Nudity in Art: The Naked and The Judged

The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (Pre-Restoration) by Masaccio

During the Q&A Hangout with Stan Prokopenko and Court Jones in November 2014, a student questioned the use of nude models in art education. I laughed my hair off, astonished that anyone would consider it a controversy, unwilling to entertain an answer except sarcastically.

I have since read Mohamed’s question addressed to me and Stan, written after the session, sincerely seeking an answer.

I think I know your concern. I was raised in a family so conservative that when I decided to become an artist, my parents responded less with fear that I wouldn’t make a living than with fear that I would be corrupted by looking at naked people. When I took my first Life Drawing class at the age of 18, I was startled to see men and women take their clothes off in the middle of a room full of students nervously pretending we were used to this. I wondered if it would corrupt me.

It may have and I can’t see it. Corrupt people seldom see their own corruption. But I’m in the best of company, and the most outrageous opinions I’ve encountered have been from the conservative side, including the suggestion to a chaste victim of a chronic disease that his deteriorating health was due to wrong opinions about sex.

But there is nastiness on both sides, conservative and liberal, religious and anti-religious. I am writing this response because I disliked the meanness of some users’ comments toward Mohamed in the Hangout comments. Forgive me for being so flippant in my live comments. I felt bad about it later.

I felt a little better when I compared myself to an anonymous emailer who wrote “Basically, Life Drawing is for pervs.”

Speak for yourself. I spent years as a Life Drawing student and teacher, and I know that is not true. If your suspicions are that strong toward those who merely look and draw, spare me your opinion about doctors.

He also wrote “…there is no justifiable reason … to think about the shading size or angle of a woman nipple in relation to gesture, light or scale. The same could be said of a woman’s genitalia.”

That’s a smart-ass comment. Nobody ever claimed that anyone needed nipples or genitalia in gesture drawing. On the other hand, light and scale? Certainly. The reason you include a nipple in your drawing is because you want it there, as itself or as part of a light pattern, and yes, scale matters. Artists choose every element hoping to improve the picture. That includes a nipple, which isn’t something you should avoid. If you have grown to strong maturity in life, there’s a good chance that a nipple played a significant role.

If not, forgive me for mentioning it.

But Mohamed asked a question that I think deserves an answer:

“Is it OK for you if your Wife, sister, mother, daughter or any relative do this?, stand nude in front of lots of people to be a nude model?”

My mom posed reclining in a flesh-hugging one-piece bathing suit in the 1940’s, and she was a very good-looking woman from whom I had the privilege of being born. I can’t say that the picture ever bothered me, at all. I was proud of her bathing beauty. If she had chosen to pose nude, I don’t know how I’d feel about it. Someone whose mom is a nude model should answer this.

I’ve never had a sister, so I can’t answer that one either, but if one of my brothers posed nude, I would seek a way to make fun of him in the spirit of brotherly affection that I’m told sisters rarely have, at least toward each other. But I don’t know. I leave this question to someone with a sister.

I’ve also never had a daughter, so you’re not getting much help from me. But I would like to believe that if I had a daughter who wanted to pose nude in front of groups, that I would set aside what I think about it and concern myself with what she thinks about it. If she valued the work, I hope I would be glad for her. If it was for a less good reason, like to anger her mother, I would challenge her motive. But if she chose to do it, I hope I would support her. Life modeling is demanding work with unusual challenges, surrounded by social suspicion. Also, for some people, taking off one’s clothes in public takes a bit of courage.

Personally, I am not willing to take off my clothes in public. I feel uncomfortable in front of people even with my clothes on. If you’re about to give me the “try nude modeling as therapy” speech, mind your own business. If I begin nude modeling, it won’t be in public. It may not even be in private. I’m very busy. Also, requests to remove my clothes for aesthetic purposes have been far rarer than I have desired.

But back to the question. If I had a daughter, I would worry about her like any dad worries about his daughter, perhaps more if she were a life model, but perhaps less. I would consider that among her professional skills, one would be the ability to take care of herself.

Finally, if I had a wife who wanted to pose nude for a class, and I had a good relationship with her, my concern would be at the level of zero. Why would it not be? I am not asking rhetorically, I am asking because I have never understood the objection. Help me understand. If there is trust, what is there to be bothered by?

If this is merely a personal issue, not an ethical one, what bothers one person will not bother another, and each will be tempted to judge the other. I would like to spend less time judging and more time teaching. Since I love teaching anatomy, and since nude bodies are the result of anatomy, they help me bring anatomy lessons to life. Also, nude bodies have a certain appeal over flayed figures.

Back to Mohamed. I don’t want to judge you for avoiding nude models, nor for avoiding nude modeling. Posing nude is risky, the way baring emotions is risky, or for that matter, the way questioning nudity is risky, as exemplified by the nasty responses to your post.

But I don’t share your concern. Artists enjoy Life Drawing without pretense. If their motive is sexual lust, they can do better at strip clubs. In a typical Life Drawing class, artists gather to look at, appreciate, understand, and depict the human body as a work of art. I cannot see any reason to judge something so appropriate and positive as a person posing nude for a group of artists.

But that’s me. I may be missing something, and I may be corrupt. Also, I have a chronic ear disease that could be due to this opinion.

I hope this answers your question.

If you want to continue the discussion, answer my “what is there to be bothered by?” question and we’ll go from there. If the anonymous emailer invites himself to the discussion and throws off the tone of respect that you’ve set, we may ignore him or we may put him to use. He can make you and me, even with our conflicting opinions, look admirable by contrast.

Mohamed, I don’t want to try to convince you to embrace something that goes against your convictions. I do want to respect your feelings, and if you choose to draw only the clothed figure, I hope you do it well enough to offer good work to your audience, including me.


Thank you to all who commented. This post is now closed to further comments.