Naked and Nude Out in the World and in the Art School Curriculum

As old as art itself, the nude is still capable of giving viewers a jolt. The current governor of Vermont, James Richards, recently found it necessary to remove a lamp from his statehouse desk because it reproduced Hiram Power’s famous 1843 sculpture “The Greek Slave.” Yet Power’s depiction of a nude woman in chains served as a symbol of the state’s pre-Civil War abolitionist movement. “School children might see it,” said a spokesperson for the governor, adding that it will return to the desk after the legislative session concludes. Roseville, Michigan, painter Edward Stross was sentenced in February 2005 to 30 days in jail for painting the side of his studio with a portion of Michelangelo’s Creation of Man from the Sistine Chapel, including a bare-breasted Eve. His mural was seen as violating the city’s ordinance against public depictions of genitalia. “Our lawyer brought a dictionary into court to read the definition of genitalia, because genitals mean below the belt, not above,” said Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which won a stay on Stross’s sentence, pending an appeal.

Even more recently, a stainless steel female torso by Venice, California, sculptor Robert Graham, which its owner Roy Doumani offered to donate to the city for a site in a town square, has been blocked by church leaders and feminists who object to the nude representation in public. Once renowned for its nude beaches, the controversy in Venice has been a source of considerable amusement elsewhere. “I’ve been in Venice when it didn’t seem as though there was anything around but nudes,” said art critic Dave Hickey. Graham, for his part, has refrained from comment, hoping to avoid becoming entwined in an issue that has received considerable condemnation and mockery.

Controversy over nudity in art is not new—naked male figures in “The Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel were covered with loin cloths by subsequent painters within a generation of Michelangelo completing the work (the overpainting was removed by conservators only in 1994)—but its current manifestation suggests a widening gulf between artists and the public.

Perhaps no convention in art has drawn as much criticism over the past century as the depiction of the nude, and the traditional figure itself as a subject for contemporary art has long disappeared, replaced by distorted or ironic images. Early 20th-century Modernists rejected the nude as retrograde, equating it with conventionality while exalting the machine or the subconscious. Feminists have denounced the nude as objectifying women, denying them their individuality, and identifying them as erotic vessels for male artists and the public at large. Contemporary artists—John Currin, Eric Fischl, Lucian Freud, Gregory Gillespie, Jenny Saville, Tom Wesselman, and Lisa Yuskavage, among others—have seen the naked body as representing corruption, decay, and false societal expectations, a riposte to a society inundated with advertising and entertainment images of men with rippling muscles and women with large, firm, and exposed breasts.

However, most students in art schools and university art programs continue to be taught traditional life-drawing techniques, as though a century’s worth of debate about the nude had never happened. Instructors and administrators at these schools defend life-drawing courses as a basic conceptual and technical tool, regardless of whatever else artists may choose to pursue in their work.

“Drawing from life is like learning to read notes in music, words in books, or the basic positions in ballet,” said Mary Ann Krutsick, who has taught life drawing for more than a quarter-century at Philadelphia ’s Moore College of Art, the nation’s sole women-only art academy. “It’s not just drawing, but internalizing what you see; you are looking beyond the surface to how the body works, developing analytical skills in identifying how a gesture or thrust reflects an emotional state.” She added that “the figure is very unforgiving”: one may alter the proportions in other forms—boxes and cylinders, for instance—with acceptable results, but changes in the human form “are readily apparent and will strike people as clearly wrong.”

According to John Terry, dean of fine arts at the Rhode Island School of Design, life-drawing skills assist not only fine artists, but also animators and illustrators, who learn how the body moves. Students of furniture design also gain an understanding of how, for instance, a body sits. For fine artists, however, life drawing is no less valuable. “In an increasingly virtual world—and many students come here thinking that if you can’t click it, it’s not worth much—working from life gets students back in touch with their humanity, with the real world,” he said. “We experience the world through our bodies, and we relate emotionally to the human figure.”

In the process of developing an understanding of the human figure, it may be true that artists lose sight of the individual who becomes an object of contemplation and projection, as feminists and others have complained. “To be nude is to be seen naked by others and not recognized for oneself,” John Berger wrote in his book Ways of Seeing, and British art historian Lynda Nead defined the classical nude in terms of containment: “The transformation of the female body into the female nude is thus an act of regulation.” Certainly, models employed in art programs are instructed not to interact with students during breaks, and first-year students usually receive a preliminary talk by their instructors on treating models respectfully and viewing the nude form as an aesthetic rather than a sexual form. (For their part, schools hire a range of models—young, old, male and female—and “don’t just use young, fit women,” Paul Coffey, director of undergraduate studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, said, adding that the school is “very aware of the abuses of the male gaze in the past.”)

As he awaits the appeal of his jail sentence, Edward Stross complained about “a society that is entertained with the human body, on TV and in movies, yet sees the body as dirty.” Others have also pointed out a duality, hypothesizing that, in the age of AIDS, Viagra, and the constant presentation of ideal bodies in advertising and the media, people are less comfortable with their bodies than they were a generation ago. The nude (the human form in art, calling up an aesthetic and moral appreciation) and the naked (lacking clothes, arousing a sexual response) have become intermingled in many artworks themselves, further adding to public confusion. The larger problem, according to John Terry, may be that a continuity with the history of artistic practice has been lost by a public “that sees pornography on the Internet and a sculpture by Robert Graham, and can’t tell the difference.”