Nude Art and Mormonism

I’d like to quote a post from my education blog. The full post can be found here.

I was in the HFAC (at BYU) the other day admiring an exhibit on drawing. At one point, I came across one of those labels that tells you about the art work. It was describing how a knowledge of anatomy contributes to drawing the human figure, stating something to this effect: knowing what is under skin helps you to understand what you see on the skin. In other words, having a knowledge of what is underneath the surface of what you are trying to draw enables you to express that knowledge when you draw what is on the surface. Good artists, then, draw more than what’s on the surface (i.e., what they see). But how deep does “more” go?

As a consequence of my interest in the arts, I have encountered several nude pieces. I have always been struck by the beauty of nude art. Initially, I was embarrassed by how moved I was by nude art. After all, I wondered, is there really a difference between nude art and pornography? I believed (and now, believe even more) that there is a difference. In fact, I believe that difference is strong enough that, where pornography teaches our children disrespect for the human body and sexuality, nude art can teach our children respect for the body and for sexuality. But pinning down that difference is not an easy thing.

As I perused that exhibit on drawing yesterday, however, I thought I came a little closer to understanding. There were no nudes in the exhibit itself, but there were several pieces of men and women in different types of clothing and drapery. The artist makes a similar point concerning these pieces as he does with anatomy: if you can understand what’s going on under the drapery, you can understand better how to draw the drapery. A good artist always draws (or paints, or sculpts, or…) more than what he or she sees.

Consider what the “pornographer” sees and then what the “artist” sees. Could it be the artist sees something different when he or she is creating? I think so, and I think that that difference is conveyed in their art (which might explain why some nudes can seem raunchy to some, while other nudes can seem so beautiful to those same people). But what is that difference? I wouldn’t say it’s just anatomy, but the anatomy example from above reminds me that deeper than anatomy, there is “inside” of us truth and light. And to the artist that can see that truth and light and then can paint or sculpt or draw that truth and light can then convey that truth and light to the viewer. The piece of art that does so has the potential to move within us our truth and light, or to say it differently, to move us toward the Truth.

My interest in art has left me wondering what place nude art has in the Mormon community. While some prudishness exists among Mormons when it comes to works of art and literature, I think for the most part, Mormon culture embraces the arts. But what about nude art? I am beginning to believe some of what I said above. I don’t think that nude art is always 100% “appropriate” (whatever that means); obviously its use should be contextual. Part of that context will include the maturity (I won’t say age) of the viewer, which I believe is required before one can look upon a piece and read the artist’s motives.

But I’m beginning to wonder if a true appreciation of the light and truth that nude art can offer us might teach us in more ways than one. In fact, I’m beginning to believe that an appreciation of nude art can lead us to begin to appreciate the sanctity of the human body as we see how the human body has been treated by others who respect it. And, God-willing, we might even be able to teach our children about sexuality in a an appropriate manner. But I’ll let the conversation go from there.

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22 Responses

  1. I don’t know too many LDS adults that would have any major objections to classical (old) nude art, though I would expect most LDS adults would be uncomfortable with the idea of creating new nude art.

    I also think medium will play an important role in how people feel about it. I think LDS adults would be more accepting of nudes in paintings/drawings/sculptures than they would be of nudes in photographs or vidoes.

  2. Nice post, Joe.

    I think the LDS community certainly needs to do better when it comes to appreciation of nude art. I perfectly agree that not everything that is called “art” passes the non-pornography test (for me, anyway). But to say that something is pornographic simply because it is nude is a problem.

    Several years ago, BYU did a very embarrassing thing, which made international news and sparked considerable student protesting (at least for BYU). The Museum of Art excluded four nude Rodin pieces from a traveling Rodin exhibit: The Kiss, “Monument to Balzac,” “Saint John the Baptist Preaching,” and “The Prodigal Son.” The university cited “lack of dignity, not nudity.” There were, however, other nude pieces left in the exhibit. But the reasoning really was shady — why not simply accept the whole exhibit? Apparently one reason “The Kiss” was removed was because the administration felt that “nude males and females who are engaged in lovemaking represent a sacred and private kind of expression, that we do hallow in ways that I think the world at large doesn’t see.” The John the Baptist was removed because “in our reverence for prophets, the fact that we have a living prophet, makes it difficult for us to depict prophets naked” (apparently, prophets are never wrong, nor are they ever naked! because naked is bad).

    One interesting commentary on the whole scenario: All of the pieces in which there was male nudity were pulled, but none of the pieces with female nudity (excepting “The Kiss,” which also had male nudity) were retained.

    What the administration should have done: Accept the entire exhibit, and put pieces they found to be questionable in a separate room with a caution sign. That way, people are allowed to choose for themselves. This reasoning is so sensible that it completely miffed a whole lot of people when these respectable works of art were not allowed.

  3. I enjoyed this article.

    Regarding Rodin:

    Having attended the Rodin exhibit during the controversy, I agree with the administration’s decision to pull a few pieces.

    What few of the articles at the time mentioned, and what nobody mentions in retrospect, is the contextual focus of the exhibit. It was entitled, “The Hands of Rodin,” and one was supposed to look especially at the hands of each piece. While “The Kiss” is a beautiful piece, within that context it would have been inappropriate because of the focus the theme of the exhibit would have imposed, not because of some inherent attribute.

    At the time, silly students were so anxious to flog themselves into a fury of artistic indignation that they missed the nuance. And now it has entered into the canon of “intellectual” Mormon folklore as a proof text for criticizing BYU and the brethren.

  4. I agree with you all, but I see reason to be cautious when we talk about ways LDS culture might appreciate nude art. I’ve received a couple very thoughtless papers that defended nude Renaissance art as entirely religiously and morally good and as reflecting LDS beliefs about the body (without interrogating the matter further). We should be careful not to slip into this extreme (which is bound to be false– nudes are much more ambiguous than this).

    There was an important change in nudes in modern painting. Generally, traditional nudes could be called identity-less idealizations. But later (in the works of Courbet, for example) painters began to deliberately paint their subjects as individuals who gaze at their audience more confrontationally (and often more erotically). This was a morally dangerous change (people who saw the paintings, for example, often recognized well-known prostitutes, etc. who modeled for them). In art today, there are virtually no boundaries on the kinds of nudes people are creating. I still have some freaky images in my head from an exhibit in the Seattle art museum I wish I had never seen.

    I agree that the depth of meaning and moral qualities we might perceive in nude art will vary incredibly, but when it comes down to it, I just do know how much good it will ever do us. Personally, I’ve had days after seeing a bunch of nude art in class I thought wouldn’t bother me at all only to realize it did have a negative impact on my day and I looked away next time. Humanities teachers will tell you they have many students who ask about the curriculum because they want to avoid things they can’t handle very well. I agree that adults should not usually worry too much about being exposed to such things, but for a lot of people, its frankly better to deliberately avoid images, etc. that bother and distract them. In my mind, it’s not something to label as prudish but wise.

    On the other hand, it’s true that a great sculptor or painter (at least ones portraying the body naturalistically) does need to understand anatomy. But we don’t need nudes to create great, beautiful and truthful art. The pieces I find most meaningful and beautiful don’t involve it– I just don’t think it adds anything.

  5. J. Max Wilson:

    That is an interesting point concerning the whole “hands” issue. However, it seems to me that a big reason that this point was not really brought up is because the BYU Administration did not bring it up. If this really was the issue with the exclusion, then wouldn’t they have said this?

    The reality is that no university art museum would exclude pieces of such a famous sculpture like Rodin based on a technical misfit. In fact, art exhibits often include pieces that are not directly related to the main theme.

    So while your point is a valid one, I have a hard time believing that it had anything to do with the exclusion.

    I do think that there were certainly “silly students” who just wanted to be artsy and intellectual, but certainly there were others who were sincerely concerned with what such an exclusion means. Frankly, we need more (respectful) protest (and other political involvement) at BYU; it is a shame that whenever students protest it is seen as deviant.

    Regarding this issue being the perfect intellectual criticism of the brethren, I don’t see why we need to bring “the Brethren” into this. BYU is not being micromanaged by General Authorities anymore than Deseret Book is — and there is plenty of room for criticism of both organizations in a way that hardly can be called criticizing “the Brethren.” Yes, a member of the Seventy, President Bateman, was involved here, but he is only one individual — I suspect that a lot of the decisions that go on at BYU have to do with wealthy donors.

  6. So my question is, what about nude photography? Nudity in film? Several years back, right after my wife and I were married, we saw a film that had significant amounts of nudity in it. I concluded that the film what by and large pornographic despite its artistic achievement. The thing that shocks, however, is that the parts of the movie with nudity were by far the least pornographic. The nudity was repulsive and non erotic in its nudity, but gratuitous in its eroticism with clothed individuals. I won’t mention which film because its unimportant. The big thing is that there was vast rift between the nudity and the pornography.

    Also, how do we feel about letting someone be nude for posing or photographing or filming, when I know I would (for obvious religious reasons) never let myself or my children do that.

  7. Dennis,

    I am not able to provide examples at the moment, but I remember the administration (Elder Bateman himself I think) providing the “hands” context explanation while I was there.

  8. Oh, and I never said it was considered a perfect criticism, only that it had entered the critics litany of regurgitated folklore.

  9. Wilson,

    I am not able to provide examples at the moment, but I remember the administration (Elder Bateman himself I think) providing the “hands” context explanation while I was there.

    Even so, there were many other explanations that were given by the Administration. Perhaps this was a necessary explanation, but not a sufficient one. It does not sufficiently explain the exclusion.

    Moreover, that type of explanation smells fishy to me, and I fully admit that I could be wrong. But I get the sense that the “hands” context explanation was simply something that was seen AFTER THE FACT to try to quell student concerns. It’s like me rationalizing a good reason why it’s OK that I didn’t pray this morning, when the reason had nothing to do with why I didn’t. It’s simply a convenient excuse, however plausibly it COULD be construed as the reason.

    Whatever the case, the Administration admitted that it did not handle things with the proper tact and clarity in these matters. The whole thing smells fishy to me.

  10. The term “nude art” feels strange to me. Is “nude” a genre? If the main point of the art is that the figure is nude then I suspect it is already approaching pornography (or at the very least superficiality).

  11. trevorbanks: interesting question. i’ve never been able to reconcile the fact that i show my respect for my body through modesty, but can learn respect and love for the human form through the nude depictions of others. am i a hypocrite for appreciating and even encouraging the appropriate (“whatever that means”) use of the nude human body in art, when i probably wouldn’t choose to take part in the creation of such art?

    and would it be wrong if i did? if i were an artist, would it be immoral for me to sketch nude models? if i were a model, would it be immoral to allow an artist to represent my body in that way? i certainly wouldn’t be comfortable with it (i’m shy) but would it be a sin?

    i have lots of questions and not enough answers, i think.

    along those lines, has anyone read “my name is asher lev?”

    brady: i’m with you. i don’t think “nude art” is or should be a genre. leonardo’s “vitruvian man” is undoubtedly nude, but is classified as renaissance art along with paintings of clothed subjects like his “mona lisa” and “last supper.” if it’s not pornographic (which, despite joe’s great article, is still hard to define) there’s not much point in defining it by the nudity of the figures represented.

  12. Candice,
    I don’t think that “nude art” is the only way to teach our children about the sanctity of the body, but wouldn’t you say that it has potential to be one of the most effective? If so, that seems a lot to add.

  13. I would be open to parents interested in using art they find appropriate to help their kids learn about the sanctity.

    Also imagine if in fourth grade, when they divided the kids up for “learning about your body” or whatever, the teachers decided to incorporate famous artworks. That would be interesting. Would it help the lesson feel less degrading, more academic, and less intimidating to the students? Probably in some ways.

    I guess you could see art as serving the purpose of revamping/recentering the way we teach about the body, which today for most kids happens in public school using anatomical, hand drawn diagrams and a medical/scientific approach which makes might only make a lot of them more uncomfortable than other approaches might. So why not take a slightly more humanities-centered approach even in school? (They could even talk about portrayal/philosophies surrounding the body throughout time).

  14. Nude art, tastefully done, is healthy and necessary in my opinion. It’s natural for kids to be curious about the human body, especially the opposite sex. Age-appropriate nude art can be a good teaching tool because how else are they supposed to learn what a mature body looks like? They shouldn’t have to wait until their wedding night to find out. If it weren’t for art, such as drawings and sculptures (and perhaps even tasteful photography), then the only options left would be porn, which is easily accesible to most kids these days.

    I guess the only “problem” is that kids might believe that every man looks like Michelangelo’s “David” under his clothes.

  15. I am baffled by the Mormon cultural fear of nakedness in art, but it is deeply entrenched. Mormons are afraid of the naked body even in the most tasteful works of the most talented artists. God created the human body, did he really want it to be a source of shame and fear?

    The BYU Rodin exhibit is an absurd example of the kind of backpedaling that church leaders (or in this case, BYU administrators) create when faced with public embarrassment. How could they possibly, with a straight face, claim that they wanted to do a “hands” exhibit with Rodin’s greatest works? I believe that the problem is that church leaders can’t tolerate the though that people would see penises. Apparently a woman’s breasts are the only “tasteful” body parts that can be uncovered. (And I respectfully disagree that general authorities don’t micromanage at BYU — of course they’re not involved in day to day decisions, but BYU administrators know what the limits are and would not risk offending the GAs).

    Ironically, several years before Rodin, I remember seeing a display of pencil sketches by J T Harwood, mostly nudes, in the HFAC. They were from his years studying in Paris (early 20th century) and were masterfully done. And, yes, they included male nudes, front and back. Somehow they escaped the censors, and should have been required viewing for art students for their respectful but beautiful portrayals of the human figure.

    As for the modesty issue in our Utah culture, well, there are many cultures around the world where public nudity in specific settings (saunas, public baths) is not only acceptable but seen as a positive part of social interactions. It has nothing to do with sexuality. I’ve been amused by the men in Utah who can change and shower in a public setting (rec centers) and keep their bodies draped the entire time, their eyes averted in case they should inadvertently see another man’s uncovered body. That’s not modesty, it’s obsession with body-fears.

    Unfortunately, as was pointed out, too much current art uses nudity as an offensive way to make different artistic “statements,” often blurring porn and art. But there must be a reasonable acceptance of artworks including uncovered human figures. Why wouldn’t we want to celebrate the beauty of the human form?

  16. Probably some of the old Potter Stewart reasoning went on with the Rodin exhibit: “I can’t define obscenity for you, but I know it when I see it.” You can’t really offer reasons that stand up under scrutiny for such things. But I digress.

    We’ll be making progress when a baby can get a good old-fashioned meal from her mother’s breast in public. Until then, all the complaints about nudity in modern times is just frippery that we use to allow some to impose unhealthy Puritanism on the rest of us.

  17. I found your statement so true. I wrestled with the same questions. And I too came to the same conclusion. There is a major difference between nudity and porn. I mean the human body is the greatest of creation! How can it NOT be admired respectfully? I personally cannot. I linked an excerpt to your wonderful article. Hope you don’t mind.

  18. Hi Joe,

    My name is Andrew James and I am the co-director of the documentary, CLEANFLIX, a film about the rise and fall of the sanitized film movement in Utah. The film premiered at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival last year and has been touring the United States and playing festivals all over the country. CLEANFLIX will be playing this Thursday night at the Broadway at 8:00 as the opening night film of the Salt Lake City Film Festival. I think you and your readership would be very interested in this film and it is sure to spark a great conversation about morals, ethics, art, and sexual representation and/or nudity in art. Myself and the other director will be in attendance for a Q&A immediately following the screening.

    You can learn more about the film at: http://www.cleanflixthemovie.com

    You can purchase tickets here: http://www.saltlakecityfilmfestival.com/film_details.php?title=Cleanflix

    It would be great if some of you could be there and perhaps spread the word a little bit this week. I’m a big fan of the blog and it would be great if someone could do a post on the film and the upcoming screening. This is a fun film that all members of the LDS community will find challenging and interesting.

    Best,
    Andrew

  19. Sorry for bumping this a year later, but I wanted to say a few things.

    First, the point of art is not to teach children respect for the human body. The point of art is to evoke a feeling, some response from the viewer, listener, etc. BYU is a University, BYU students are not children. While some art is meant to teach children, the vast majority of art is meant to evoke a response from a viewer in a new way.

    Nude art is not a legitimate genre, to my knowledge, but many artists use nude depictions to evoke a feeling in the viewer. So when you’re repulsed or embarrassed or drawn to a piece, congratulations, you probably got what the artist was trying to convey. Pornography, in my opinion, might be defined as a nude piece (potography, video, etc.) which brings nothing new to the art world, and is meant to evoke physical arousal. Thus, any piece which evokes a feeling other than physical arousal is art.

    So, in my opinion, putting any limits on art cripples the artist. If you want to teach kids, by all means don’t use nudes. But if you want to view legitimate and important pieces, be ready to be offended, embarrassed, angered, etc. In other words, if you want to be moved by art, you might have to exit your world of “safe” and maybe see a vagina or two. Oh, the horror of being changed by something, of looking at something in a new way, of witnessing an intellectual and aesthetic work, of experiencing a new and strange feeling.

    If you don’t agree with LDS restrictions, don’t be a Mormon. If you’re OK with LDS restrictions and you don’t want to leave your plastic world where certain things are sacrosanct and disney-approved, stay at home. As for me, I want to see the ugly, offensive, the beautiful and the disturbing because maybe it will give me a new appreciation for, or possibly inspire me to rethink, my own opinions.

  20. Where do you draw the line about what is decent? Revealing sacred parts of the body is wrong to the world is wrong! You are trying too hard to justify evil. You will feel very awkward and guilty looking at such painting with your little children or if the Lord was next to you.

  21. I am an artist and also a model. I see nothing wrong with nude art. I looked at lots of nude paintings that were required to learn and understand in my BYU humanities class. The whole process makes me feel whole and enlightened as many other art forms such as classical music. It is very possible to respect the body while drawing/ posing. The purpose of the art is the telling factor. If the purpose is to arouse then it does cross the line. There are some that follow that path but are easily avoided. However, all of the drawing classes/ studios I have attended instead focus on learning from and respecting the body as a facinating subject that creates awe and inspiration. Watching the scantily clad actors on most television shows is way more erotic than nude art because the purpose is to arouse and keep watchers for their ratings. I agree with the pulling of some of Rodin’s exhibits because if you study the life and work of Rodin it becomes obvious that much of his work is about eroticism. The purpose of some of his Art is to bring out emotions that should not be public. I agree that care must be used but to me the difference is not all that difficult to see.

  22. To capture the life of a clothed human figure, an artist must do serious anatomical studies of the nude figure. Once there is an understanding of what all happens under the clothing, artists can paint life. If the human form is not studied, the portrait may look good, but the body looks flat or like a bean bag!

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