Nudity is not only a part of human nature; it has been a part of arts, culture, and worship for thousands of years. As far back as there is written and pictorial documentation of mankind, there has been nudity included. Many cultures, even to this day, treat nudity as a regular part of daily life while in other, more puritanical, parts of the world nudity is viewed as a form of indecency. There is and always will be an effusive debate over what, when it comes to human nakedness, is within the boundaries of art and what lends itself more toward pornography and eroticism.
In times of ancient man, nudity was non-discriminately present in everyday life. Men and women alike spent the majority of their days and nights in the nude, especially in warmer climates. Most anthropologists are of the mind that animal skins and plants were made into clothing only to protect from harsher weather. Still, some believe that the use of such coverings was first developed for decoration to demonstrate prestige or as a part of certain magical practices.
Ancient Egyptian art and hieroglyphs initially led anthropologists to believe that clothing wasn’t worn until puberty and, after that, men often wore clothing except on their chests or feet and women would usually dress in lightly draping, almost see-through fabrics. However, recently discovered tablets show not only Queen Nefertiti but also her husband, Pharaoh Akhen-Aton, as well as the Egyptian court practiced nudism, even in the royal gardens and palace. Queen Nefertiti worshipped the considered nudism and sunbathing to be beneficial for both spiritual reasons and for physical health. In ancient Greece, the naked male form was a symbol of the virility of the nation. The physique of a young male was something to be proudly shown off. However, in ancient Rome, the general attitude was that nudity in public was indecent, no matter how lascivious the behavior inside the home was.
In the Orient, there has always been a noticeable divide between the positions taken on nudity. In ancient Japan, nudity was so readily accepted that such traditions as communal nude bathing became the usual standard. Nude family and mixed bathing were also common as Japan has numerous hot springs. Conversely, the Chinese view nudity as something for the lower-class, the peasants. The upper class viewed nakedness as such a foul sin that the women of high society would not even disrobe for their doctors. Neither Japanese nor Chinese art from ancient times depicts nudity, not due to censorship of nudity in art though. The Japanese generally liked their clothing and considered the removal of it as an essential part of intimacy while the Chinese simply believed that nudity was a great perversion.
As in most things, art reflects the life and, at times, vice versa. As societal proclivities change, so do artistic perspectives. As nudity, which was once generally accepted in society, became more taboo, so did the openly naked portrayal of women and men in art. A well-known example of this is The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli. Since its creation in 1485, the painting has been banned and unbanned and banned again all over the world. By some, it is considered one of the most iconic and beautiful pieces of art in history. Others consider it profane and sexualizing and indecent. At the time of its rendering, the popular definition of beauty in regards to a woman’s body was not the thin, unfed looking models we see in today’s fashion catalogs. Venus is a perfect example of the standard of a beautiful female body during the fifteenth century. The obvious adoration of the onlookers in the painting is often mistaken for sexual desire, one reason used to justify the censorship of the piece. Birth of Venus by William Adolphe Bouguereau has, over the years, suffered similar censorship for its portrayal of the goddess in the nude with admiring onlookers including unclothed cherubic angels.
The pressure of those who would see nudity suppressed in art is so great that some artists have even succumbed to making variations of their art to satisfy the masses. One famous example of this is Francisco de Goya’s painting La Maja Desnuda (The Nude Maja) from 1797 which he repainted in 1803 which was then called La Maja Vestida. Of course, the most famous case of cover-up censorship during the Renaissance period is that of the Last Judgment, a painting, by Michelangelo, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. While there were stirrings of discontent about the piece from the start, it wasn’t until after Michelangelo’s death in 1564 that the nudity was covered up with painted-in scraps of fabric. In 1565, Daniele da Volterra was the artist hired to alter the massive ceiling fresco.
The use of foliage, fabric, veils, and, notably, fig leaves to cover up nudity in the art of all kinds is somewhat amusing as we look back through history. These tactics for bringing modesty to the art pieces actually often times enhanced the sensationalism of a piece because it brought more attention to the area of the body which the censors were attempting to detract attention from. The reverse effect of covering breasts and genitalia became clearer as time went on. In the early to mid-twentieth century, restoration of many of these pieces included removing the cover-up additions of the 1800s.
Censorship of nudity in art has never been confined to paintings. Sculptures, such as Frederick MacMonnies’ bronze sculpture, Bacchante and Infant Faun, was set for installation in the courtyard of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square when the scandal took over, has been treated to the same type of suppression as paintings. A more modern example of the controversial sculpture is the work of Daniel Edwards entitled Monument to Pro-Life: The Birth of Sean Preston which shows a bent over Brittany Spears naked, pregnant and essentially going into labor on a bearskin rug. Some may say that it is a depiction of how popular culture can so easily kill one talent while giving birth to another. Others, however, strongly feel that it is nothing more than a pornographic smear at a music industry icon.
The same type of thinking is often used to validate the censorship of nudity in literature, worship, social events or gatherings and even on private property. People, who feel threatened by nudity, typically see the naked form only in terms of sexual activity, with the little rationalization of the organic nature of the human body being nude. Those who practice nudism sometimes referred to as naturism, generally agree that there is little to no sexual arousal inspired simply by being in the company of other naked people. Most say that, after some time, once a certain level of comfort is reached, it is easy to forget about the nudity entirely.
The entertainment industry as well, from live theater to television, film, and internet, has had to endure various levels of censorship of nudity, often times not taking into consideration whether its inclusion was of an artistic or erotic nature. In 1990, performance artist Karen Finley had her NEA grant revoked because Rowland Evans and Robert Novack, two reporters who wrote a column together, having never even seen her art, chastised her for it. The grant was later refunded; however, the artist took the matter to the Supreme Court. Even more recently, in 2010, video artist Rose Bochovski’s computer-graphic, 3-D film Susa Bubble, which depicts a naked young girl with no sexual context, was removed from the Second Life art gallery
Nudity in art has become so widely accepted that once banned, censored and hidden works such as L'Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World) by Gustave Courbet, which was not allowed in galleries, or included in public showings, from its creation in 1866. Finally, it was featured in a show entitled Courbet Reconsidered at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, more than one hundred years later, in 1988. With this acceptance of nudity in art, it was inevitable that a loosening of the reigns in entertainment and media would soon follow. None of That, an animated short film by Group Suspific, was recently released which tells the story of a museum guard who is supposed to guard the artistic nudes from censorship. It is a talented rendering that, amusingly and entertainingly, looks at the problem of censorship and the potential dangers of it as well. There has even been a recent emergence of nudism on television through reality television shows like The Nak’d Truth, Dating Naked and The Naked Office, a reality show out of the United Kingdom.
Nudity has only been considered rare or taboo during certain periods when puritanical views and conservativism was being touted as the basis of the devout lifestyle. This perspective was sometimes pushed by religious groups and churches who considered baring the flesh in any way to be a sin. However, during the majority of human history, naturism of one form or another has been openly practiced. It wasn’t until 1868, when the first “swimming-costume,” or early bathing suit, was introduced, nude bathing was commonplace at beaches in Europe as well as many other parts of the world. Today, there are some European countries such as Denmark and Germany, where beaches are clothing optional. These beaches are also known as “free beaches.” However, even on these beaches, a large percentage of the patrons opt for, at least, partial clothing.
As a subculture, nudists are really no different than non-nudists except for the desire to sunbathe naked. Many early nudists supported nudism for its positive health attributes and believed that regular nudity was essential to physical as well as mental health. The nudist movement as health and therapy was directly in opposition to the American view of the naked body as something immoral or indecent. Therapist and behavioral psychologists supported naturism as beneficial in building self-confidence and learning to feel comfortable in one’s body. Nudism was also attractive to the bored and under-sexualized white, middle-class looking for release from the monotony of everyday life. Sunbathing in the nude was a popular trend among young Americans in the early to mid-twentieth century. A perk to sunbathing on a nude beach is the anonymity it offers in comparison to going to one of the clubs or resort which require registration, membership applications, and sometimes advanced reservations.
The movement for social nudity carries a wide variety of titles and subjects, including, but not limited to, "naturism," "nudism," "Freikörperkultur (FKK)" and the "free beach movement" as well as generalized "public lands/public nudity" advocacy. The differences between each movement, despite their largely shared common themes, philosophies, challenges, and history are to this day a bit antagonistic. Numerous organizations have been formed to support and protect the rights of people to be nude in both private and public venues, including the International Naturist Federation and Young Naturists America. The first of these organizations was the American League for Physical Culture, founded in the early 1930s by Kurt Barthel, who was inspired by his participation in the German Nacktkultur, a nudist movement which Barthal and two colleagues sought to duplicate in the U.S. This was the short-lived beginnings of the nudist movement in America.
In the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s, Americans once again began to view nudism as sinful. The Puritan background of America, with all of its hang-ups about the naked human body, could not be easily diffused. In 1941, when the US Postal Service revived the enforcement of the Com-stock Law, from 1873, publishers of naturist magazines felt inhibited to send their publications through the mail as they did not want to be fined. In 1958, after Dr. Ilsley Boone had been arguing before the Supreme Court for years that nudism was not pornographic, they finally agreed with him. The police raids of the ’40s and ’50s gradually came to an end with the last raid, on a nudist camp, in 1956 in Michigan. The Michigan Supreme Court, in 1957, ruled that nudists had the right to practice in private resorts and parks. The 1950s are now often referred to as the Golden Age of Nudism.
Following the Golden Age of Nudism, came one of the most famous sexual revolutions of America in the hippie movement. This was a time of free love and open nudity throughout the country but especially at a festival, concerts and other large group events. It is arguable whether the high prevalence of nudity was due to a strong need for self-expression among young adults of the day or simply reflective of the over-accessibility of recreational drugs at the time. Whatever the reason, the nudity of the hippie revolution brought nudism and naturism to the forefront of American society and made it less taboo to be discreetly naked, in the context of a private gathering or inside of a personal residence.
Progress has been made over the years in freeing the human body from censorship and socially imposed restraints. As worldwide communications and connections grow, information is more easily shared, and people’s perspectives are widened in regards to world history, cultural traditions, and the impact of society on the scope of those topics. Some would say people are becoming liberated, others would call it desensitized. No matter what term is put to it, the fact remains that, as milestones of restricting censorship are reached in the arts and entertainment industries, those achievements reach into the culture of the people.
Today, although there is still some level of censorship in all things, there is also safe and respectable ways to include nudity in art and life. The many organizations and movements over the past decades have, little by little, instituted an understanding of nudity as an art form while opening opportunities for safe expression of the varying perspectives regarding nudity. There have been several articles, journals and even books published purporting the benefits of nudity in families, as well as in public venues and events from concerts to yoga classes.
However, that is not to say that the struggle against censorship is, or ever will be, over. On both global as well as the local level, artists, entertainers, families, and individuals still must overcome varying obstacles to create, display and sell their art or to simply live according to their chosen lifestyle. In January of 2015, a photographer from Lansing, Michigan, Amanda Grieshop, had an exhibit, We Are Women, on display in one of the local galleries and event spaces. The showing featured black and white photographs of nude women, some embracing and even showing off their scarred and imperfectly beautiful bodies, others simply living in their skin. In a time when body image is of wide-spread interest and the cultural standards for beauty do not match up to the reality of the average person, Grieshop’s is a resounding body of work. However, when the local paper did a story on the exhibit, they covered the women’s nipples and genital areas with white bars. A theater event, which was also taking place in the event space at the time of the exhibit, requested that the same be done to the actual installation as their show was meant to be family-friendly and they did not want audience members to be offended by the surrounding art.
Censorship of nudity, like art and expression, will continue to change, evolve, and adapt throughout time. There will not come a time for humans when censorship is not considered an option by those who are easily, and sometimes illogically, offended by one thing or another. It is the challenge of each artist, and the duty of each individual, to persevere in the face of such adversity, to continue to create art which challenges the comfort level of the masses and opens up new perspectives for looking at the world. The internet continues to present new challenges to freedom from censorship as there is always an overwhelming number of people who would see the human body constantly covered rather than have to manage their own predisposition toward nudity and sexuality.
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