05 February 2010

Nudity in Art in the Classroom

At one of my Ekphrasis session, a topic came up that I’ll treat separately here. There were two art teachers present. One teaches in the local Christian high school where I taught for one year; the other teaches art and art history to homeschooled students of all ages at the arts academy where I currently teach English. I should mention that both of these schools are fairly “conservative,” even “fundamentalist,” populated mostly by Evangelicals. In the high school, many of the families (and faculty/staff) would be of the Young-Earth no-dancing type of persuasion. In the course of Ekphrasis, the topic of nudity in art in the classroom was broached. Two widely different approaches became clear.

Teacher #1, the high school teacher, said that he puts post-it notes or little cut-out black construction paper shorts over the private parts of nude figures in his art books. He laughed that students will peak underneath the paper shorts of, say, The David. But on the other hand, students want to help cover up the nude figures and will participate in the cutting-out of paper shorts and the application of strategically placed post-it fig leaves.

Teacher #2, the homeschool teacher, on the other hand, shows nude art to her students. She begins when they are fairly young (I would guess late elementary school?). She talks to them about why artists do this: To celebrate the beauty of the human body, perhaps, or to practice their own technical skill in depicting such a difficult subject. She explains the difference between nudity and nakedness. And they’re fine with that.

Here’s a personal anecdote. At the same school where Teacher #1 works, I was teaching a Greek Mythology unit to the 10th graders. In addition to learning facts and stories about the Greek gods, goddesses, and heroes, they were responsible to learn how to recognize these characters by their distinctive features, objects, and so on. We had a Visual Arts quiz, thus. I chose ten or so of these Greek characters, found online two works of art for each, and presented a slide show of the images. The students had to identify the god, goddess, or hero in each pair of paintings/sculptures. But before we got into this unit, I gave them a little lecture about nudity in art. I explained why the artists did it (see above) and told the students: “You are going to have to be mature about this. If anyone is uncomfortable, come and tell me and we won’t do it. But once we begin, you are not allowed to laugh, snicker, make snide comments, or anything. Just act calm and adult and don’t be weird about it.” And you know what: it worked! One class was totally fine: just looking at the images and quietly focusing on the identification task at hand. In the other, one young wag started to laugh and make a comment at the first picture of Zeus (with rather prominent masculinity), but caught himself immediately, said, “Oh, wait, we’re not allowed to do that,” apologized, and acted mature all the rest of the time.

So I do not wish to cause any young people to stumble by putting before them images that might cause them to lust. But I believe that there are three different approaches to the unclothed human body: (1) sexually, lusting after it carnally (2) artistically, appreciating its glorious beauty as created by God (3) medically, looking at it as flesh whose health needs to be promoted and maintained. However, it’s hard to know for sure if we can appreciate the unclothed human body purely artistically: I mean, be honest, we’re fallen, we’re sexual, we’re driven (sometimes, to some extent) by appetites. Yet I’m not convinced that keeping away from great art, simply because one has an overblown libido, is the answer—anymore than keeping away from certain classic literature that describes sex, sexuality, or attractive persons. Shouldn’t we strive to raise our desires from the merely carnal to the aesthetic in situations in which the carnal is inappropriate? Shouldn’t I learn to look at the David without blushing?

Here is a Classical school's position paper on nudity in art; it falls pretty far on the 'conservative' side, keeping students away from such art unless they happen to encounter it in supplemental materials.

On the other end of the Christian spectrum, here's a statement on the use of nude models from Gordon College, my alma mater.


Brian Taylor - British Naturism said...

I applaud your college's attitude to nudity in art. It is far better to teach students to take a mature approach to the subject and appreciate the naked human form for its aesthetic beauty. Michaelangelo's David is a fine work of art and is in no way sexual or shameful.

If I may quote the words of Pope John Paul II:

"The human body can remain nude and uncovered and preserve intact its splendor and its beauty... Nakedness as such is not to be equated with physical shamelessness... Immodesty is present only when nakedness plays a negative role with regard to the value of the person... The human body is not in itself shameful... Shamelessness (just like shame and modesty) is a function of the interior of a person."

Your attitude has to be the best way to promote an appreciation of the human form that rises above the base and shameful to one of respect. Post-it notes will not achieve that!

Rosie Perera said...

You wrote of "three different approaches to the unclothed human body." I believe there is a fourth, which is "shame, embarrassment, giggling, immaturity." This is the type displayed by school chidren when they lift the post-it "figs" to see the private parts. I don't think their behavior falls into your category 1: "sexually, lusting after it carnally." Many of these kids have not even reached puberty so they are not sexually desiring the body. They are curious, for sure. And they know there is something forbidden, because they've been told by parents and school authorities not to look at such things. So they become childish and silly about it. I remember when I was in grade school it was common knowledge among my classmates that there was a picture of a naked boy (having just stepped out of a bath, without the towel wrapped around him) in volume 8 of a certain encyclopedia aimed at youth. We all giggled about it and would go look it up. The page fell open easily, since kids had been doing this for years. We were not sexually aroused at the image -- just incredibly curious about what boys had down there which was hidden to us girls. If we had been exposed to it in art it would have been no big deal.