Monday, June 4, 2012

Sex and Nudity in Culture and Art

When you move to Europe from a more… puritan influenced culture, they warn you about all the nudity you will see. Maybe it is the fact that I spent a lot of my formative years in Latin America, maybe things are not as bad as people make them out to be, or maybe American culture has declined on the decency-scale… in any case, I have not been shocked much so far. (Then again, maybe my commitments and efforts to ignore such stuff have been more successful than I thought. More on that later.)

Well, six years on all the warnings paid off as a photography exhibit here in Graz has decided to go high profile by plastering posters all over town. Of all the photos the artist is showing, this is the one they have chosen to use in advertisements (slightly modified):

Apologies to my readers who think I didn’t censor enough of this poster. Apologies as well to those who think I have censored the art too much. You can find the real photo all over the place. (And this is the ad not the art after all.)

The way traffic is here you don’t have much opportunity to study ads. But this one doesn’t seem to aim to titillate primarily. The first thing that springs to mind is, “what’s with the hat?” Regardless of whatever the artist’s intentions were, it got me to thinking about nudity in art and culture.

When is nudity porn and when is it a valid tool to communicate important ideas?

What exactly is too much? A lot of Muslim people consider a woman’s neck or even her hair to be off limits.

How does the medium play into the whole issue? Most people don’t consider old paintings to be offensive, even the lewder ones. Sensibilities have changed too much.

Most of the nudity one encounters in film seems to fall into one of two categories. Either it is thrown in to attract audiences who want that sort of thing, or it claims to be important to the story. Either way, you suddenly feel like you have ceased being an audience and have become a perverted peeping tom. There are exceptions. Think some of the nudity in “Schindler’s List” for instance. It doesn’t make you feel great, but then it’s not supposed to.

Evaluating art and culture the way I do, I sometimes have to deal with this issue. Personally, I try to avoid most nudity the way I also avoid more graphic displays of violence or disturbing, horrific images. I don’t want to fill my memory with images that will cause me problems down the road. If I feel a film is important enough to consider despite some of its “naked” content, I watch it with my wife. It’s almost like watching a movie with your parents. It keeps you honest and accountable to your commitments. You just keep your eyeballs on her until she says the coast is clear. Most of the time, as far as nudity in film is concerned you just skip it altogether. The great stories and storytellers don’t need it.

Maybe the same applies to all art.

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