Cover up that bosom, which I can’t
Endure to look on. Things like that offend
Our souls, and fill our minds with sinful thoughts.
Are you so tender to temptation, then,
And has the flesh such power upon your senses?
I don’t know how you get in such a heat;
For my part, I am not so prone to lust,
And I could see you stripped from head to foot, And all your
hide not tempt me in the least.
THE BODY IN THE RAW. NUDITY NOW scrutinises what a naked body can say today that a clothed body cannot. Let it be said from the outset, this theme was triggered by recent cases of artistic censorship, largely in Australia. While artists have been and are censored for supposedly hurting moral sensibilities in relation to a range of legal offences, such as sedition, blasphemy, obscenity, and defamation, cases of late involving censorship and outrage have all been centred around the nude human body.
So what is it about nudity that provokes such moral panic, especially given the prevalence of (porno)graphic imagery within music and popular culture? Have our social and sexual mores shifted?
In the performing arts, and particularly in dance, nudity has been the stock and trade since the 60s. Back then, if anything ruffled moral feathers, it was not nudity itself but what the body was communicating through its nudity. After more than five decades, we have moved on from its political militant use to a sort of ‘ground zero’ with respect to nudity, more concerned with a highly conceptualised un-gendered un-sexualised bareness, rather than political statement. We could even speak of geo-ethics of nudity (cf. feature article); and we have long forgotten Courbet’s Origine du Monde. There is one aspect that has never shifted however – the nude body, when (re)presented in the public domain, is exclusively a question of the viewer’s gaze.
There is a clear distinction between nudity and nakedness. Nudity is a kind of performed nakedness. Nudity is less corporeal than representational, inasmuch as it is a vehicle of signification imposed upon the body’s reality (bare nakedness). This is what brings spectatorship to the foreground in these matters. What the eyes of the beholder do is another story. From the naked body to pornography, there is only a very fine line, particularly when our time has no time for nuance.
Pornography is, of course, not new. But what is new is how easy it has become to access it. It is so accessible that there is no weapon more powerful to the advertiser’s arsenal than fantasised bodies (and desires) inspired by porn imagery.
One might wonder how some American Apparel ads were not met with the same indignation as Bill Henson’s pictures? It only proves that the naked body as depicted by porn undoubtedly shapes our sexual imaginations, expectations and practices, and insinuates itself into even the dullest of minds.
Nevertheless, nudity in art, be it on canvas or live, has a purpose and a meaning. There are things that simply cannot be said with a clothed body. The naked body externalises what its membrane hides, it is a deliberate pose, presentation or distortion. Art acts as a mirror of the culture that produces it, and if this mirror depicts less than orthodox images of the body, this is merely a reflection of our times.
What is wrong then? Has our level of tolerance shifted? Are we going back to the times of suppression and demonization of sex and sexuality that the Judaeo-Christian view of the body imposed on us? Is the freedom of art and the artist under threat by some pseudo-prudish, hypocritical arbiters of what is good and what is wrong? And instead of being outraged by outrageous ads plastered on massive billboards, we are more concerned with how Paul Yore’s or Bill Henson’s art may inspire or legitimise paedophilic drives? Read Alice Heyward’s article (one of Henson’s models) and you will see we are so far from the unwilling unknowing ‘victim’ model. Perhaps the inflammatory debates related to questions of ethics and morality in the arts should not be left to the public regulator alone.
We all know we are at odds with the bodies we have. We are constantly dreaming of reshaping our bums and tums. This may translate into bodily dissatisfaction, even body hatred. We are the ones drenching the images or representations of the naked body with erotic associations and the like. This is the power of the beholder’s gaze….
Whichever way we look at the body, clothed or not, it is a social and political construction governed and shaped by myriad behaviours, contexts and…hypocrisy. The flesh has always been weak. The mind shouldn’t be. Let us be smart and creative enough to not allow public moralism into the terrain of the arts.