There is a prevailing line of thought, advanced primarily by two thousand years of church-fueled misinformation, that we, as humans, are hard-wired to want to hide our bodies. Adam and Eve, in their quest to know everything, despite being instructed otherwise, induced shame upon the entire species (along with painful child birth and some other not-so-nice side effects). The penalty seems rather harsh for eating the wrong piece of fruit. One would think, given the primitive state during which the story supposedly takes place, that a couple days of diarrhea would have been sufficient punishment. Nonetheless, the deity kicks them out of their idealistic dwelling and then kills an animal to make them clothes, which seems a bit low-class for a deity who, presumably, could have used wool instead.
Saying that we are predisposed to hide our bodies is like saying we are predisposed to lie. Granted, some would argue that both statements are true. “The fallen nature of man,” is the term theologians like to use. Apparently, as Col. Jessup asserts in A Few Good Men, we never have been able to handle the Truth. We run from it. We hide from it. And when the Truth involves our bodies, we do everything possible to cover it up and pretend it’s different than what it is.
Granted, there are legitimate reasons for wearing clothes. As I stepped out the door this morning into a chilly, damp, 45 degrees, I was quite thankful for the heavy coat protecting me from the wind. Being dressed is not always about hiding who we are. Yet, we are more than willing to extend the practical reasons for clothing to cover the impractical as well. Where we ultimately find ourselves in this conversation is realizing that, for the vast majority of people, we really don’t like who we are.
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Billions of dollars are spent every year in vain attempts to cover, hide, distort and change who we are, not just physically, but down to the very perception of how others see us. We all want to be “cool,” however that is currently translated. We’re none to anxious to admit to our flaws, and have become quite adept at finding some way to rationalize anything that might be viewed as a defect in our person. We nip, tuck, revise, pinch, tan, enhance, spin and modify every aspect of our lives until we think we are presenting a package that is socially sufficient.
Enter, into this world of absurdity, the artist, who, damnitall, strips away all of our coverings, undoes all our revisions, and forces us to look at ourselves, both figuratively and literally, as who we really are: flawed, scarred, asymmetrical, and sometimes hairy in places we’d rather not admit. Art brings us face to face with what we have tried so hard to hide: the Truth.
I have often wondered if society would be more accepting of the nude figure in art if artists would simply show us the pretty, sexy people doing nothing but being pretty and sexy. Such an approach would, in theory, seem to keep the facade of flawlessness in place. After all, any physical defects can be covered with Photoshop, right? What better way to perpetuate the myth of perfection than with highly polished and airbrushed nudes? Oh wait, no, society doesn’t like that, either. We call those images porn, perhaps not so much for their vivid sexuality as for the offense of presenting an image too perfect, thereby making our own personal flaws all that much more apparent.
What ultimately bothers society about nude art is that the naked figure is never really just about being naked. There’s always more to the picture and it’s that symbolism, that communication, that painful reminder, that ultimately makes us uncomfortable. Yet, the aspects that make us uncomfortable around nude art are exactly the reason we need nude art in the public forum.
We need nude art to force us to face the Truth, even when that Truth strikes us as offensive.
Nude art brings a healthy dose of reality into the stream of public conversation, showing not only our current depravity, but warning of what may be to come should we not change our course. Our need, our want, our carnivorous feeding on each other, our obsessiveness, our jealousies, our over-indulgence, our selfishness and our greed are all topics nude art puts in front of us, demanding our attention, and sticking in our consciousness so that we will at least consider doing something about the condition we’ve created for ourselves.
When nude art addresses reality and Truth, the picture isn’t always pretty. If anything, the images are raw, stark, and gritty when dealing with topics of what ails us. Sometimes such art is so disturbing, so honest in its depiction, that we want to look away. We want to deny what the artist is shoving in our face. We want to walk away. Yet, to do so, to deny what the art is attempting to communicate, only pushes us further into social decline and decay.the longer we refuse to look at and consider the reality of who we are, the more difficult it becomes to recognize that Truth when we see it.
There is no rule that says art has to make us happy. If anything, art has the responsibility to occasionally knock us off our rainbows so that we see the mud puddles beneath them. Leaving a gallery or exhibition disturbed by what we saw means that the artists have communicated effectively. Purchasing that art and bringing it into our daily lives is a positive step toward embracing the Truth and reminds us that none are ever what we pretend to be.
I have to laugh when I see the pristine depictions of Adam and Eve in the garden, looking all clean, lilly white and European. In reality, they would have been short, stooped, covered in hair, dark skinned and would have communicated with grunts and gestures.
Maybe we haven’t changed as much as we’d like to think.