Reflection on the Nature of Nudity and Nakedness in Visual Imagery

 

The first casual thought on differences between naked and nude usually leads to a question. Namely, “What’s the difference”? We rarely differentiate between the two in our everyday thought process. Americans, especially those of a conservative mind frame, seem to feel that all images or persons without clothing are both naked and nude. The differentiation tends to be slight and the lack of clothing viewed as mostly inappropriate. And yet, another group of westerners, more liberal in their interpretations, see all lack of clothing as “expression” or freedom. The statement, “I am just being myself” has been sorely abused in our culture. But as one delves deeper into the heart of the matter, it can be seen that naked and nude are two very different things. One is highly revealing and expressive while the other exists for the sake of consumption and possession. To better comprehend this differentiation we will look to John Berger’s definition from his work Ways of Seeing. Using these definitions as a litmus, one can examine specific examples, come to a better understanding of both male and female images, and begin to define the shape and nature of the pornographic.

First, one must understand the distinction between nude and naked. According to Berger,

To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to be nude… Naked reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display…The nude is condemned to never be naked. Nudity is a form of dress (Berger 54)”.

In other words, naked is a state of baring oneself. It is the raw form of humanity untouched by drapery and decoration. Naked is a revelation of the essential, undefended, actual body and often times shows more than just skin. It states much about the actuality and reality of the individual. It is, in a sense, their truth. Nudity, however, is meant for consumption. The viewer is the dominant party in this relationship. The person or persons shown in this way are baring only their skin and showing only character for display. It is intended for the viewer to posses this image in their mind for their own purpose. Nudes are by their nature, entertainment whether innocent or wicked. They are expressly for you and not for the subject as the subject has now become object. So now, we are left with quite a striking dichotomy. The two are actually very different aside from the lack of bodily covering.

Putting these definitions in place, let us look to specific examples of each. Sally Mann’s Jessie at 6 is an excellent example of naked. As you view the image, you can easily notice that the scene is not constructed. We are seeing this child in their natural habitat simply being a child. A total declaration of “This is me” can be felt just by looking into the eyes of the child. At no moment is the image indicative of a desire to be consumed or possessed. In fact, even if you tried, you could never have this image. The character is too real, too strong, too raw. The child states themselves as very much present in the scene. The viewer can almost hear the declaration “I am here”. This is vital to the sense of nakedness. A strong representation of the individual as such must be inherent in a piece to maintain the subject. And in the case of Sally Mann’s photo of her child, this is explicitly the case.

In the instance of nudity, Egon Schiele’s Eros stands as a challenging example. While one may see the subject as very definitive and assertive in his presence in the piece, he is nonetheless creating a sense of desire to be desired. It is most definitely an “I want you to want me” situation. Calling upon the nature of the Greek god Eros, the god of sexual love and beauty, Schiele presents a character that demands you look at his genitalia as he presents it in a sexually suggestive manner. The subject displays his body with the intention to be desired. He wants you to yearn for him, to welcome his body and draw it to yours. His erect penis suggests that he is ready to give you himself and fully intends to. Though his presence may seems dominant the image is still intended for you to have and to lust for. It is meant fully to be taken in and owned. This is the trademark of the nude. It exists solely for you to want, consume, own, desire, and possess. Make no mistake, Schiele’s Eros wants you to have him.

Berger’s definitions hold up very well regardless of subject gender, sexuality, age, race, or faith. It is concrete and affords the viewer guidelines for interpretations of the many images taken in on a daily basis. This also helps to define more clearly how one can understand the nature of the pornographic. Pornographic images can be defined as any image, still or moving, that is intended for sexual gratification whether emotionally, mentally, or physically masturbatory. The reliving of images and events mentally and emotionally are just as masturbatory as physical masturbation in this case as the action is repeated for the sake of eventual pleasure, release, or relief whether compulsive or voluntary. In the case of the pornographic image, this occurrence is meant to be stimulated or aided. Just like masturbation, pornography is solitary and excludes the other whether that other is living or imagined. The incident is isolated and personal only for the masturbator. The image or images exist only for the purpose/s of the viewer/consumer.

In this sense, both images taken into account earlier measure up as non pornographic in that they are not meant for the masturbatory but for the sake of greater expression. Not all nudes are pornographic. The Schiele Eros is intended to express a sense of sexual desire, but only in the sense that you recognize a raw feeling that encapsulates the idea of the god. The subject is removed in this image and objectified, not for the sake of viewer gratification, but for the sake of removing all obstacles from the raw nature and reality of sex and beauty. It is not merely an image of Eros but, rather, a statement on Schiele’s view of human sex. This puts the Eros image with Mann’s photo in a category of the non pornographic.

Titian’s Venus of Urbino is, however, an image that would fit the previously defined notion of pornography. The woman in this painting is on display in a bodily sense and is not meant to be definitive of her personality. It is a scene meant to portray a character of beauty and desire but not for the sake of conveying the essence of Venus. Titian’s piece is for the viewer. The audience is meant to behold her nudity and not her naked self. The self is fully removed and, unlike Schiele’s piece, replaced with a false character of sexual enticement. She turns herself fully toward the viewer to display both breasts fully and teasingly half covers her genitalia in an attempt to create the desire to see more. She plays the role of temptress rather than goddess. In Titian’s portrayal, we have a woman begging you to want more to crave to view her nudity. The image is focused fully on the desire to be consumed for the purpose of the witness. The painting contains no male influence and shows things such as flowers (fertility symbol), a female caretaker, and a dog sleeping at the foot of the bed content to just be near its beloved Venus. All of these add up to present the viewer, which Berger argues is obviously intended to be male (Berger 54), with an ideal image of the sexually desirable. The audience is meant to want her. They are not just intended to feel a desire for a wife such as this, but to feel a strong desire to have intercourse with this imagined perfect woman. The Venus has been fully abandoned in Titian’s portrayal. Instead we are presented with a very nude woman asking that we only see her body as an object of sexual consequence alone. The work may be considered a classic piece, but it is most certainly a classic piece of pornography.

The question of naked or nude runs far deeper than one would believe upon brief inspection. A glossing over of the matter is essentially incomplete. When examining the matter more in depth, a very strong distinction between both naked and nude can be seen. While nakedness reveals and stands starkly as individual, nudity erases the subject and replaces it with an object or objectification. This holds true when deconstructing and evaluating specific images and lends itself to better understanding of the nature of those images. We, as viewers, must then move forward with this greater perspective and begin to valuate from an entirely new vantage point. When considering the nakedness or nudity of an image, the audience can start to understand its place in the broad spectrum of visual communication. What do we see and what are we intended to see? This question should be the heart of every visual interpretation. And, though this may be more painstaking than passive reception, it is, nonetheless, vital to the greater comprehension of our world. As James Elkins indicates in The Object Stares Back, “All seeing, I think, is painful” (Elkins 28). The final question in each instance of viewing then must be, is this the pain of personal growth and individualism or the pain of silent nonexistence? Whether we see an individual in an image, consume a false character, or wallow in the many forms of masturbatory processes, our eyes will hurt. Knowing why they hurt is the crux of the enlightened being.

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