Is it possible to depict a man naked without belittling or canceling out his value as a multifaceted human being?

Contrary to a common assumption, the risk of debasement resides not in the mere fact of being [seen] with nothing on. There’s ample evidence that nakedness in itself doesn’t automatically effect devaluation. Like so much else about our lives, the key is found in the cultural context. As regards the perversion of personhood which may accompany a man being shown naked, the artistic convention known as “the nude” seems to me the most likely culprit. More than anything else, it has called into question the individuality and integrity of men appearing naked. It continues to do so to this day.

While the flimsiness of the theoretical underpinnings of Kenneth Clark’s arguments in his famous study of THE NUDE may be fairly obvious, his definition of “the nude” strikes me as still quite telling (probably in ways he wouldn’t like), and therefore serviceable (ditto). You’ll recall Clark insists that “the nude” does not actually represent any naked person since this oh-so-serious aesthetic classification refers not to the “subject” of a work of art. No, no, it has to do with its particular artistic “style.” Clark declares that nudity in art is quite simply an exemplary mode of expression. It “expresses ideas,” and may even “express emotions.” But this it accomplishes through an “ideal form” which itself is independent of human bodies per se. “The nude” need not refer to actual human embodiment because it functions as “an end in itself.” Any nude set before us by art, says Clark, is nothing less than an occasion of “contemplation.” And (damn it!) nothing more.

In general, evocation to action is contrary to art, and “vulgar” to boot, asserts this potentate of elite culture. The “ideas” and “emotions” expressed via nude paintings and sculpture, therefore, ought to go nowhere. They must stay with the art objects and those qualified to appreciate them. Both viewer and viewed are confined to a tightly secured economy of high-brow envisioning and observation. Hence, to formalists such as Clark, the divide between art and, say, conversation, reportage, advertising—or, horror of horrors, pornography and propaganda-- is deep and eternal and fortunately obvious. [Clarke’s book brings together his 1953 lecture series at Washington’s National Gallery and has been reprinted many times.]

Surveying the history of post-Renaissance art, it looks to me as though Clark’s description of “the nude” gets it right. At least in a great many cases configuration has counted for more than reference. For this reason “the nude” in such art usually gets it “wrong.” It gets it wrong in the sense that the manner of presentation overrides the relevance of the embodied nature of men and women. Wrong because such stylized nudity invalidates substantive nakedness. Wrong because in art there are no ideas or emotions which come from, or go to, something other than incarnate human existence. The actual dynamics of art would include, at a minimum, the bodies of artists, the bodies of viewers, the bodies of owners, the bodies of sellers and curators, the bodies of art scholars, and the bodies of any models turned to in the process of creation.

For much of “the good ole days” art was monopolized by groups which preferred that artistic nudity falsify rather than re-present, allude to, or evoke the human body. Thus (to move from the general to the particular and thereby return to the purpose of this forum), it makes sense to point out that “the male nude” in art more often than not amounted to a counterfeit, a caricature, a decoy, an impersonation (so to speak), of a naked man. A man (actual or possible) is not re-presented; he is, in fact, re-moved.

Most folk realize that our iconography for the “male nude” derives from the statuary of ancient Greece. Few, however, seem aware of how such sculpture came about in the first place. Plainly stated, they were monuments to the dead, specifically to fallen warriors. In essence, the so-called classical ideal of a man’s body is a sacralized corpse. It is the lifeless male body reconfigured in hopes of suggesting that it never could die. Is it because we’re so in awe of the civilizing legacy left us from the Golden Age of Athens, Sparta, Thebes, etc. that we tend to forget that these Greeks suffered under conditions of incessant and ferocious warfare? By their own accounts, they clearly did—time and time again fighting amongst themselves and against the neighboring “barbarians.” Their societies were militaristic through and through.

Perhaps above all else, women’s purpose was to replenish the ranks with their progeny; men’s purpose was to become combatants. Men who made it through enough battles to reach their thirties, became military commanders, strategists, and administrators. In appreciating their enormous contribution to humane learning, we do the ancient Greeks a disservice if we ignore the culture of death in which they were immersed much of the time. Even the gymnasium (which gave rise to all those grand effigies of athletes) was primarily a training center for the troops, and the keep-in-shape/stay-ready arena during truces.

Usually during these truces, the Greeks erected “male nude” reminders of the blood which had been poured out to defend their way of life. This statuary gave their war dead a composure and majesty remote from the scenes of carnage where they’d perished, Such images also bestowed on them some measure of immortality. And for the survivors, the statues served as symbolic buffers against the suffering and turmoil of their war-torn existence. Where chaos loomed, the mighty male nudes stood for order and tranquility. The statuary was lawfully authorized and funded, and constructed in highly precise and continually refined ways, according to strict mathematical formulae. The discipline of their design was to insure that the statues conveyed the appearance of “perfect” protectors. Like totem or fetish, their mesomorphic physiques carried enormous civic weight. Never subject to pain, death, or decay, their faces are flawlessly impassive. Their eyes never look at you, but gaze into the far distance or inwardly, as if at some transcendent end. Befitting their superhuman status and objective, they are armored in an exceptionally hard-muscled nudity.

But we mustn’t suppose that the living bodies of Greek combatants matched these heroic idols. Or that anyone at the time thought they should. To do so would require trading reality for fantasy, reason for wishful-thinking. That’s something no self-respecting Greek would even consider. Unlike the solitariness of their carved heroes, the Greeks always fought in tightly-knit divisions. That they also died en masse may help explain why their ideal male nude was made to stand alone. While it’s true that some probably trained naked, Greek soldiers certainly didn’t go into battle unclothed. Man-kind would have to await the advent of the movie and bodybuilding (along with steroid injections more recently) to approximate in flesh what the Greeks had carved and molded into art. (the best summary of the Classical situation is Andrew Stewart’s masterful ART, DESIRE, AND THE BODY IN ANCIENT GREECE. And for an excellent overview of how the Greek ideal reached the modern world, I’d recommend Alex Pott’s densely argued FLESH AND THE IDEAL: Wincklemann and the Origins of Art History.)

In all of this I’m reminded of the commonplace comments of mourners at open-casket wakes and memorial services in our own day. Members of the family and friends of the deceased whisper solemnly to each other. “Doesn’t he look good?”    “Such a handsome man. Never looked better.”    “So lifelike, so real.” The draftsmen and artisans who produced those beautiful statues to honor Greek fatalities and MIAs are comparable to our own mortuary embalmers and cosmetologists. Both are in the business of making the dead look good, and reassuring the survivors. It is not my claim that the often considerable accomplishments of either group of artisans should go unheeded. But isn’t it time we asked ourselves this: is the model for the naked man we wish to advance in our art that of the Ancient’s hyperbolized deceased or today’s reconstructed remains? If Lord Clark’s advice is taken to heart and we really focus on the countless paintings and sculpture of those naked male bodies which trace their pedigree to the Classical Age, a usually unremarked peculiarity becomes apparent. Despite comely features and muscles for days, all these naked men are drained of blood. They lack life.

© 2002, Daniel C. Doran, Ph.D.