Thursday, February 22, 2007

Confessions… Now with full, frontal nudity!

I heard a really good definition for obscenity a while ago in an interview on the Mars Hill Audio journal. Unfortunately I was listening to the entire archive going back over 10 years, so I can't find the exact tape the interview was on or the exact quote, or even who said it. (How's that for scholarly research?) But it went something like this: Obscenity is the display of any physical human function divorced from its spiritual side. In other words, when you focus on something like sex, chewing food, bleeding, excreting, etc. without any regard for the soul that is inhabiting the body that is carrying out the activity, it will always appear obscene. This is perennial because humans intuitively know that there is more to life then the physical processes that are playing out before us. And to exclude that hidden dimension is to reduce humanity to meat, to ignore God, and to devalue all moral or ethical considerations. If you know anything about modern art you may have noticed that such exercises are seen as virtues and get described as "brave", "unflinching", "gritty", etc. It's sad to me that the current trend in sculpture is to push this boundary through hyper-realism. Yet, the irony is that the more realistic and "gritty" a figure is made, the less realistically they are portrayed as they lose all semblance of humanity. The clear message is like having a mirror shoved up your nose and being told you are nothing but a gross hunk of meat.

I can see a better path available to the artist. A more noble use of our talents. And that is to unify, balance, and portray the complexities of the human condition. To ignore our soul is myopic. To ignore our bodies is myopic. To find and reveal the fusion of the two is the perennial challenge of creating great art.

Speaking of great art, I'm not a great artist. I've been told by many great artists that an indispensable exercise for becoming better is figure drawing. I managed to get through art school without ever doing it. I guess because my degree was Industrial Design. I had a few opportunities to try it, but my wife-at-the-time was uncomfortable with the idea of me staring at another naked woman. This is a valid feeling, and something I've always wondered about. Men have chemicals that automatically start pumping when exposed to visual stimulus. They don't need to feel an emotional connection with a woman before they start thinking sexual thoughts. So how does an artist render a nude without thoughts of lust. (Assuming the model is not horrifically ugly.)

I've always recognized that I'm not a great artist, and don't really have aspirations of becoming one. But I've always wanted to improve. So when an opportunity for figure drawing arose recently I began to seriously reconsider it. A friend at work started a weekly class right here in the building. But how does a morally conservative Christian approach this issue? Well, I think the best approach is to acknowledge all the dimensions of it. The physical, spiritual and emotional. I've usually heard these sides of the issue pooh-poohed as silly. As though there could not be any sort of illicit problems inherent with a naked person in the room when something as lofty as art is being performed.

Something I've noticed in life is that people are too quick to dismiss the ancillary effects of many things. One example of this is the medical profession. They are finally starting to recognize that a doctor can not simply operate as a mechanic. The body/mind/soul is integrated and excluding two-thirds of the equation is not good medicine. It is fine to focus on one aspect, but wrong to completely ignore the others. So it should be with art. And thus I am being very introspective when it comes to the process of drawing a nude figure.

The surface event is this: a group of artists pay a model to disrobe and pose for them while they practice their skills. But beyond that, we have a group of spiritual beings engaged in more than a monetary exchange. Nakedness has deep spiritual significance. Something Moses notes over and over again when he speaks of Eden is the fact that Adam and Eve were naked and not ashamed. That state is held in clear contrast with our current, post-fallen state where the natural reaction to nakedness is shame and vulnerability. I think an artist needs to understand that in order to capture the humanity of a model. A model must have the rare ability to suppress the natural feelings of shame and vulnerability in order to do what they do, but that does not mean those feelings don't exist. Yes, I am aware of the rare exceptions: the people who actually enjoy exposing themselves. But it doesn't make sense to operate by the exception rather than the rule. My point is that I find it important to think about what's going on in a holistic fashion, rather than just the surface.

So for me personally, I spent some time praying about it, and thinking about how figure drawing enters into my wedding vows and relationship with God. First of all, I promised that my body would belong to Heather, and no one else. Besides the obvious physical manifestation of that idea is the deeper, emotional and spiritual aspect. My eyes and my mind are a part of my body that actually require daily upkeep in order to honor my vows. I've never had a problem with being tempted to have an affair, but as a man, my body and mind is designed to react sexually to certain stimuli. I wish it wasn't, but those are the facts that half the planet has to live with. So how can I consider looking at another naked woman while still maintaining a holistic fidelity to my wonderful wife? Context certainly plays a large role. There is a big difference between looking at a naked woman alone in a hotel room or in a magazine, and looking at a naked woman with a group of 15 other artists with a job to do. BUT. Context does not necessarily overpower a man's normal internal workings.

As I said, I prayed about it, and asked Heather about it. She didn't seem to have a problem with it, so I decided to try it out. I had every intention on finding a problem and walking out as soon as class started, but that was not the case. I was determined to evaluate my mind and emotions, looking specifically for any trace of lust or related infidelity. And while the model was not ugly, I found that there truly was a different mode, or frame of mind that I was in while drawing her. I don't think a human can every truly be stripped of their sexuality. God made us this way. But as my opening paragraph described, there is a way of incorporating multiple aspects of a human into art that keeps it from being obscene simply by avoiding a leering or over-sexualized focus on the physical. The care required to faithfully depict a human – sexuality and the other, more important aspects – is what makes art resonate with people. I'm certainly not saying that I'm anywhere near that goal, but I see it as one. And I'm still struggling with the mechanical aspects of art, so what do I know?

Anyway, I was stressed out the entire time as I struggled to translate an organic three dimensional form to a two dimensional image. They started out with 2 minute poses and I felt like I was trying to decipher a complicated algebra equation. Eventually the pose-times were increased to 20 minutes… and I still felt rushed. I think that's because I always want to precisely illustrate rather than interpret through gesture. But the exercise of attempting to turn reality into a drawing forced me to drop some habits that I hadn't realized I had formed over the years. I had to rethink how I approached anatomy, lighting and probably several other things I'm not aware of yet. So all-in-all I'd say it was a great experience that helped me quite a bit, and I can see how doing more of it would really grow me as an artist. I've got a couple drawings here just as a lark since it was my first attempt. They are quite bad, but that's ok… I don't have much of an art ego.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Roopster said...

Joshua,

Loved the art and your comments. My wife actually supports having this type of art in our home but we have not yet because of the kids and the way society (specifically church culture) views this.

9:46 AM  
Blogger Larry said...

I have searched for a while to find a well written and balanced approach to a Christian's perspective to nudity and art. This is one of the first that discusses the difficulty of divorcing the moral and spiritual from a physical work as well as the natural stimulation that men can feel when faced with nude works.

Thank you.

7:36 AM  

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