return to 2004

Choosing a Subject
Part II
The Nude

by Miles Mathis


The most difficult subject you will approach as an artist is the nude.  The nude figure is not only the most technically demanding subject, it is the most psychologically demanding as well.  It is psychologically demanding because in tackling this subject an artist comes face to face with his personal feelings toward his subject, whether these feelings are sexual or not.  He also of necessity comes face to face  with society's feelings toward the nude in art and toward nudity in general.  Personal and societal emotions run highest with regard to the nude, for obvious reasons.  A painting of a landscape or still life can inspire and elicit strong emotions in the artist and viewer, but the human face and figure are unmatchable as conveyors of human emotion.  As van Gogh said, "I prefer painting people's eyes to cathedrals, however solemn and inspiring the latter may be—a human soul, be it that of a poor beggar or a streetwalker, is more interesting to me."

         For this reason the nude is the subject least amenable to a strictly formal treatment.   As a teacher I never recommend a style: an artist must feel free to abstract as little or as much as he likes, concentrating on line or color or composition as his inspiration demands. But for me abstracting away from mood and emotion in a nude (or any figure) is sacreligious.  The mood and emotion shared must be personal and therefore cannot be taught, but drawing the figure without emotion is a contradiction.  It is bad manners, if nothing worse: it is like treating a lover or a friend as an inamimate object.  Beyond this, it is a error in judgment, analoguous to the error of modernism.  In an earlier paper I argued that using visual art as a political tool was like using a dove's wing as a hammer.  Treating the figure as a compositional device or as a prop or as a human still life is also the misuse of a tool.  It is to dehumanize the human, which is a sin whether it is done by the avant garde or the realist. 

        In a conversation with an artist friend about another figure painter, the friend made this comment regarding the composition: "The problem is he puts too much space around the figure."  My reply was, "No, the problem is that he puts too much space inside the figure."   Whenever I see a face or a figure that is treated like a flower or a table, I sigh and turn away.  So much potential for expression has been lost.


The problem, of course, is that one cannot invest a drawing or painting with emotion just by wanting to.  In many ways, the more an artist's intentions become conscious the less likely they are to be realized.  A work of art will be emotional not to the extent the artist desires it to be; it will be emotional to the extent, or depth, that he or she actually feels it.  Passion cannot be faked or premeditated.  This is why ones life outside of art is so important, and why I put so much emphasis on addressing my reader as a whole person.  Because only a whole person can create art.  There will be no love in your art if there is no love in your life, there will be no depth in your art if there is no depth to your emotions, and there will be no depth to your emotions unless you allow them to react with the world, positively and negatively. 

        Once an artist allows himself this "worldliness," he quickly discovers that society's attitudes about the nude, and the nude in art, are anything but encouraging.  There are a few connoisseurs who appreciate the nude, but in the US they are very rare.  They are very rare even in Europe, where everyone assumes that nudity is less taboo.  And the more emotion one shares the more difficult it becomes.  Any content in a painting, any intention beyond decoration, will be received defensively by the great majority of gallery goers.  And this is never more true than with respect to the nude.

       Some critics have complained that art does not effect the viewer as strongly and deeply as other modern media.  But the truth is that modern viewers do not want to be effected strongly and deeply by the sort of emotions that art is best at evoking.  Somehow it is easier to disavow the brutality of a faked death on the movie screen or an anonymous death on TV, or to rationalize the shallow and meaningless sex on both screens, or to distance oneself from global politics and mass destruction, than it is to make an intimate connection to the mind of another individual.  In the last case it too difficult to suppress an honest response; and if that response is not one that fits in well with a viewer's "lifestyle" or current assumptions, it can lead to confusing and painful introspection--a response most people would prefer to avoid.  As Joshua Reynolds, an English painter in the 18th century, said, "There is no length to which a man will not go to avoid the necessity of thinking."   And I would add, "There is no length to which the modern man will not go to avoid the necessity of feeling."


This reaction is probably more difficult for the artist to come to terms with than any other.  A real artist knows that a strong emotional content is de rigueur, but there are few viewers who are comfortable with this fact.  Even those who may admit it as a piece of scholarship often deny it when looking at actual paintings.  One can understand a viewer's discomfort before the brutalities of Modernism, but even the sublime fare of more traditional art often causes unease when it tempts more than the tip of the tongue.  The bottom line is the better the work—the greater the depth, the more personal the inspiration, the more intimate the feeling—the less likely it is to find a buyer or admirer.   Artists have always known this.  A nude is hard enough to sell as decoration; make a real work of art out of it and the public won't know what to do with it.  Look at the reaction to Munch's Puberty, not just the historical reaction but the current reaction.   It may be worth millions but most people can't even look at it.  I personally face this fact everyday.  My nudes, which the avant garde appears to think are just regressive bits of classicism, evoke the strangest reactions in the various realist markets, where they are seen as almost menacing.   It is not the sexual content that viewers find off-putting, since there is no sexual content.  It is the emotional content.  These are not just figure studies, they are real figures.  As such, they are scary.


As progressive, enlightened, and sexually-liberated as Americans may think they have become, most are still prudish and puritanical when it comes to the nude, whether in art or in life.  A minority of Americans would call themselves devout, in regards to any religion, and yet most are more prejudiced against the nude than were the Renaissance clergy or Martin Luther himself.  Michelangelo was commissioned by both the city of Florence and by Pope Julius in Rome to create murals containing large numbers of nudes, male and female (and not just Biblical).  But he would have no chance of getting these works past the modern censors, so fearful of our own bodies have we become.  The Sistine Chapel murals would not be possible now.  Frederick Hart's Ex Nihilo [Washington National Cathedral] is a thousand times tamer than the Sistine Chapel, and had to be. 

       Hardly a week goes by that we don't hear of another public institution somewhere in the country, a bank, or a city hall, or a university, or a library where art has been removed for being offensive, often to only a single individual.  And the examples are startling.  I'm not talking about Robert Mapplethorpe or other high-profile "shock artists".  I'm talking about one exposed breast in an otherwise inoffensive and innocent photograph or painting.   The bare bottom of a Native American or Nubian.  Even, as I recently saw, a fully clothed Virgin Mary whose breasts were considered too sexy.  Dozens of sculptures in Washington, DC, have been draped by executive order, with no referendum or public discourse.  Religion is the primary cause of this reaction against artistic nudity, but current wisdom has added the increased incidence and/or awareness of rape, molestation, and other perversions to our doctrinal arguments against nudity and sexuality.  This coming together of fact, religion and fear has all but negated the possiblity of seeing these categories in a positive light.  The modern aptitude for mistrust and pessimism completely overmatches any aptitude for recognizing and encouraging beauty and hope.  We all have our reasons for mistrust, and they are good ones; but we must remember that we also have our reasons for trust, and that they are better ones--lest society actually collapse.  We must remember that the same sexuality that is misused to create offensive and criminal images and acts may also be used to create children.  The same nudity that can lead an unhealthy man to rape can inspire Michelangelo to sculpt The David, can inspire Velazquez to paint the Rokeby Venus.  


Nonetheless, there will always be many people who will give up the possibility for virtue if they can at the same time give up the potential for evil.  If sexuality, if nudity, are potentially evil, do away with them, they will say.  It is better to do nothing than to fear that you might do something wrong.  But it is worth noting that the people who feel this way really mistrust themselves first.  And they misunderstand virtue.  To be virtuous is to be presented with the opportunities of life, fully and freely, and to make the right choices because you desire them. It is to be presented with all the possibilities of nudity and sexuality, including the potential for evil, and to choose to be good, because the goodness appeals to you.  To be more specific, it is to be capable of seeing the Virgin Mary's areolae through her dress and finding that naturally human rather than sinfully tempting.  It is to be capable of seeing a Sioux warrior's  loins  in  a  Public  Works mural as  historically  accurate  rather than threateningly pagan.  And it is to be capable of recognizing the beauty of a prepubescent girl (in a photograph by Jock Sturges, for instance) and to rejoice in that beauty, to treat it as an affirmation of all that is still good and pure in the world, rather than as an invitation to molest her.  Finally it is to guard your own pure love for beauty by not allowing it to be sullied by the impure thoughts and desires of others. 


I have been told that the nude in art is dangerous because it is tempting.  It is like playing with fire.  But isn't that the way life is?  Isn't that the way life is supposed to be?  A life without choices is no life at all.  People do have bodies.  People must have sex.  They can have beautiful bodies and beautiful sex, or ugly bodies and ugly sex; beautiful attitudes about their bodies and their sexuality, or ugly attitudes about their bodies and their sexuality.  But they cannot renounce the choice to have bodies and sex.  Not, it seems to me, without renouncing life itself.  Many  are no longer able, and know they are no longer able, to make the right choice: to choose to see beauty instead of immodesty, to see love and trust and intimacy instead of lust and violence and selfishness.  And so they renounce the choice.  But where there can be no sin there can be no virtue.  Or, if those terms carry to much baggage, I might say that where there is no possibility of doing the wrong thing, there is no possibility of doing the right thing.  And so many prefer to do nothing.  Their love is nonexistent, or tepid and unfulfilling.  They look guilty in the presence of the beauty of their own children.  Their lives become a disgrace to any healthy religion or god.


This all goes to say that the contemporary artist, as far as he or she is interested in a healthy life and a healthy art, is in the position of a blade runner.  The artist (and especially the painter or sculptor of nudes) must run, and run well, a narrow path between artistic and sexual resignation (which resignation leads to creative celibacy) and outright hedonism and perversion, all encouragement being to fall off on either side.  To discover the true nature of the instincts one must first make an experiment of oneself.  An artist must allow himself the freedom to approach nudity and sexuality (if such is his or her interest) with an unjaundiced eye; to see it, as far as possible, like Adam saw Eve, or Eve saw Adam.  It is to take a risk, to array the actual choices of life before you as they are naturally presented, and to choose based on your own store of wisdom and strength.  It is to align yourself against the whole world, if the truth demands it: to discover your paradise and go there, alone if need be.


If you have a healthy attitude about the nude, if you have a healthy attitude about anything, you will have immediately pared your audience down to almost nothing.  This is hard to admit.  But once you have made this sobering discovery, you are free to go from there.  Dazzlingly free.  Meaning that almost nobody will give a damn what you do one way or the other.


This admission, as hopeless as it might seem at first, actually puts you in the firmest of creative positions.  After all, the best place to begin creating is in the void.  Here, at least, you don't have to worry about bumping into or tripping over anyone's expectations.  Perhaps if you had not been forced by circumstance into this empty room, you would have spent a lifetime searching for its solitude.

If this paper was useful to you in any way, please consider donating a dollar (or more) to the SAVE THE ARTISTS FOUNDATION. This will allow me to continue writing these "unpublishable" things. Don't be confused by paying Melisa Smith--that is just one of my many noms de plume. If you are a Paypal user, there is no fee; so it might be worth your while to become one. Otherwise they will rob us 33 cents for each transaction.