What do those concerned about modesty make of the western tradition of “the nude” in art? In particular, what do we make of the traditional depictions of the female nude? My art history professors at Smith College in the 1990s were still responding to the impact feminism had on art criticism, which had ignited art critics to debate the nude’s place in the history of art.
At that time, I discovered the work of scholar Kenneth Clark.
Thirty years before, in the midst of the feminist movement, Kenneth Clark had famously defended the tradition in his prominent book of art criticism, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, where he wrote:
To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word 'nude,' on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body re-formed.
Throughout his book, Clark justifies the nude’s place in western art from the ancient Greek sculptures of ideal male figures to the images of nude women in paintings that began to emerge regularly during the Renaissance period in Europe.
Clark’s main claim is that the great western artists were able to transcend the unclothed body. What do you make of this? Is there a difference between nude and naked? Is it possible to be a modest nude? A modest viewer of nude paintings? A modest artist? What happens to modesty in the face of art that imagines the body so directly, that addresses erotic life with such openness? Why are there so many painting of nude women? These works raise questions for modestyniks.