nude paintingWe were discussing in the comments over at J-Wild’s blog that there are fundamental differences between nakedness in fine art and nudity in pornography and I felt this topic should be granted some more thought on my part.

Most humans who have grown up in countries that have an appreciation for the arts have been exposed to nakedness in art since they were born. From Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, Michelangelo’s Statue of David, and Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, we have been seeing human nakedness in printed form since almost birth.

I suppose an easy question for non-artists to ask is, “How come the naked body is so common in both traditional and contemporary fine art?”

My answer is ANATOMY.

Artists have learned over the centuries that in order to depict a subject well, they need to study it. If you drew an apple without looking at one it would not be as accurate as if you had an apple in front of you while you drawing. The same goes for depicting figures of human beings in art. The human body is among the most fluid, ever-changing forms in the world. By studying the naked human form, you learn volumes about anatomy. Not only how the body looks, but how the body works and moves. I spent many, many hours drawing live, nude models while at Pratt. We even took field trips to Columbia Medical School to sit around a human cadaver to discuss, study, and draw flesh, muscle and bone structure. Da Vinci, among others, would rob graves so he could study the human form. There is simply no better way to become proficient at depicting the human form unless you study it from life (or death…).

A sampling of my sketches from live models

The human form is vital information for an artist. And not just Renessaince painters, sculptors and other artists of realism, but for illustrators, animators and even video game designers. Only after studying anatomy can we confidently exaggerate features for humor or effect. Case in point – Charlie Brown’s enormous head, or the original 1959 Barbie Doll’s perfectly impossible figure.

It is estimated that if Barbie were 5 foot 6 instead of 11 1/2 inches tall, her measurements would be 39-21-33. An academic expert once calculated that a woman’s likelihood of being shaped like Barbie was less than 1 in 100,000.

As humans, we have a sixth sense about what looks right and what looks wrong. We, as artists, need to get it right.

So when did the shift to depicting the nude body as sensual and erotic enter the picture? I’m not sure I know for certain, but my guess would be that this darker side of the human body has been around since the beginning. I’m guessing that it only hit mainstream with the birth of photography – which provided instant and VERY realistic satisfaction.

But, what makes THIS depiction of a nude woman “art” and another “erotic?”

I believe the answer is soley INTENTION. But “intent” goes both ways and I believe both are relevant.

If the intention of the artist is to create something erotic, than it becomes dually art and pornography (I’m using “pornography” and “erotic” as the same thing. I’m sure we could dissect the subtle differences of each, but for my purposes I am declaring them to be synonymous.). And I say “dually” because photography, filmography, drawing, painting, etc are undeniably all forms of art. I think in a lot of instances pornography can still be considered art – but in the last 40 years or so I think it has become much less art and much more business. Similarly, if the intention of the viewer is to view the naked form as something pornographic/erotic, than they will cease to view it as a piece of art.

I think the main difference between nudity in fine art and nudity in pornography is the intention of the artist and the intention of the viewer. We’ve all heard stories of the pre-teen boys flipping through the National Geographic Magazine looking for the topless African women, because finding his Dad’s Playboy Magazines was much riskier. The intention of the boy was to view something erotic, yet eroticism was not the intention of the photographer or publisher. Indeed, I doubt any of us would ever place National Geographic Magazine in the same company with Penthouse and Hustler.

Alright, I’ve blabbed on enough. I want to hear what you think.