87.5 F

Davis, California

Tuesday, July 16, 2024

A brief history of nudity and censorship in art

How artists have challenged sexualized narratives of the human body over time


By CORALIE LOON — arts@theaggie.org 


Everyone is born naked — and yet, the discourse around the portrayal of the bare human body has remained fluid, shifting from acceptance to sexualization to even disgust. Some say that the European Renaissance was a celebration of the nude form that has since become increasingly censored and disrupted. In reality, however, there was no historical period where nudity in art went without challenge, and it seems the same holds true today.

The first known depiction of the naked body in art is widely accepted to be “Venus of Willendorf,” an 11 cm-tall figure created sometime between 28,000 and 25,000 B.C. in present-day Austria. After that, nude figures became prominent in ancient Greece, favoring the athletic male body or romantic idealizations of female goddesses.

Nudity in art is often associated with idealized or sexualized bodies. Through this lens, art is a medium through which to “perfect” and gloss over human flaws. This approach to nudity was common in Renaissance art, in which paintings such as Correggio’s “Danaë (1530) depict soft-skinned angels and Duke Federico II Gonzaga posing suggestively. However, even this single narrative fails to encompass the full picture of nudity during the European Renaissance. To say nudity in art is sexual is to say all depictions of nudity have the same purpose, which is grossly untrue. 

Despite modern Christian interpretations of nudity as something that should be avoided in art, some of the most religious messages were depicted in art through the naked body. Cranach’s 1526 “Adam and Eve” shows the biblical figures Eve and Adam with no clothing (save for a few conveniently-placed fig leaves), and paintings of an emaciated Christ such as Giambono’s “Man of Sorrows purposefully put his body on display to symbolize suffering. These paintings seem to show human bodies for reasons other than mere aesthetics: to symbolize strength or suffering. Within religious artwork, the “ideal” of the female form is not fixed, but changes drastically between regions and paintings.

In the present, nudity in art has continued to expand and challenge notions that the human body is inherently sexual. Artist Edgar Degas’s oil paintings of women bathing and cleaning show the mundanity and even awkwardness of unclothed movement. Hildegarde Handsaeme’s paintings and drawings show a variety of female body types in colorful, naked abstraction, each one emphasizing different shapes, contours and positions. These and countless other examples show a third purpose of the nude: to display the human body as natural and beautiful not only because of its sex appeal but because of its form and its ability to hold raw human experiences.

Art inherently pushes away from a single narrative of the body because seeing the human body as art is different than seeing it as a sexual object. The human body as art is composed of shapes, colors, curves, blemishes, stories, movements and identities. It can be sexual when it wants to be, but it is also intimate, revealing the parts of ourselves we’ve been told to hide or be ashamed of.

The vulnerability and perceived sexuality of the body have caused its presence in art to be disputed. Even in the Renaissance, nudity in art was controversial, and many of the paintings we see in museums today were only viewed by a small, elite audience, barred from public display. Today, while general nudity in art is constitutionally protected, it still causes controversy and has the potential to be censored in public places or on social media.

What makes today different from the past is the presence of social media and the algorithm’s ability to censor anything deemed indecent. As the Art Newspaper explains, despite Instagram’s assertion that nudity in art is acceptable, artists’ uploads are consistently censored and flagged for any content that remotely resembles nudity, often incorrectly. 

In an era where AI and art are merging, it is incredibly dangerous to censor human voices and human experiences. Growing coalitions of artists and creatives, such as the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), are pushing to end artistic censorship, envisioning a freer and more equitable world for art.

Whether nudity in art has gained more public approval over time or not, one thing is certain: it has always been questioned, yet it continues to be made and viewed. Art’s job is to continue to break the boundaries placed before it, pursuing a vision of the human body free of shame and stigma. 

Written by: Coralie Loon — arts@theaggie.org