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We live in a pornographic age that falls dismally short of creating what Pope Paul VI called a “climate favorable to education in chastity.” But we misconstrue the problem if we worry only about the sheer number of unclothed bodies, the sheer expanse of exposed flesh, that appears on TV, in film, or on the web. The fundamental problem is not a lack of clothing but the widespread failure of mass and high culture to represent the truth about the human body. We no longer have a visual idiom that enables us to depict the beauty of the human form without arousing lust. Combatting pornography requires not the suppression but the revival of the nude.

Nudes are not, after all, simply naked bodies. “The English language, with its elaborate generosity, distinguishes between the naked and the nude,” Kenneth Clark observes at the beginning of his study of The Nude . To be naked is merely to be unclothed. A nude is something more, a depiction of the body “balanced, prosperous, and confident,” the “body re-formed.”

For the Greeks, nude sculptures (nearly always male) integrated the conflicting principles of the Greek imagination. Nudes embodied an ontology and cosmology. Bodies are pleasing to the eye, yet sculpture elevates the pleasures of bodily form out of the realm of time and change, reconciling time and eternity. Sculptors sculpt in accord with purely intellectual mathematical proportions, but the result is visual and tangible beauty, thus unifying intellect with sensuality. Gods are depicted in stone as idealized men, bridging the divide between mortal and immortal. When the male nude was resurrected in Renaissance painting and sculpture, it again carried ontological weight: For Michelangelo, the male body was godlike, yet he linked his passion for male beauty with Platonic ideals. In Western art, nudes differ from naked bodies because nudes exhibit the aesthetic aspiration to join plastic art with reason.

A distinction without a difference, responds the moralist. Naked is naked is naked. Bodies are supposed to be clothed, and the tradition of the nude only provides aesthetic cover for debauchery and voyeurism. Only aesthetes think there is a difference between nudes and pornography. Pornographers airbrush out blemishes”are they aiming at a Platonic ideal, too? Besides, nudes entice men to lust, as Clark admits: “no nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling,” that is, of desire. “If it does not do so,” Clark adds, “it is bad art and false morals.” Thus far the moralist.

Against the moralist, we can pose the arguments of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body . This is somewhat surprising, since John Paul is himself a moralist. Bodies, he argues, are expressions of spirit, and human bodies are made for personal communication and communion. Artists cannot avoid objectifying bodies to some degree, since all art uproots the human form from its real-life personal subjectivity: Painted bodies don’t look back at the viewer. For this reason, the depiction of the human body in art is never “merely aesthetic, nor morally indifferent.” Depicting the body, clothed or not, is inevitably an ethical problem.

Modern art commonly fails this ethical test because it operates on the “naturalistic” premise that “everything that is human” has a right to be depicted in art, no matter how shameful or disgusting. John Paul doesn’t object to naturalism by taking refuge in “idealistic” art. Rather, naturalism fails because it doesn’t tell the whole truth about man. In its pornographic guise, naturalism reduces the body to an object “intended for the satisfaction of mere concupiscence.” In its aesthetic guise, it often makes the body an object of terror and shame. It is not that naturalism is too truthful; it is not truthful enough, since it denies the central truth that human bodies are created for communion and mutual gift, to express the human spirit, to unveil God’s image on earth.

Despite these cautions, John Paul insists that “it does not at all follow that the human body in its nakedness cannot become the subject of the works of art.” To be ethically sound, depictions of the human body must respect the dignity of the body and the “spousal” meaning of sexuality. Like Clark, John Paul recognizes that the best representations of the body are not mere reproductions but also express “the artist’s creative idea, in which his inner world of values and thus also his way of living the truth of his object manifests itself.” Art involves “a characteristic transfiguration of the model.”

Everything depends on the values that drive this transfiguration. John Paul gives no technical advice, of course, but argues that the artist “must be conscious of the full truth of the object, of the whole scale of values connected with it.” The artist must aim to display in the nude “the whole personal mystery of man.” It is not enough for him to hold these values abstractly; the artist must “also live them rightly himself.” Only on these premises will artistic nudes be an alternative to and not an extension of the pornographic.

What is ultimately needed is not a revival of nude sculpture and painting per se , but a revival of the sensibilities about persons and bodies that produce works to display the glory of human flesh. To fulfill this requirement, artists need more than a theory. They can be trusted to depict human bodies honorably if they pursue what Jesus demanded, “purity of heart.” And that, as John Paul well understood, depends on a fresh evangelization of artists and art.

Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College . His most recent book is Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective (Wipf & Stock). His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here .

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