NUDITY IN ART: Beauty, Eroticism, or Pornography?

by Kevin

I drew this self-portrait with a ballpoint pen in my sketchbook, in the Fall of 1969, shortly after arriving in Aix-en-Provence, France, to begin my art studies at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and other courses at the Institut des Etudes Francaises pour les Etudiants Etrangers.

I drew this self-portrait with a ballpoint pen in my sketchbook, in the Fall of 1969, shortly after arriving in Aix-en-Provence, France, to begin my art studies at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and other courses at the Institut des Etudes Francaises pour les Etudiants Etrangers.

In central Kansas an English teacher at my high school was fired in 1967 and run out of town for inviting me to bring one of my paintings of stylized nudes into his class to initiate a conversation about creativity. I wish I could show you the painting, but I don’t have it any longer. It was a pretty tame surrealistic adolescent composition – nothing too shocking. But a student complained to his mother. The painting was confiscated by the school board, and the poor teacher lost his job. He and his wife had to find a new job and a new place to live. I learned the hard way early in my career that nudity in art CAN hurt you. 

In 1972 I finished this pen and ink drawing, "Fallen World," for an anthology of readings entitled "Man and Mystery," published by Manchester College.

In 1972 I finished this pen and ink drawing, “Fallen World,” for an anthology of readings entitled “Man and Mystery,” published by Manchester College.

Nevertheless, America was generally more tolerant about nudity in art during that time than now. When I was about to graduate from college in 1971, the Humanities Department asked me to produce three pen and ink book covers for three anthologies of readings entitled “Man and Mystery,” and “Life and Death,” and “Beauty and Ugliness.” For the first two book covers I produced compositions including nudes. The covers were accepted and published without question by ManchesterCollege, boasting 1,400 students, all of whom carried these books around campus. Today I am quite certain that almost no college in America would publish such covers. Times have changed. Attitudes about nudity in art and everything else have moved significantly to the right.

 

In 1971 I produced this pen and ink cover, "Magna Mater," for an anthology of readings entitled, "Life and Death," published by Manchester College.

In 1971 I produced this pen and ink cover, “Magna Mater,” for an anthology of readings entitled, “Life and Death,” published by Manchester College.

 About a year ago before Robert and I closed our big art gallery downtown, a woman visited and commented on my 6 ft x 8 ft canvas of cubistically stylized nudes entitled “Fallen Angels.” She said, “Thank you for covering up the private parts.” I asked her if full nudity in such a painting would have offended her and she admitted that it would, because then it would be pornography. To her credit the woman stayed for a 10-minute discussion with me about nudity in art. I explained that we artists rarely ever see nudity in art as being pornographic, partly because it is so very difficult to do well. A perfectly painted hand or face or foot represents the greatest artistic challenge any artist can undertake. It is such a daunting task to paint or sculpt the entire nude form in an accurate and harmoniously balanced manner that many artists would not feel adequate to attempt it, even if nudity in art were embraced by today’s public.

This photo of me participating in a seminar this year called "Healing Earth Pain through the Arts," shows my 6 x 8 ft acrylic painting, "Fallen Angels," which has been "in progress" for 30 years. I may continue developing it until I can no longer do so. There is something comforting about having a very long term project.

This photo of me participating in a seminar this year called “Healing Earth Pain through the Arts,” shows my 6 x 8 ft acrylic painting, “Fallen Angels,” which has been “in progress” for 30 years. I may continue developing it until I can no longer do so. There is something comforting about having a very long term project.

After many months of arduous scientistic research and aesthetic effort, the last thing on an artist’s mind is any form of prurient thought generally. So, even if the work is deemed to be pornography, I assured my visitor, it is also very hard work. She thanked me for our discussion, but I could tell she was still glad for the lack of visible “private parts” on my big painting. What I did not tell her was that I have painted this canvas over a period of 30 years. In fact, it isn’t finished yet, and I may continue working on it forever. It has been in development through many changes in social attitudes toward nudity in art, and it has morphed accordingly. Two of the life-size figures have undergone sex change operations, and several sets of genitalia and nipples have been hidden by changing the positions of limbs and configurations of hair. I hope the painting has not lost its power because of this evolving modesty over the decades in response to the increasingly conservative values of the U.S.

In 1987 Lyle Stuart Inc, published Arlyn Hackett's cookbook, "The Slim Chef," with one of my illustrations on virtually every page. We were told later that the Book of the Month Club seriously considered making our cookbook one of their selections for that year, but decided against it because of my illustration for the chapter entitled "Sweetheart Supper for Two."

In 1987 Lyle Stuart Inc, published Arlyn Hackett’s cookbook, “The Slim Chef,” with one of my illustrations on virtually every page. We were told later that the Book of the Month Club seriously considered making our cookbook one of their selections for that year, but decided against it because of my illustration for the chapter entitled “Sweetheart Supper for Two.”

 Some people say they can easily tell the difference between pornography and art. I can’t. They say that pornography is sexually charged and titillating whereas art is not. I simply cannot agree. What about all of the very fine erotic art that has been produced throughout human history? Some of it is certainly beautiful and artful. And quite frankly most of the pornography I have seen is neither sexually charged nor titillating. It is mostly just boring. Then there are some very exciting works of art by very accomplished and talented fine artists who have taken on the thankless task of making fine art in the manner of pornography, but with an ironic, removed, humorous, or expanded sensibility. Of course, they usually get both praised and condemned for it, but always accused of doing it just for publicity or notoriety.

This Suncho woodcut print, circa 1790, is undeniably erotic, but also a beautiful example of classical Japanese fine wood block prints.

This Suncho woodcut print, circa 1790, is undeniably erotic, but also a beautiful example of classical Japanese fine wood block prints.

Jeff Koons undertook a pornographic fine art project, in the late 1980s. “Made in Heaven” is a series of very large oil-ink silk-screens on canvas, life-size ceramic sculptures, and a Murano Glassworks sculpture of Jeff Koons and his bride-to-be (now ex-wife) Italian porn star Ilona Staller, aka “La Cicciolina,” entangled in very explicit and literally graphic sexual activity. http://www.theworldsbestever.com/2010/10/14/installation-view-jeff-koons-made-in-heaven-series-major-paintings/ . There has been a raging debate ever since the series debut in 1990 at the Venice Biennale about whether these huge works are art or porn. Is a funny dirty joke, well-told by a world-class comedian, humor or smut? Is a steamy nude love scene in a great movie or book cinematic art or literature… or just pornography?

Pablo Picasso's revolutionary 1907 canvas, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" was a paradigm-buster of the highest magnitude. It is still shaking and shaping the art world today.

Pablo Picasso’s revolutionary 1907 canvas, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” was a paradigm-buster of the highest magnitude. It is still shaking and shaping the art world today.

These kinds of questions and controversies were raised by Picasso’s revolutionary cubist canvas “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” when it was shown in 1907. Both the cubist style and the subject of his painting were shocking to society at that time. It was inconceivable in 1907 that any reputable artist would make fine art depicting a group of prostitutes whom he knew personally from his experiences at a local Barcelona brothel. Stylistically, Picasso’s canvas was so radically ahead of its time that most of the world still has not caught up to it 106 years later. Nevertheless, the revolutionary canvas is considered by art connoisseurs, teachers, critics, and artists everywhere to be one of the greatest single accomplishments by any artist in the history of art.

The nudity in Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" so offended the religious authorities of his time that shortly after his death a "fig leaf campaign" was carried out to paint modesty drapes  in strategic locations throughout the master's fresco. Half of that damage was recently restored.

The nudity in Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” so offended the religious authorities of his time that shortly after his death a “fig leaf campaign” was carried out to paint modesty drapes in strategic locations throughout the master’s fresco. Half of that damage was recently restored.

Michelangelo was no less a topic of controversy 500 years ago for his “Last Judgment” wall completed behind the Sistine Chapel alter in 1541, 20 years after the great master painted his magnificent frescos in the vault above. After Michelangelo died, the genitalia in “The Last Judgment” were painted over with drapery by the Mannerist artist Daniele da Volterra, when the Council of Trent condemned nudity in religious art. The Pope’s own Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena said of The Last Judgment, “It is mostly disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all these nude figures exposing themselves so shamefully.” From 1980 to 1994 about half of the “Fig Leaf Campaign” censorship was removed and Michelangelo’s great wall was partly restored by Frabrizio Mancinelli. Apparently half of it was still considered to be shameful.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 - 1905) was a highly successful artist in his time, even though the impressionists made fun of him and despised his style. "Nymphs and Satyr," painted in 1873, is a prime example of the French academic painter's fondness for mythological themes and classical subjects, painted with polished neo-classical expertise.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 – 1905) was a highly successful artist in his time, even though the impressionists made fun of him and despised his style. “Nymphs and Satyr,” painted in 1873, is a prime example of the French academic painter’s fondness for mythological themes and classical subjects, painted with polished neo-classical expertise.

 Some artists like William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 – 1905) and Maxfield Parrish (1870 – 1966) lived during permissive enough times and worked in socially acceptable enough neo-classical styles that they were able to produce many beautiful nudes without much complaint or condemnation, and in fact managed to earn very respectable incomes and public acclaim during their lifetimes.

"Daybreak" by Maxfield Parrish (1870 - 1966) is one of the American painter and illustrator's most famous neo-classical images. During his lifetime nudes in art were even used in advertisements for mainstream products.

“Daybreak” by Maxfield Parrish (1870 – 1966) is one of the American painter and illustrator’s most famous neo-classical images. During his lifetime nudes in art were even used in advertisements for mainstream products.

So then… what IS the difference between art and pornography? Like so many other questions about art, the answers have a great deal to do with the intentions of the artist, although the final judgments are made by the public. If the artist approaches an erotic or pornographic subject or certainly just nudity with the intention of making an object that is more than simply sexual, then in my book it is art. If the vision of the artist peers through a lens of irony, humor, idealism, heightened or altered reality, social commentary, formal abstraction or other clearly artistic sensibilities, then the art cannot be merely pornographic. It must be more. It is art.

The German-born British painter Lucian Freud (1922 - 2011) painted a series of very powerful nude portraits of the notoriously shocking performance artist Leigh Bowery (1961 - 1994,) of which this is perhaps the most benign.

The German-born British painter Lucian Freud (1922 – 2011) painted a series of very powerful nude portraits of the notoriously shocking performance artist Leigh Bowery (1961 – 1994,) of which this is perhaps the most benign.

Let us consider the rather extreme example of transvestite performance artist Leigh Bowery who used his own body as the medium for his shocking performance art about radical change. Sometimes he was entirely covered from head to toe in very elaborate and fascinating vestments with masks, stilts and props. At other times he was almost completely nude except for some bindings, clothespins, ropes and boots. His work was always jarring and disturbing. In one performance piece he was hung upside-down wearing only some boots and bindings on his genitalia. He was swung back and forth until he crashed through a plate glass window. The very great artist Lucian Freud painted many spectacular portraits of Leigh Bowery, completely nude and without any adornment of any kind. The canvases of Bowery’s large, corpulent, soft body are very powerful and revolutionary in their own right. No one could call them pornography. They are aesthetic explorations of profound sensitivity, insight and undeniable beauty. 
 
On the other hand, When the darling of American kitsch, entrepreneurial art phenom Thomas Kinkade (1958 – 2012,) may he rest in peace, mass produced prints of his cloyingly saccharine paintings of cottages with heart-shaped windows in floral woodlands and told the world it was “art,” I personally found his contribution to art history to be much more pornographic than those of Jeff Koons, Michelangelo, Bowery, or Freud. Kinkade was so successful at mass marketing his printed reproductions and other licensed products through The Thomas Kinkade Company, that it is estimated that one in 20 American households owns a Kinkade product.

My apologies to 5% of the American public, including well-meaning, dear friends who adore Thomas Kinkade and collect his work, but I shall now have to confess that I think they are displaying pornography on their tidy livingroom walls. It is pornographic because it commercially monetizes the world’s prurient addiction to the lowest forms of materialism for pure financial gain, in the same way that pornography commercially monetizes the lowest forms of sex for the purpose of making mountains of money. Both strategies succeed wildly because both appeal to the lowest common denominator in human consciousness and culture and can be mass marketed. I do not wish to eradicate bad art or pornography. They have their places and uses in the world. I only ask that those who enjoy these lower forms stop censoring and vilifying fine art.

"The Flood," is a 52" x 52" oil on canvas about impending apocalypse due to global climate change. The hours of research and daily concentration on this image filled me with joy for six weeks this past winter. The only way I can combat profound depression about climate change is to paint and write and speak about it.

“The Flood,” is a 52″ x 52″ oil on canvas about impending apocalypse due to global climate change. The hours of research and daily concentration on this image filled me with joy for six weeks this past winter. The only way I can combat profound depression about climate change is to paint and write and speak about it.

 How does one develop the discrimination to recognize the distinctions among the definitions for art, eroticism and pornography? Education. Look at lots and lots of different kinds of art, erotic art, and pornography if you wish, with an open mind and an increasing understanding of the differences, no matter how subtle. Read about it. Watch documentaries. Talk with artists. Take seminars and courses. Art is just as rigorous and disciplined a field of endeavor as mathematics, agriculture, or music theory. It would be entirely presumptuous and impossible for most of us to comment upon a complicated new mathematical theory. Yet we often behave as if we were all born with advanced degrees in art and the God-given right to pass judgment on every object made by artists, without having the slightest idea of the intentions, research, and techniques involved, let alone the historic antecedents and cultural references represented in the work. Understanding of the complexities and motivations of any field of human endeavor begins with the humility to admit ignorance, and the willingness to suspend disbelief and revulsion until we know a great deal more. In fact, I have found that if the work of a particular artist really bothers me, it is a good idea to pay extra attention to understanding that body of work, because I usually discover eventually that there is something important there for my own personal growth. That’s why it bothered me. I guess I’d better take another look at Kinkade…

This is a detail of the lower left quadrant of my 52" x 52" oil painting "The Flood," completed in March of 2013. Nudity can be used to express everything from pure power to vulnerability in any given composition. In this case, because of the apocalyptic theme of the canvas, I felt that the figures really had to be nude in order to emphasize how fragile humanity is, and how easily swept away.

This is a detail of the lower left quadrant of my 52″ x 52″ oil painting “The Flood,” completed in March of 2013. Nudity can be used to express everything from pure power to vulnerability in any given composition. In this case, because of the apocalyptic theme of the canvas, I felt that the figures really had to be nude in order to emphasize how fragile humanity is, and how easily swept away.

When it comes to questions about nudity, eroticism and pornography in art, I will have to defer to one of the greatest masters who ever lived. Michelangelo wrote, “What spirit is so empty and blind that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful than the garment with which it is clothed?” The answer to Michelangelo’s question is unfortunately that there are, in fact, too many spirits who are so empty these days that they cannot recognize the pure beauty of the human form in its original nakedness. Now might be a good time to focus on the honest truth of our nakedness — our ultimate vulnerability and dependency on a narrow band of survivable life sustaining conditions. It fundamentally behooves all of us to broaden our perspectives and learn to appreciate the exquisitely glorious beauty of the human life form as God created it, whether that form is young, perfect and desirable, or old fat and bald. Spirit is not pleased to be criticized and condemned when it dons any of its forms.

 

 

6 thoughts on “NUDITY IN ART: Beauty, Eroticism, or Pornography?

  1. Excellent essay, Kevin, in no way a diatribe, a sensible, honest, and compelling argument. I think there is even a wider argument about public distain for nudity, at least in America. The roots are Puritanical, and I personally have never understood it in today’s context. I remember in the early 1970s I was skinny-dipping in King’s Canyon with two female friends. We were in a secluded section of the river where no one could see us. However, a woman complained to a park ranger. This woman would have had to go out of her way through pathless bushes to see us. The ranger actually apologized for having to give us printed warnings about skinny-dipping in the park. This is an example that begs the question, why would anyone object to any form of nudity? I understand how sexual acts in public, or even “PDA” (public displays of affection) as we called it in the school where I taught, might be offensive to some, but just plain nudity? The human body should be covered in public? Nude beaches should be illegal? I just do not understand the argument. And yet, as you point out so well, some of the great masterpieces of art involve nudity. Are they offensive? Most think not. There are some photographs that push the envelope, but so what? These works are not publicly displayed. We live in a world that unfortunately is governed and controlled by the puritanical point of view; the “rights” of these individuals (whatever they are) are protected (from what?) and art and personal freedom be damned. What a world.

  2. Kevin,

    Thank you for this article and for the chance to see works of yours that I have not seen! As you know, or maybe you don’t, I love your work!

    Isn’t it interesting that people don’t mind watching others blow up buildings and people, but that they find the naked human body pornographic! We in the west seem have been taught to feel ashamed of not only our bodies, but of our bodily functions as well. I speak only for myself when I say that I blame religion and what our religious leaders have taught us to believe.

    My own father taught my brother and I that it was shameful to urinate in a bathroom with other men; that we should go into a stall to do so. To this day I can not stand at a urinal with other men even though I no longer think that doing so is shameful.

    I love the human body; nude or otherwise.

    • Thanks for your comments Jeff, and for your kind words about my art. We Americans have been born into a Puritanical heritage that cannot help imparting to us a sense of shame about being in a body. We walk around feeling embarrassed to be in physical forms. We have a long way to go to become comfortable in our own skins and free about expressing ourselves physically. Of course, as a dancer, you know all about that struggle much more intimately than any of the rest of us.

      We would all do well to take remedial instruction in simply accepting our physicality, learning how to breath, listening to our bodies and understanding what they need and when they are in distress, giving our bodies basic sustenance that is not poison and allowing ourselves to feel actual pleasure in the five sense that are given to us as a reward for enduring the more brutal aspects of life in the material world.

  3. OK, for the record: Kinkade = pornography, Maxfield Parrish = ART! In fact, a reproduction of the very same Maxfield Parrish image hangs on our bathroom wall! It is transcendent! Maybe that is a clue. Art expands the boundaries of our consciousness and experience. Pornography cheapens our experience. Kinkade sucks the life out of what he illustrates, cheapens it, turns it into the most trivial, meaningless, lifeless dreck.

    • I’ve gotten into some discussions over my comments about Kinkade. I will have to do some research about his life and motivations, but my guess is that he may have needed to make some money and started tongue-in-cheek with his cloyingly sweet style, knowing that it would appeal to a lot of people. I’ll bet his ploy’s success overwhelmed him and took over his life. I’d love to talk to him and ask him if he always had the hope somewhere in the back of his mind that he might make his “real” art later in life when he had more time. That’s what I always thought while I was prostituting my talents to corporate America, making “porn-art” trends posters, art boards and rapid-image illustrations for Fortune 500 companies. In my case it worked out, thank goodness… I may have wasted 23 years falling prey to the allure of making enough money to pay the bills, eat and buy a house, but I have outlived that career and now spend all my time making my own art. I have never been happier. Poor Kinkade died much too young. He may have been a victim of his own success who never got the chance to show the world that there was a real artist behind those pornographic cottages with heart-shaped windows.

      Authentic art wakes up the artists at 3 am and compels them out of bed. Real art grabs you by the throat and scares the hell out of you, or makes you weep or laugh or inspires you to change your life. Real art is often prophetic and sometimes dark and ugly in order to get its message across. Fine art frequently inspires condemnation and censorship because it is by its very nature revolutionary and experimental. It cannot help destroying the status quo and roaring full-throated into new realities. Art is about vision and process more than the final product. The true artist cannot help becoming the seer of visions and the messenger of the future. Such art generally frightens and confuses the masses who are more than happy with things as they are and want only to embellish and entrench their current reality. Art is change.

      Great to hear from you Tom. Robert and I are in the final stages of preparing for our two tandem one-man shows at Manchester University this fall. My show in the Union’s Gallery G, Sept 16 — Dec 4, 2013, will be called “UTOPIA and APOCALYPSE — Seven Decades Re-imagined, Kevin Miller Retrospective.” Robert’s show in Winger Auditorium’s Link Gallery, Sept 13 — Nov 19, 2013, will be called “PLEASE TOUCH THE ART — Texture is Part of the Experience, Robert F. Allen.” We will be in North Manchester 9/11-16 to install both shows. We will return to No Man Homecoming Week for our artists’ opening receptions (mine will be Oct 4, 4-6pm; Robert’s will be Oct 5, 11am-1pm) and my evening Convocation presentation in the Union Oct 3 around 7pm, entitled “TOLERATING CREATIVITY — A Profit and Loss Analysis,” with a conversational tour of my exhibit.

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