension itself (apprehensio ipsa) which constitutes beauty. It must, therefore, be the case that we isolate various qualities from our apprehension (experience) and declare these as the qualities or properties which create or constitute beauty as something external to our experience.



I have taken the long way around in this skirmish with beauty, to arrive at the point which most people already are willing to admit: beauty is personal, subjective, but of course it is filtered through culture and personal experience. I have taken this path in order to highlight one very important point. The idea of experience is used as a gloss which covers the most important area of the whole , viz., the senses.

For Burke, the senses are a mere intermediary between the ‘beautiful’ object and the mind, and theories such as Mothersill’s barely bother with the senses at all because the apprehension is somehow thought (assumed) to occur within the mind, which is thought to be, or at least treated as though it is some abstract, amodal entelechy in respect of which, yet again, the senses are mere intermediaries, thus leaving the experience of beauty as something which occurs entirely ‘in the head (mind)’.

It is not that anyone (whom I have read) actively denies that the senses have a rôle in (the experience of) beauty; it’s that by and large they do not question the senses at all. Nor is it that (aesthetic) experience is denied or ignored; rather it’s that the primary attempt is to clarify how the experience of beauty (aesthetic experience) differs from other experience.

As I’ve already said, experience provides us with a particular type of knowledge, some of which remains tacit, whilst other parts of it can be made explicit; and so we build our theories, culture, and so on. Clearly, however, experience itself is not possible without the senses. Just as clearly, it seems absurd to suppose that the senses are intermediary between ‘the world’ and ‘experience’. The challenge for any understanding of beauty, therefore, is in understanding just what it means to say that beauty is the child of the senses. To the extent that this is the case, beauty is personal in a more profound sense than mere ‘like’ or dislike’, and it behoves me, therefore, to say something a little more personal about beauty, my experience of it, and how it has influenced me, before going on to talk about the senses.



My sense of beauty, the contexts and ways in which I experience beauty, along with my art, have all been influenced in deeply personal way, by World War II. Other influences have been Maldoror, Rilke, Hans Bellmer, Masson, (the list could go on and on), but the most important visual influence by far, was photographic: shots of bodies partially burnt in concentration camp ovens, bodies piled high in the gas chambers and stacked like wood in the mud and horror, and many more.

Of course, I am far too young to have been involved in the war, but my father was, and apart from collecting books and magazines about the war, he talked about what he saw and did, so that the war was an ongoing, almost tangible presence in my childhood.

I would not, could not, and cannot accept that people do such things to each other and that, in smaller ways, such things happen around me all the time.. In many ways my early painted and drawn work was a retreat into abstraction and shapes which seemed to have no relation to the world per se. I can reasonably say that these hard edged yet glutinous abstractions drove many people ‘up the wall’ because of their seeming lack of relation to anything but themselves. At the same time, I spent years copying the drawings of Bruegel, Pisano, da Vinci, Botticelli, and more. But the first photograph i copied was a photograph of a burning corpse in a gas oven. I say I copied it, but it was more a scream in bright yellow and black that erupted out of me at age eleven.

What this has to do with beauty is that it was one of the many grotesque images which infected by childhood and teen years and completely ripped apart any notions of the goodness and trustworthiness of humanity. Furthermore, it rendered me incapable of dealing effectively with the world: I knew that anyone could transmogrify into a monster, attack and destroy without reason. (I feared everyone, totally and with reason.)

The point of this is just that it is a personal, psychological aspect of beauty. Where others see the horrors of war, the world and human behaviour generally as a reason to reject beauty as a shallow and misleading ideal, which in any event is socially constructed, I saw beauty then and now as a precious, albeit transient, pleasure: something which could lead away from horror and provide a release from burdened life. Whilst I found and find beauty in many different objects and phenomena, for me it crystallised into the nude, both male and female, in art.

So much for the personal psychology, of which I could say no more, but which merely is a backdrop for my experience of beauty.

At various times when I’ve perceived beauty (seen a beautiful object, person, phenomenon, listed to Mahler or Bach, or…) I have undergone ‘peak’ experiences. At other times it has been a mere visual fascination with shape, colour, line, texture―the formal elements.

My response to these experiences was to assume that there was something valuable going on, something more than mere distraction from the unpleasantness of life, more than a meaningless gloss. Needless to say, as a teenager, I had no idea what this ‘something’ could be, though I explored many options, religious, philosophic, sociological, mystical. At the time, however, the most fruitful avenue of exploration was art―I not only copied past masters, as already mentioned, ; I also spent hours each day in the garden drawing flowers. This drawing and painting activity wasn’t particularly fruitful intellectually, but it brought me closer to much of the good that exists.

I suspect what lies behind the rejection of beauty by artists and theorists over the past hundred years is the realisation of the death of God: Whilst God was alive in human hearts, lives and society, there was cause enough to believe that all the ugliness (evil) within the world had some purpose and justification, and art could be seen as a part of this, especially when created for ‘the glory of God’. (Please, don’t nitpick―obviously there have been times and places in which this is not the case. I am, however, talking about Europe at a particular time.) Without God, however, art became, in Nietzsche’s words, nothing but beautiful lies used for survival in a nihilistic world. As a necessary falsehood Nietzsche none the less held art in high esteem, for he also believed that there was more truth in art than in any other form of human knowledge.

There always has been, of course, a search for some type of ‘ultimate truth’ or ‘reality’ which stands behind and above our knowledge of the world via the senses, which we know frequently mislead us. What we see, simply isn’t what is there, by virtue of the way in which our eyes work (see RL Gregory for the classic statement of this), similarly, what we hear isn’t the sound that is there, and so on. Yet, despite this, our senses work for us, we survive and act in the environment quite easily and effectively, and this alone lends credibility to Nietzsche’s assertion that

The senses do not lie at all. What we make of their testimony, that alone introduces lies; for example, the lie of unity, the lie of thinghood, of substance, of permanence. ‘Reason’ is the cause of our falsification of the testimony of the senses. In so far as the senses show becoming, passing away, and change, they do not lie. (Twilight of the idols, Reason in Philosophy, 2)

Nietzsche’s argument is not so much against reason as it is against the idea that reason (explicit thought and knowledge) reigns supreme, over and above everything else; rather reason is to be seen as the tool by which we interpret the evidence of the senses, and we have used this tool badly.

I said earlier that beauty is the child of the senses, but so also is every other example of ‘cognitive content’. As Rudolf Arnheim reminds us: ‘nothing is in the intellect which was not previously in the senses.’ This is, perhaps, more obvious in respect of beauty as an experience than it is of other experiences, thoughts, knowledge. None the less, it ultimately is the case that the qualities of beauty exist only as an aspect of the senses, only as an aspect of our experience, which may be shared with others, or may not be so shared.

In any event, it is important to note that the experience of beauty (of the senses generally) is an experience like any other―it has a tacit aspect which we simply cannot talk about, and an explicit aspect, which we can and do talk about endlessly. The absolute core of (the experience of) beauty, however, necessarily remains inexpressible. All the rest is interpretation, ‘reason’―an inevitable falsification of the experience and a diversion from the senses themselves.

false springThis particular post has been extremely difficult: there has been much which I wanted to say, much which I have left out which may well aid my argument. I fear that in an effort to keep it at a reasonable size (which I have not achieved) I have written badly. My apologies for this.

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