Sir Kenneth Clark wrote a lot about the nude in art – a couple of big books, and hosted a series about the nude through history on educational TV. Seems the body hasn’t changed since the beginning but its presentation varies widely, and since the denominator stays the same we gain a little insight into how different cultures thought about themselves and everything else. As an example, in modern times Hugh Hefner became famous and rich depicting the female nude in the form of retouched photos. Almost anyone can see these photographs reveal much more about Hef and his readership than about women, humanity at large, or the world around them.
The reason, by the way, for not wearing clothes is because clothing indicates period and rank, and art sometimes aims for something more universal. Beyond that the nude makes an excellent subject because we grew up in families, see each other and have mirrors – we all know the subject well. In some periods the nude demurs and looks away, and everyone expects this. Economic change occurs, society changes, and then one day a nude looks directly out of the picture and into the eyes of the viewer, causing quite a scandal. This assertion of personality on the part of the nude person eventually changes the way people see themselves, as does the character and dignity of the whole presentation. Art is the mental mirror of any culture and the unchanging nude human figure is its key.
Recent distortions in body image which the experts trace largely to advertising have caused both men and women to make fetishes of their own bodies, saving up their nickels to be surgically altered. It’s like an epidemic. Researchers have found skeletal people see themselves as fat, stout folks see themselves thinner, and lots of people obsess about some part or other -- it just seems unhealthy. And then there’s contemporary art.
Metaphoric and ironic are ways to avoid what’s actually there, and it isn’t always as clever as it is sort of sad. Consider the “Nude Show” at the Lexington Art League, a venerable and tax supported non-profit cultural asset to our community. As body images go, it’s all really kinda creepy. They did say in advance that they wouldn’t be interested in rational arms and legs sorts of images but that doesn’t keep the entire enterprise from having evolved into something deranged. This notion that thoughts are better than deeds, that process is more important than product, and that contemporary art is an honest expression of the culture which supports it could use a little distance, an objective assessment, a comparison with everyday reality. Remove the feeding tube of everybody’s money from these cultural charities with their presumption of knowing what's good for the rest of us, and art will begin to bend back toward a common sensibility, and will more truly represent who we are and how we see ourselves.