The nude figure and Christianity
2 January 2008 18 Comments
Over the last four or five years I’ve engaged in a number of discussions online concerning the use of nude models in the art world from a Christian perspective. Commonly, a Victorian (or, as some would suggest, “prudish”) sensibility seems to drive many Protestant’s response to any kind of undraped human body, and many people of faith condemn the use of nudes in the teaching of art.
A number of factors must be considered when approaching this subject, including the place of the human form in Creation, the place of the human form in artistic tradition, how the human form is viewed in present day culture and, as Christians, the human tendency to pervert all good things. I recently, perchance, ran across Gordon College’s policy and reasoning for the use of nudes in their drawing classes; Gordon is a private, faith-based institution. Some key points in their article are excerpted here:
“We have chosen in the Art Department at Gordon College to work respectfully with the human figure attempting to bring honor and glory to God in the process. We base this, in a Christian context, on a time-honored professional practice, holding the belief that the human form is the crowning achievement of God in Creation – worthy of our expert knowledge, and analogous to the scientific knowledge of the human body in medicine and biology. In our tradition as artists it is seen as the linchpin of our practice of visual knowledge. If you can accurately and expressively draw or paint or sculpt the human form you can draw anything.”
“In our teaching, the nude has much more in common with medical knowledge than with popular sexualization of images in advertising and movies. The context of the encounter determines the meaning of the unclothed form. An operating theater in a hospital has a drastically different meaning from that of a strip joint. An art studio with students or artists surrounding a model is akin to the operating theater. Knowledge is being gained and a professional activity is being practiced.”
My own experience drawing with the aid of nude figures at the University of Nebraska followed this same professional decorum. Never was the act of drawing with a live, undraped model sexual or erotic. It was academic and — despite not preferring the teaching style of my professor — key to furthering my own skills. I learned more in my figure drawing class than I could have imagined, and firmly believe the cause of this learning was directly related to the challenges inherent in rendering the human form. Ironically, the two models I drew most while in class went to my church (and happened to be brother and sister).
My brother, who attended a different public university in Nebraska, drew from models not entirely undraped, but in their underwear. My mother relayed to me that he was personally glad for this. I find it interesting, however, that it’s not just Christian schools that hedge against nudity.
In the last year I’ve desired to begin sketching again, in order to further my craft in all respects. Knowing the important part figure drawing played in my artistic development during college, this is where I would like to focus. However, I don’t have access to models at this point (and can’t really afford to pay them anyway) and haven’t begun sketching regularly despite my desire. Another option lies with the variety of books for artists available at major retailers. These feature numerous photographs or drawings of nude models in a variety of poses. I fear, however, this option falls short of the actual experience; the photos are small and detail will certainly be compromised.
Here in America we are a bit prudish at times (I remember when, in college, friends of mine — being female — offered room and board temporarily to a German friend — being male — who had no problems with walking around in the nude after showering, to the girl’s chagrin. All three involved were Christ-followers.). Here in the United States we are required, to a degree, to suffer through overly-sexualized, unrealistically-modified advertising on a ludicrous and unhealthy scale — a fact which distorts our perception of reality and can subsequently wreak havoc in almost all areas of our lives.
Perhaps a renaissance in figure drawing is a good antidote to the absurd culture that marketers of “beauty” and film-makers have cultivated around us. Maybe a resurgence of the nude (“nude” being different than “naked”) in American art could actually serve to refocus our perspective. Maybe if our reaction to the Divinely created human body weren’t so awkward — perhaps most often a mixture of lust and shame — women would not feel pressured into hiding while breast-feeding, a beautifully intimate but non-sexual act. Just maybe the culture would be less prone to sexualizing (read “objectifying”) women and, more and more, men. Perhaps God would be more glorified when people took the time to observe new drawings and paintings depicting the figure, as they contemplate how wonderfully and fearfully made we are.