“Do women have to be naked to get into U.S museums?” When the feminist group Guerilla Girls asked this question in 1989, they pointed to an obvious but oddly glossed-over fact: history of art is full of naked people, most of them women. And if it weren’t for an art-historical tradition of viewing the unclothed figure as artfully, aesthetically, unerotically “nude”—rather than plain naked—the lofty halls of the Met would fall afoul of obscenity laws. Actually, why hasn’t it? On the occasion of No Clothes, Grace Coddington’s curated auction of nudes, we explore the difference between naked and nude and take a look at the history of the unclothed body.
Art historian Kenneth Clark famously pointed out the difference between nude and naked, arguing that the nude is abstract, desexualized, perfect, while the naked is just brute corporeal fact. The distinction extends to the increasingly problematic difference between art and pornography: art, which is the realm of the nude, elevates; pornography, the realm of the naked, is merely a means to a sexual end—or so the argument goes.
But of course the body and its representation mean different things depending on time and context. Thanks to Adam and Eve, being unclothed is riddled with post-Lapserian guilt—according to biblical tradition, the body was pathetic and fallible, the base material that trapped the soul. For the Greeks and Romans, on the other hand, the nude body was a sign of strength and virility, virtues generally gendered male. Impossibly beautiful, the body in the Greco-Roman imaginary should be just out of reach—a divine nude rather than a naked guy.
The implications of the nude become especially problematic when it is embedded in a history of its objectification and control. In a patriarchal society, it is no wonder that our first image of a nude (and naked, for that matter) figure will probably be a female one displayed for a historically gendered male gaze. From at least the 1970s, artists attempted to emphasize and dismantle this, uncovering who is doing the representation, who is represented and who might be looking. They raised questions of sexuality and eroticism, asking why a male figure couldn’t be supine and languid (i.e. gendered “female”) rather than upright and strong; or why so often in art the woman had to be unclothed and the man dressed. In all cases, the body was recognized as being caught up in a web of competing politics of representation and uses. Neither simply a lump of meat nor an idealized abstraction, the body works, suffers, and changes.
Artists today approach the body from multiple points of view, negotiating the field of its representation with concerns of race, gender, sexuality and class. Often acting simultaneously as practitioners and critics of visual culture, they examine contemporary body politics by exploring the differences between the idealized nude and the naked body. The works gathered here raise these very questions—for example, is Juergen Teller’s model (pictured above) naked or nude? She is caught in the flash of a camera as if the subjects of a cheap pornographic shoot. But she is also set against that heroic and nameless nude of the French Revolution, Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. The painting might act like the very prop Manet’s courtesan lacked, making the model’s body abstracted, desexualized, and nude. Or conversely, the two models – one living, one in paint—might heighten the other’s nakedness. Ultimately, they may be either or both at once.
The body is constantly being read in different ways while its representations are as multiple as its capabilities: disgusting, beautiful, violent, humorous or courageous. And when the boundaries and meanings of nakedness and nudity are increasingly shifting and hard to determine, where exactly should we put the fig leaf?