Throughout the course of history, nudity has remained a complex and severely scrutinised issue within artistic discourse. Artists use nudity to convey senses of beauty, frailty, innocence, commonality and power. Nudity in classical art has often carried some form of religious or spiritual symbolism, rather than eroticism and sexuality which are the most frequent interpretations of the bare human anatomy. Only now, in the context of contemporary society, has nudity retained a certain perplexing quality. With sexualisation an almost customary cultural function, how does one segregate and define what is pornographic and what is art? With the phenomenon of the internet allowing unrestricted access to an infinite array of explicit images, the boundaries of obscenity are constantly being questioned and redefined.
There is no doubt that the subject of sex has permeated the mainstream of Western society. Everyday, each of us is bombarded and confronted by subtle connotations of sex within television, movies, advertisements, magazines, music videos and other conventional media. With this influx of excessively obscene material, the question remains—are pornography and art fundamentally discordant?
Recently, an exhibition of Brisbane artist Anastasia Booth’s work (aptly titled ‘It’s not Arousal just a Parody’ 2011), portraying alluringly tactile sculptures, created much outraged discussion and controversy amongst the owners of businesses near the gallery. Shortly after its opening, the exhibition was forced to close. Although the act of sex itself was not depicted, the contextual framework of fetishism, which Booth had depicted, was deemed to be offensive.1
The subject of sex and nudity in art becomes even more complex with the inclusion of children. Australian artist Bill Henson has been the subject of much publicised scrutiny over the course of the last three decades. Controversy surrounding his work reached a pinnacle in May, 2008, when a photograph illustrating a nude thirteen year old girl was seized by authorities. Many well known members of Australia’s artistic community vocalised their support of Henson and his work. Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister at the time, condemned Henson, labelling his work as ‘revolting’.2
The criticism surrounding Henson’s work is that his images are of a sexually manipulative and exploitative nature. Many critics pungently argue that Henson’s models are not aware of the repercussions of posing naked and are ‘stripped’ of their youthful innocence. But how does one differentiate the opposing discourses, on the one hand, of innocence in the form of the naked figure, and on the other, of sexualisation?3
Essentially art is created with the intent of provoking some kind of thought or feeling. So perhaps pornography can be art and vice versa? Of course nudity can be a form of erotic expression, but there are so many other things which the naked body conveys. Art is infinitely subjective, so interpretation fundamentally lies in the eye of the beholder. Once Picasso mused that ‘Art is never pure, we should keep it far away from the innocent ignorant. We should never let people approach. Yes, art is dangerous. If it is pure it is not art’.4
Images page 88. Anastasia Booth, Loin (Black), 2010. page 89. Bill Henson, Untitled #39, 2007/08. Type C photograph.
127 x 180cm. Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.
Sunshine Beach State High School