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009 : art: why contemporary nudes are boring

Once upon a time in art history, the human figure was considered important and symbolic in all of its ages and states, from naked infants representing angels to wrinkly old men in their last hours of life. There are sculptures and paintings of short people, fat people, muscular heroes, spindly martyrs, angels of various genders wearing transparent clothing, men sitting on rocks just thinking about 'stuff,' women rising from the sea, and so on. Talented artists were able to represent the smooth skin of children and the wrinkled, loose, tissue-paper-thin skin of the elderly.

Those artists were awesome. They used images of people to represent lots of things: nature, the new year, cities, religious figures, history, fables, concepts, and themselves.

Often while naked. (The subjects, I mean. I don't know what the artists were wearing.)

It's just how they rolled during some of the prolific historical art-making time periods.

There were times when accurate representations of the human form were banned by religions, and some of those bans are still in place in certain places, but in the Western culture I'm in right now, those outright bans are largely lifted. However, there is a different sort of conceptual censorship and self-censorship that goes on, which means that mainstream culture will deem a nude photo of one person obscene, and another perfectly acceptable to show in public. For my particular culture, the censorship comes from a hetero-normative standard. In this context, that translates loosely to "things that slightly uptight heterosexual men like to look at are the only good things to look at."

Let's talk about you uptight het men for a moment.

Uptight het men are not cool with seeing nude men, for example, even though nude men were one of the major subjects in art in classical antiquity. All those Greco-Roman sculptures of toned athletes? No more. Today's men don't want to see that. In a culture where men are aware of objectification and want to maintain the position of being subjects (a photo of a man should name him), not objects (a mere model is nameless), an image of a naked guy becomes... problematic. It can make uptight het men uncomfortable. Even if the naked men are hot. Especially if they are hot, because that might be kind of gay (taboo!) or imply that men should be judged by their physical appearance (rather than their "qualities"). So, images of naked men in mainstream contemporary culture are deemed "obscene."

All of that art history! And yet, THIS.

Images of women are next. Unlike all those paintings of voluminous women lounging on chaise lounges in all of their fleshy glory, or old women looking saintly and frail in their nudity, the uptight het male standard flavor-of-the-moment is young women of the sort that are chosen for advertising and mainstream porn, which is: around 18 years old, European/Caucasian (or periodically/rarely Asian), light skinned, thin, but with a measurable chest with no larger than B-cups, and no or very little body hair. This is something that uptight het males of any age are comfortable with, and so this is the acceptable "artistic nude."

And so you can have that conversation, the one where the gal in the group talks about some "photographer" asking her to pose naked, and she asks her guy friends how often this happens to them, and the answer is never. Ever. Because? Well, if it was about art, this would be a common thing for men and women alike, right? At least young people, who are all aglow with their youth, should all experience this in similar numbers regardless of gender, right? At least fit people, like all those guys you see in the SI Swimsuit Issue, right? [insert your coughing fit here.]

Hello? *tap tap tap* Is this thing on?

Before you turn grumpy and come up with some unflattering labels for me, I can tell you that there ARE nude photos of me extant in this world. (Note: they are not fine art.) When I appeared to fit that mainstream-young-B-cup mold, I WAS approached to pose nude. I have visited clothing-optional resorts, and HAVE left my clothes in a locker. I love the nudes of Robert Mapplethorpe, which are stunningly beautiful. Don't try to make this about me not loving "art" as much as you claim to. This is about your aesthetics, which have been shaped by hetero-normative advertising (and perhaps even hetero-normative porn), and how what you think is an "artistic nude" is what you have been TOLD TO THINK is "artistic nude."

More stuff that uptight het men like

Do I need to talk about the posing?

I could just say: pick up a women's fashion magazine directed at grown-up women. There will be nude or partly-nude women in it, likely draped with overpriced handbags/jewelry/what have you. They are often having adventures, riding camels (itchy!), running through forests, sitting in a throne in a boat being propelled by hot male servants, standing around topless while wearing gorgeously tailored, overpriced pants... These are nude photos which are intended to appeal to women. Some of these are kind of fun. The models are often a little more grown-up than mere girls, and often look like they've eaten within the past week. Not always, but often. The models often look kind of... happy. Not all of them do look happy: some images are pretty creepy, some are glamorous in a cold 'go be a trophy wife' way that may not be as successful at selling lipstick as others. These images generally don't purport to be fine art, since they are made for commercial purposes.

These are significantly different from the photos of nude women directed toward men for both commercial and artistic purposes. There seem to be three major modes for these photos:

  1. come-hither-and-oh-I'm-topless-while-looking-at-you-brazenly
  2. I don't see you watching me in the shower scene in this teenage movie/fake Italian villa while I bathe or play with makeup
  3. I have been drugged, and am passively laying on something, possibly where I fell when the drugs took effect.

Each of these is unforgivable in its own, lame way.

I blame the women who do this, too

Women who have been trained in appealing to the uptight male market can make these photos just as enthusiastically as men can, and can defend them as art JUST as unconvincingly as their male colleagues. (I only am entertained by this when they include 'and it sells' in their defense.) Yes, it is all about 'bringing back the $exy.' This isn't about the gender of the photographer: it's about the relentless conformity photographers take on to please the uptight het male viewers, who represent "everyone" they care about.

The trap that is available to all genders and orientations is to simply take a mediocre photo of a pretty girl, hoping people can only see HER, not how badly they lit and posed her.

Surely someone is good at nudes?

Yes, Mapplethorpe. He was a genius. The lighting! The compositions! The brilliant use of skin tones! I can only assume that part of the reason he was able to go beyond the uptight het male aesthetic is that he was NEITHER uptight NOR het. I like to believe that these two qualities would not be necessary to produce such amazing work, however...

Oh, and that Francesca Woodman girl did a brilliant one involving peeling paint, her chest, and a shell.

The rest of you can go home now.


If you have been falling prey to the uptight male het standard (= your portfolio is only full of naked photos of your college girlfriends), even if you are a little college girl seeking approval by taking off your shirt for your own art, make sure that your portfolio has ten male nudes before you submit a single, nubile female nude. Ten. Make them good. Do it seriously. Because to do it seriously, you'll need to actually pay attention to the artistic stuff. Composition. Lighting. Posing. Physicality. Big fancy important stuff that people used to do in antiquity all the time, and were so good at that they could make old guys look like REAL old guys with a bit more ambient gloriousness.

Because that is what artists DO.

images and original text Copyright © 2013 A. E. Graves

(posted september 29, 2013)

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