My visual artwork is figurative, which means it is almost entirely based on the nude human figure. I can rattle off good reasons for that, as well as unreasoned, visceral motivation. At the end of the day, I’m so used to seeing a the naked human body as the wonderful exoskeleton of the soul, or the filter to experience the world, or the soft and smooth mammalian structure that connects us to our evolutionary past, that it actually requires a conscious shift in thinking to get into a sexy mood.
Looking around, I see that as a rare occurrence in American society, where the naked human body is consumed for profit and/or sexual release, and not really seen as anything else but an object. I’ve seen parents hide their bodies from their kids and curb their kids’ tendency to forgo clothes. I’ve seen society rise up to shame mothers into breastfeeding their infants in private. I’ve seen women work tirelessly to gain the same right to reveal their bodies in public spaces as men take for granted, like at the beach for example, or in art galleries.
I had some work in “Terrain” last year, a vast and varied group show in Spokane. Over a hundred artists participated, and many hundreds of people of all ages came to see, listen, and experience the work. The light was mostly pointed at the art and the performers, and everything in between was obscure, which made it easy to watch the audience react to the show. In one instance, a young boy pointed at a piece of mine, and exclaimed “Daddy, look!” The examined work featured a read end, a hand, feet, a house shape, matches, and it was a about looking back at memories and recontextualizing them so they no longer hurt. The “daddy” looked and quickly whisked the boy away with a look of shame on his face, mumbling something I didn’t get.
I am not alone in thinking that this fear of nudity is ridiculous. I was raised in Europe. I saw my mother’s body every morning as she got ready for work, I saw it change, I saw it differ from my own, I asked questions. I saw topless men and women on the beach and didn’t think anything of it. I went to nude beaches in parts of the world because the feeling of wind on my skin, on all my skin, is quite the experience. I recommend it. I saw porn too. In general, porn is not an exciting product for me because it is transparently fake, and often looks painful. Well-made porn does light a fire, but it requires a mind space that has nothing to do with nudity and more to do with sexuality.
There is nothing inherently evil or wrong about nudity. Think about the summer morning when your baby stretched out on your bare chest and fell asleep. There is nothing purer. What those parents are doing is protecting their kids from what nudity has historically been associated with in American culture, which is sex. In the process, they are reinforcing this association and creating more problems that have to do with body-image and the general understanding of what the human body is for, as their children grow. Instead of rising up to punish mothers for doing the most natural thing, society should release its jealous control on the concept of nudity, especially female nudity, and normalize the human body.
When the naked body is no longer just for sex, boys grow up to see the female body as more than just an object of consumption; in fact, the body will come to be perceived as the complex vehicle of sensation, thought, and function that it is. As a result, the perception of all bodies can move towards equality; the power of corporations to use nakedness for profit will diminish; women can finally claim a safe public space no matter how much they are covered or uncovered, it simply becomes a matter of personal choice.
One can trace a myriad of social ills from over-sexualizing the body. The human body is not a public menace. It is not a danger to society if revealed. The government has no business regulating the level of coverage for human bodies. That responsibility needs to rest at an individual level. When sexual aggressors can no longer blame society for their lack of control, then we can finally stop questioning hem lines and stop re-traumatizing victims.
American personal responsibility is disappearing. Somehow, it only comes up after society has already set people up to fail, and left them to bear the consequences of their publicly encouraged actions alone. Religion bears a lot of the responsibility by taking away personal choice and injecting guilt into natural human activities. In the absence of thousands of years of history, with nude statuary held in awe and respect, American lives are devoid of balance and perspective when it comes to the human body. We should collectively do something to set things right.