Thursday, April 9, 2009
It's not me, it's you.
I've had a number of conversations about art and nude photography over the last few months, some with some very intelligent and talented people, some with some very closed-minded and judgmental people. From them, I've learned, or at least more clearly understood, some things I believe about nude photography, art, how they fit together, and why I'm motivated to pursue them. Let's see if I can explain those things in a way that makes sense to anyone else. What does nudity have to do with art? The word art has common meanings as a verb (the process of expressing intangible feelings in a tangible form that can be shared with others), as an adjective (a descriptive word that distinguishes or classifies a noun, as in "that picture is art"), and as a noun (something you display in a gallery). Those are all accurate and often useful, but fairly unsophisticated definitions; kind of like saying love is a verb that means to care about someone. I grew up in a community/culture where art was literally a dirty word, at least for males. I was actively discouraged from any interest in things artistic and encouraged to live a life that denied art. It took me years, but I finally realized art as a state of humanity just is, whether people like it or not. There is no way to separate it from humanity, and there's no way to be a whole human being without acknowledging it. That has led me to believe that the word "art" is a noun that names a specific, highly complex, subset of the experience of being human. Lots of people (including me at times - I'm not claiming to be superior in this respect) will try to encapsulate and define it in a bubble representing their own egos, biases, psychoses, and insecurities, but that doesn't diminish what it really is. The label can be twisted and tossed and slapped around any way people want. That doesn't change the fundamental nature of the part of humanness that the word "art" represents. It also doesn't change the fact that the roots and the spirit of that part of humanness are found in the nude human. We are moved - emotionally, spiritually, sentiently - by the shapes, textures, and proportions of the human body. For all of human history, we've duplicated them in architecture, in furniture, in jewelry, we've invoked them in poetry and metaphor, we've revealed and revered them in landscapes and flowers, and we've mimicked, emphasized, and enhanced them with clothing because the shapes, textures, and proportions of the human body are the ontological definition of beauty. Nudity and beauty cannot be separated in the collective human psyche. The beauty and artistic merit of nudity is inherent and exists, whether people appreciate it or not. Without nudity, art would not exist. Yes, but nudity always appeals to the baser aspects of humanity. Even if it sometimes has some artistic merit, how do you separate it from that? It shouldn't be separated. Just because something is beautiful on a high level doesn't mean it can't also cause tension in your jeans. Instinct-level responses are just as much a part of that aspect of humanness described by the word "art" as sentient-level responses. Whether by choice or by nature, a person who sees only one end of that spectrum in a creation capable of eliciting both is observing limitations in themselves, not in the creation. Fine whiskey is a delicacy on the palate of someone who appreciates its flavor and character, while it's rotgut on the palate of someone who only appreciates the buzz they get from it. The nature of the whiskey doesn't vary; the nature of the person interacting with it does. The person who gets the richest experience from it is the one who appreciates the flavor and character as well as the buzz and the burn. Likewise, some people may fail to appreciate the full complexity, depth, and character of the nude human. That doesn't make it any less rich. It just makes those people shallow. Picture artistic merit as a stack of bricks. Lower bricks stimulate instinct and motivate automated responses. Higher bricks stimulate feeling and motivate emotion. Still higher bricks stimulate sentience and motivate spirit. The lowest brick in the stack is basic reproductive instinct. Some people are incapable or unwilling, for whatever reason, of seeing anything beyond that, but that doesn't negate value the rest of the structure. Likewise, some people wish to ignore the lower bricks and acknowledge only the higher bricks. That doesn't negate the value of the lower bricks, either. Ah, you've cornered yourself! You don't think your art is any better than porn? "Higher" and "lower" are convenient terms since I started with the metaphor of a stack of bricks, but don't confuse that "higher" and "lower" with "better" and "worse." There's no value assignment intended. It's best read as "higher" in the sense that it's further separated from animal instinct. Those parts of us that are shared with animals which we don't consider as high-functioning mentally and spiritually as humans can be viewed as "lower," and those parts of us that are further separated from animal instinct can be viewed as "higher." It's not higher value. It's higher complexity - further into the realm of what makes humanity unique. Take two nude photographs, one "artistic" nude and one "porn-ish" nude. I would never argue that one is "better" than the other. I would, however, argue that the "artistic" nude includes all the merits of the "porn-ish" nude, plus a whole lot more that the "porn-ish" nude doesn't possess. The artistic nude is not better, but it is richer and more complex, and offers a greater variety of pleasure, stimulation, and satisfaction for a human being to experience. Just like the whiskey, there are people who will view the artistic nude and get nothing more out of it than they get out of the porn, and there are other people who will view it with a cold aesthetic eye and appreciate none of the sensuality it has to offer. Both will fail to experience the full richness of the artwork, but the artwork will not be any less rich, regardless of which one is viewing it.