Nakedness, Nudity and Sex

In ‘Ways of Seeing’ by John Berger, he argues that there is an inherent difference between nakedness and nudity. Making references to classical paintings, he argues that the unclothed women are not naked, but nude.

Now what is the difference between nakedness and nudity? Berger argues that nudity is a performance. More specifically, he states:

to be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen by others, and yet not recognised for oneself.’

If you ever happen to find yourself tumbling across the Google definition of ‘nude’, you’ll find various definitions. ‘Wearing no clothes; naked’, it says in one definition. Another states ‘a naked human figure, typically as the subject of a painting, sculpture or photograph’, and it is this second definition that is most interesting.

Various words within this definition stand out. Indeed, the fact that a nude is ‘the subject of a painting, sculpture or photograph’, demonstrations how nudity is an artistic performance; it is something that is not natural, but crafted. ‘The subject’ is transformed from person, to symbol. Berger also goes on to argue that ‘a nude has to be seen as an object in order to be a nude’. We thus do not see the unclothed figure for themselves, but for ‘the subject’ – the object – they become.

When we know when we are being watched, we behave in ways that we would otherwise not behave. It’s the whole paradox of the man who is being filmed and is asked to act naturally. He freezes up. Why? Because, ‘normality’ is something that cannot be truly re-enacted without some state of performance. After all, what is normality apart from a total sense of subconscious spontaneity?

Take this painting by Tintoretto called Susanna and The Elders. We see an unclothed woman (Susanna) being attended to and being watched by various creeping men (the elders).

susanne end th eelders.jpg

Here, we see Susanna’s every move being determined by her state of being watched – of her need to perform to watching eyes.

She is being attended to by her female accompaniments. Her hair is being tidied, her feet are being checked – she is being scrutinised and examined. On the far right, we see two men spying looks at her naked body. Susanna looks at us, looking at her. Susanna, herself, becomes a piece of art. For, she is something that is to be observed. She understands the relationship between her and her viewer, and acts accordingly. In the painting, we see what it really means to observe a nude painting: it is to turn the (female) body into an object that is to be edited of fault and observed, rather than to something that is to be lived.

In Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, there is a scene in which protagonist Nora furiously dances the tarantella. She is having to perform her identity under the scrutinising male gaze of her husband and a man devoutly in love with her. Her identity becomes lost under layers of performance; the two men’s gaze ‘desouls’ her. She becomes a ‘doll’ in which it is the gaze and the manipulation of others that determines her identity.

In many ways, Nora is nude. She is seen, but she is not really seen. Nora demands her friend, Kristine, (also in the room) to ‘see what fun we’re having’. But Nora isn’t having ‘fun’; she is being told by the male figures also present that she is having fun. The dynamic of Nora, Helmer and Rank on stage is one that creates a sense of entrapment: Nora is being physical imprisoned by the male gaze. Her dancing turns ‘wild’ and her hair dramatically falls out of its carefully crafted up-do to also fling wildly about her. Her inability to live without this imposed identity upon her and to be truly seen for who she is rather than who the men think she is, causes her to mentally collapse in the form of the tarantella. While her crazed dance is a physical and symbolic performance, it is also – paradoxically – a true revealing of her soul: she has lost her true identity, with performance being the only thing she has left.

By asking to be ‘seen’, Nora is demanding that we not only superficially look at her dancing, but to see the relationship between her maddening dance and the effect of the male gaze forced upon her. And, in doing this, she is asking to be saved from her own performance – while it is eyes of the male gaze that is entrapping her, she is asking for the eyes of the viewers to save her. Identity is something that is to be lived, to be seen.

Nora is thus asking to be seen, rather than to be looked upon. In a nude painting, the body is reduced to surface symbol. She, like Susan, is a body to be manipulated. She is not being ‘seen as oneself’ and no longer wants to be reduced to surface symbol and have her identity externally imposed upon her. She wants to be seen nakedly.

In referring to this particular scene, Toril Moi argues that ‘to think of the body as a surface is to theatricalise it: whatever the body does or says will be perceived as a performance, not an expression. To think of it as a thing or a pure materiality is to de-soul it, to render it inhuman’. The subject in a nude is no longer human but it is something to be used.

Thus, in a nude paining or a nude photograph or in a nude situation, the subject is not acting in a state of normality – they are performing. And, when we are performing, we are not ourselves. Susanna looks at us in the knowledge that she is being watched; she dictates what we see of her. When the subject performs, they are showing us what they want us to see. We are thus showed a hyperbolised version of the subject.

 

Indeed, this is something that does not just apply to nudity. For example, take the photo you use for your social media accounts. Is the photo one of the ‘real’, every day you? Or is it a photo that is as much lighting, angels and makeup as it is you? How much of your social media is ‘you’, and how much is it the persona you have crafted, tweeted and deleted to display to the world? Many of us unwittingly perform a crafted version of ourselves on a daily basis, whether we are aware of it or not.

To be nude, therefore, is to be naked without being naked. It is to expose yourself physically, but to hide your true self behind layers of performance.

We must thereby ask: how far does this state of nudity (the act of being unclothed without being naked, if nakedness is seen as the state of being undressed without performance), extend to?

We typically think of sex as a naked act. And, of course, on first inspection, it seems to be. For, surely, sex is the most naked act in the world? You are undressed and allowing an alien body into a sphere that is typically untouched by the external world. While we may exist in the physical world, the world of the self is one that exists separately altogether.

In Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the protagonist, Tomas, does not see any connection between love and sex. For him, sex is a purely physical act. Just because he sleeps with multiple women (of which he does a lot), does not mean however that he does not love his girlfriend – he does. However, for him, sex is a purely physical, rather than an emotional, joy.

Tomas therefore does not see the distinction between being nude and between being naked. For him, an unclothed body is an unclothed body. Like in a nude, the body becomes an object that is to be used by the viewer. Tomas is stuck in a state of nudity, rather than having any understanding of nakedness.

Tomas’ views are perhaps too extreme to convince the average reading of his logic. However, he does have a point.

When we partake in acts of casual sex we, like the person posing to be painted, are performing. We show the other person what we want them to see. We act in ways we wouldn’t normally act.

The short space of time in which the moment exists acts as the frame. The moment becomes frozen in time; the painting of the evening’s miscellaneous adventures hangs up in the corridor of our memories and the images of ourselves painted across the canvass becomes an idealised (or perhaps a nightmare, depending on the success of the night) version of ourselves. We do not reveal our true identities. To return back to Berger, we are ‘not recognised as oneself’. We are nude.

Casual sex is a purely physical act – just like how Tomas perceives it.

What makes sex differ with a lover, therefore, is this state of both physical and emotional nakedness.

When you have sex with someone you love, there is no need to perform. You don’t need to try and hide the lettuce leaf-shaped birthmark on your thigh. You don’t need to pretend to be someone you’re not in order to impress them. You don’t need to hide your stuffed toy that you’ve had since you were three that’s caught between your bed sheets.

A few months ago after a drunken night out, a friend of mine, Toby, came out with an unexpected epigraph of wisdom as we sat in Maccies eating our half-cold chicken nuggets at 4am. In trying to defend the university rugby team’s initiation ceremonies (this year the male rugby team had to crawl nakedly around Hyde Park – commonly known as ‘rape park’ for obvious reasons – cupping the guy’s balls in front of them as they made a human centipede), he said: ‘it’s only gay, if you’re gay’.

We all sat in a more than silent trance in a moment of shock at Toby’s new-found philosophical discovery, before bursting into a fit of overwhelming hysterics.

However, the reason I mention Toby’s 4am philosophy is because, not only is it very true, but this kind of mentality can be applied to our philosophy of sex, also.

So, to paraphrase Toby, sex only means something if it (or the person) means something to you. Otherwise sex, is just sex. It is an act that is too clouded in performance to be a thing of intimacy. It is primarily a selfish act to satisfy your own animalistic-needs rather than to connect yourself to another human being. For sex to truly mean something, it is to be in a state of both physical and emotional nakedness.

James Wood wrote in The Nearest Thing to Life that ‘it is by noticing people seriously that you begin to understand them […] to notice is to rescue, to redeem’.

What he is saying here is that, to see someone for how they are – to see them nakedly – is to liberate them. It is to let them exist in their own form. And, when we give someone such a privilege, it is then – and only then – that we can truly be intimate with someone. It is this sense of liberation that Nora craves, and something that Susanna can only dream of.

We are all too often seen for what people think we are, rather than for what we are.
We become a concept. And, to become a concept is to become a generalisation. To become a generalisation is to be reduced. People are like shapes, and when we become reduced we are seen for one side of our identities, rather than the whole multidimensional entity. A side that may misrepresent the whole.

It is only by seeing things nakedly that we can begin to understand them. And it is only by understanding them that we can learn to love them in the way that they truly deserve.

Words by Juliette Rowsell

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4 Comments

  1. Dear Juliette .

    I’m not sure weather to call your discussion a post or blog or essay or work of art… so, whatever it is and however I refer to it, please know I consider it a significant.

    This might be the most thought provoking blogs/essays I’ve read. There is a lot of value in these thoughts you’ve shared, thank you.

    I’d like suggest another side or direction that I think would be interesting to take the discussion. The article focuses on how the nude can occur, in situations that one would expect people to be naked. I think there is as much room for discussion about the naked state occurring where we expect t to see someone merely nude.

    When this essay refers to a photograph or painting, or any artistic use of an unclothed person, it presupposes that the nude state will be at in effect – by the fact that it has been included as part of a work of art – intended for presentation. How can we be certain that ‘nude” is the only state possible in art, when in your essay we see a number of ways that the nude state can infiltrate real life (non-art) which is predominantly the naked state’s domain?

    Even if a person has never been observed “naked” in a work of art , or if it were the case that no artist has ever considered “naked “ to be art, must this be always remain the case? I am curious if you take it as rule, that if it is part of a work of art, it is nude, because that’s how the only form seen in art so far, or if this is an assumption that you’ve concluded elsewhere?

    For me, creating art where we can be seen the naked instead of the nude, (or as much naked as possible) is the definition of art. Where a work of art presents the “naked” not just in terms of what can be observed how the human body can be seen, but naked with respect to the other ways a people are revealed – their behavior for example. And, naked or nude, or degrees on the naked-nude continuum, are relevant measures to observe or apply to almost every aspect of a work of art. We describe dialogue in terms of how naked it is, choices the characters make – how they behave. In paintings, how naked is the image – was it 100% honest and visualized or 100% contrived? Was it perceived or invented? Was an actor’s performance naked and honest or nude and performed.

    I believe actors were mentioned as an example of nude as opposed to the nakedness of real life, unscripted living; however, many actors would agree that the most fundamental aspect of becoming an actor, is learning how to act honestly, how to be naked. I don’t think we can assume, without proof, that it is impossible for an actor’s performance be as naked as an person can be in real life while unobserved. Perhaps an actor’s performance can be as intimate, personal and convincing as the behavior of a person alone in their bathroom. I can’t think of a any argument for while nakedness is necessarily impossible in art, other than pointing out that it hasn’t been seen in art yet.

    I think that, not only is it possible to create a work of art where people to observe the naked in its presentation, I think the most exciting and inevitable frontier lies beyond the naked. What would we happen if we are able to identify the aspects that cause something to be observed as naked, and then apply those aspects more powerfully than is necessary to render a state of nakedness? Is there a state even less objectifying than naked, less of a generalization? What is more real than real? What is more intimate than reality? What is more revealing than an unclothed body with nobody observing?

    Thank you very much for a truly meaningful and constructive post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello there The Sinner,

      I would like to start off by saying thank you for your lovely comments; they are heartwarming and mean a lot to a writer like myself. I am glad that you enjoyed the post – that is all I can ever ask for as a writer.
      In regards to your comments, I feel your comment is far more intelligent than my article is! You raise many interesting and even difficult ideas – ones that I feel will take me a while to be able to come to a comprehensible answer to.
      I suppose the easy initial response would be to say that art is an imitation of life, and an imitation can never perfectly match the original. However, this is an idea that not only horrifies me but scares me. I do not believe that art is merely an ‘imitation of life’, and I feel that this kind of thinking does a disservice to the power of art. Instead, art exists independently in its own sphere of life. Maybe this state of ‘nudity’ vs. ‘nakedness’ isn’t necessarily a battle in which one is better than the other, but should be thought of as two separate entities, in the way we should think of art as different from life. I recently read an article in which someone argued that the the ‘reality’ of ‘real’ life and the ‘unreality’ so to say of the internet world isn’t as simple as one being real and one being fake, and that we shouldn’t think of it as such. Maybe at the heart of this post is the idea of unreality (fiction; performance) infiltrating real life, and that these fictions thus become a reality as a result. As you said, what is more real than real and, ultimately, what IS reality? Can we really differentiate between fiction and non fiction if these fictions have an impact upon reality, and indeed shape it?

      I know I have not really answered your questions here, however, this is perhaps the best I can manage right now. Your comments were incredibly though provoking, and I feel that if I attempted to answer them directly at this present moment in time I will only do them a disservice. When I come up with a more satisfying answer to your comments, I will address them, however I feel I need time to be able to fully think about these matters.

      Many thanks again for your kind words; the idea that someone out there has said that they are unsure whether my discussion was an ‘essay’ or a ‘work of art’ is something that will stay with me.

      All the best,

      Juliette

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      1. Good questions. I agree, there are a couple fundamental questions – the answer’s to which determine which of the more specific questions like nude bs. nakedness are relevant.

        1. What is art? What is good art? What should be the aim of art? (realness, beauty, or impact?0

        2. What is reality, or, what makes something real?

        Only by answering questions like these, can an argument me made as to whether or not it is possible for a person to be naked while a part of art. I think you’ve already, successfully, argued that people are almost always – if not always, nude when observed or made into art.

        My thesis, although I haven’t prepared arguments for it yet, is that even if it hasn’t, it is possible for art to portray nakedness and that the pursuit to do so may very well be an art form/movement/style in itself. And furthermore, there is somewhere to go with art even after that is achieved, which is to make something more naked than naked – more real than real. I don’t know what that will look like or be called necessarily. But as for art that is as real as “real,” and as naked as “naked,” I call this actual-ism.

        As far as answering the fundamental questions like the two above, my answer to these is another question, even more fundamental – the ground level, most fundamental question that unifies and establishes a reference point to argue all the rest of the questions: honestly. What is honesty. Once this is answered, we need only ask is it honest no-matter what the question. Was the actor’s acting honest? was the nude person in a state of being honest? what is real – honesty. Is it art and how great of art is it would be answered by asking is it honest and how honest is it?

        From this I’d propose a conclusion:

        Everything has a core truth. People, just like art, are expressions of the truth. The “honesty,” of an expression (a person’s or art work’s honest) is determined by how much core truth is revealed in the expression. (as it pertains to human life – and perception, Honesty is achieved and measured in terms of depth & openness.)

        Filtering the questions you so eloquently addressed in this post, I would say that the distinction between nude and naked, is honesty. If a nude person is expressing themselves with the same degree of honesty as they would when they are alone in a bathroom, then they are naked, Furthermore, if art is to successfully ever portray a nude person in their naked state without forcing the the person to be observed as nude, the art would have to be at ,east as honest (or real) as a naked person would be in real life – while not being observed.

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      2. BTW: one may ask, well what about music or paintings that are abstract or other forms that are not seen in life… how can they be art, honest, and real? as per my argument above, they are real and they are art, if they are honest. So, if they are honest, they are necessarily the other two. A painting or rendering of something that can’t be seen in life, can still be real or not real – without being visible in real life. Thoughts, for example, are not visible but can still be real, honest and artistic. Technically speaking, a form that is “envisioned,” (as apposed to invented) is real and the trute-ness of rendering of that vision, will determined the realness and honesty of the painting. i

        Things that are real/truth are envisioned and observed… that’s all. they already exist. Things that are invented or contrived are not real. Human beings are not inventions, so when they are portrayed truthfully, they are naked and they are art. There’s more involved in bringing the invisible into art, and therefor we see a lot of art that isn’t art – that is not authentic.

        Only truth can be art, and truth cannot be invented – it exists and can only be observed and expressed. An “artist” that is inventing forms, as apposed to observing and revealing what exists, is not creating art nor something that is real or honest.

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