Art or porn?

The beauty (or not) of nudity is in the eye of the beholder

The beauty (or not) of nudity is in the eye of the beholder

January 29, 2008|By FEDORA COPLEY / Pulse Correspondent

Recently, a print by Picasso was donated to the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, in Hagerstown's City Park. The subject of the piece - entitled "Grand Nu De Femme" - is a nude woman, portrayed facing more than two different directions. What makes this piece unusual is the perspective, not the subject. Because we all have seen art featuring naked people.

Teenagers get mixed signals about nudity. On the one hand, there's a lot of nude or nearly nude people in movies, magazines and advertisements. Attractive, sexy people are seen as appealing and successful. On the other hand, being naked with other people is sometimes treated as if it were perverted, distasteful.

It's odd that nudity is so common, even revered, in art, and so shunned in most of American society. For some reason, being naked is a radical thing in your house; and it's illegal in public.

But one area where nudity is socially acceptable is in art. There are countless nude statues, like Michelangelo's "David" for example, and plenty of paintings - such as Paul C├ęzanne's "Five Bathers" or Georges Seurat's "The Models."


Brandy Merchant, an art teacher at North Hagerstown High School, said "There are beautiful bodies in art that celebrate the human form."

Unfortunately, she cannot show nude art in class.

It seems strange, she said, that in our culture the nude human body is often viewed as inappropriate. As she talked, a nearby Victoria's Secret catalog caught her attention. The photographs showing sexy lingerie are often very sensual, but the stated intent is simply to model undergarments.

The line between art and not-art is thin. Looking at nudity in a museum is fine - teens can do it anytime. And that's fine, because it's art. But allowing teens to see nudity in a movie is a big deal for most parents. Seeing a lot of nudity in a movie might be uncomfortable even for teenagers (who are generally pretty interested in sex and naked people). You could easily call a movie with lots of skin porn, and porn is something that is considered as degrading, dirty, etc. Both art and movies often portray nudity. And why not? Sex is, uh, interesting, especially for hormonal teens. Sex sells.

Americans' views on nudity are sometimes contradictory. Some of the Victoria's Secret models are sexy and wearing nothing but scraps of lace. For some people, looking at the catalog could be arousing, just like looking at porn. But, Merchant mused, if the model "were on the beach wearing a bikini, would it be OK?"

Being almost naked is fine if you're near a body of water. It's those certain parts that remain covered up by a tiny bikini that create so much ado.

Nudity, when it is not in art, is hidden, covered up, kept secret. At a certain age, we learn to hide our bodies. Being naked with other people automatically seems perverted, distasteful.

"It has to be kept a secret," said Merchant, "and secrets are associated with doing wrong."

If most Americans were to hear of family members being naked together, they would probably see the word "Inappropriate" flashing red in their minds. But what makes nudity so wrong?

Merchant talked about a recent artist, photographer Sally Mann, whose work is right on that line between art and pornography. Mann took beautiful photographs of her children as they grew up. In a lot of them, her kids are naked. Some people saw these photos and decided Mann was some kind of weirdo pervert. But when others see these photos, they see a raw, innocent beauty. A window into the primal human enigma.

Americans have a contradictory view of nudity. On the one hand, it's considered distasteful or embarrassing. But as art clearly suggests, the human body is also beautiful.

"We're all brought into this world nude," Merchant said. In the end, she said, "It depends on personal belief as to what is racy." Or what is distasteful.

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