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April 10, 2006



I remember reading a wonderful story (sorry, don't remember the title) about an orthodox Jewish art prodigy that deals with this issue in his training. Learning how to correctly portray the human form was essential to his education as an artist; it enabled him to correctly draw or paint a clothed figure. He had problems dealing with the horror of his mother who thought he was drawing 'dirty pictures'. I guess an artist should deal with nudity the same way physicians and other medical people do -- separate the sexual from the physical.

John Jansen

"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?"

Definitely, and Clark is exactly right.

The difference lies in the presentation, which conveys the artist's intention.

In a pornographic image depicting depicting a naked woman, the clear intention is to incite lust in the viewer.

On the other hand, the clear intention of the classical Western artist depicting a female nude is to show woman's natural beauty.

It's interesting to note that when the Sistine Chapel frescoes were being restored (some 15 years ago), Pope John Paul II actually ordered the loincloths on a number of the figures to be removed. To my knowledge, Michelangelo depicted nearly all the figures in the Sistine Chapel as nude, but prudish clerics shortly thereafter added loincloths to several of them.

While some may be surprised that an avowed celibate would issue such a directive, in fact, it's entirely consistent with John Paul's writings on the theology of the body.

Paul Robichaux

One of the seminal points of my high school education was being asked to lead a discussion in English class of Robert Graves' poem "The Naked and the Nude". . I think it's relevant in this context :)

Mary O'Hayes

I may be babbling here......but this discussion reminds me of how the human body (nude or semi-nude) is perceived in the U.S. versus in Europe. I haven't been to Europe in almost 15 years, but I recall seeing far more nudity in advertising over there, in stores, on bus stops and in subways. Bare breasts and bottoms were not uncommon. Of course, there are the beaches there, where almost everybody is wearing as little as possible, even stout grandmothers! (I recall really sticking out in my one-piece bathing suit.) But I was struck by how "natural" the European nudity was. Whether in art or advertising, it portrayed the beautiful human form, and generally wasn't sexual in intent or effect. Sensual, yes, but not sexual.

Nudity or semi-nudity in our country, in contrast, unfortunately almost always has a sleazy aspect to it (a la Jessica and Paris, and their ilk). It's definitely intended to be sexually provocative. Which is what irks me about the sleazy culture we live in now. We're missing out here in the U.S., I think. We can't just see the beauty of the human body. It has to be sexy and hot, it can't just be a nude human body.

Wendy Shalit

from Havelock Ellis, 1899 (one of the first 'sex researchers'):

"A. Duval, a pupil of Ingres, tells that a female model was once quietly posing, completely nude, at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Suddenly she screamed and ran to cover herself with her garments. She had seen a workman on the roof gazing inquisitively at her through a skylight."

I guess it all depends on the context. Ellis concludes that "nakedness is entirely compatible with the most scrupulous modesty."

Perhaps the problem comes about when subject and spectator do not agree.



That is a fascinating 19th century story from H. Ellis, essentially the same as the 20th century story I referred to in The Modest Nude essay. The "problem" must be more than the subject and spectator not agreeing because women who work in the pornography industry supposedly "agree," and I don't think we would call them "modest nudes." Perhaps on some unconscious level, these women don't agree because they didn't agree to the early abuse they might have endured as children; the sex-work they go on to do is an unhealthy way of managing the abuse. What do you think?


It's true that there are different attitudes towards nudity in Europe and in the U.S.. The Puritan roots here may be responsible for more modesty but also for a sense that sex is dirty--thus, the sleazyness you mention. Europeans may generally have a more natural relationship with the body, but the exposed bottoms there also may have a numbing effect on erotic life, which inevitably leads to a deterioration in celebrating erotic life in committed relationships. In France, for instance, marriage is going out of fashion.



I think you are right about the sex-work often being the product of experiences they didn't agree to.

That is a very interesting point.

What I was getting at with the 'agreement' point is that that standards of modesty can be quite different in different cultures/situations, but that doesn't mean that the impulse isn't universal. Ellis (in his 1899 study) also talks about native tribes that were thought to have little modesty because they wore scant clothing. But then he found out that the women had the right to kill the men--kill them!--if the men came near them while bathing. Now, I'm certainly not advocating that, but it sure is interesting. And it seems to support what you're saying, that near-nakedness doesn't necessarily = immodesty, it depends on the context.

Examples like this lead me to believe that consent is an important part of the picture, but perhaps it is not sufficient, as you point out.

Perhaps there are objective standards of simple human dignity which pornography violates, and hence modesty is also violated.

Maybe there is a part of modesty which is relative, and another part which is objective?

I don't know but thanks for making me think!


I grew up in Greece (I have a Greek mother and an American father) and didn't come to America until I was 18. And I am still amazed at how uptight and unopen Americans are not just about nudity, but sexuality in general compared to Europeans! I find it interesting that the states have a lot more modesty when it comes to your bodies, and are much less open about your sexuality, yet you have MUCH higher rates of Rape and sexual violence. I and many other europeans attribute this to repression. You don't confront your sexuality in an unbiased, matter-of-fact way therefore it all becomes sleazy and taboo. I could never raise my children in an environment where we felt that we had to shield their eyes from nudity and sexuality. How can children grow up to become ballanced and secure individuals when they are taught that their bodies are a no-no? As far as I'm concerned, yes there is a time for modesty.. But not to the degree that nudity and sexuality are kept so low-key that they become taboos that everone is affraid of! You will only create MORE problems that way. And Americans with their so-called "modesty" and "Christian Values" are a perfect example of that.. It has created an environment of fear -Fear of their bodies, fear of their sexuality and subsequently, fear of many other things. It is completely hypocritical that every aspect of American society is permeated with sex, from your movies to your pop-stars, even your music; but as soon as Janet Jackson flashes her breast, you have a scandle! You have preachers who rant and rave about "Christian Values" only to be caught with male prostitutes. I think Americans can learn a lot from Europeans about nudity and sexuality.

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