Nudity in art: Vulgar and catering to the male gaze, or an aesthetic exploration of form?

Call it coincidence or ‘divine’ intervention, but currently the Art Gallery of New South Wales is exhibiting Nude: art from the Tate Collection. When it comes to exhibiting in the modern era, only a few places match up to the Tate Modern in London. At least a 100 pieces from the Tate’s collection are being showcased as part of this curatorial effort to study and experience nudity in art over the last 200 years. Now, citing a foreign, and most alarmingly a ‘western idea’ here is risking hurting the native; the narrative for which is being regularly written and re-written.

In the latest incident, on the afternoon of 8 December, at the venue of the Jaipur Art Summit, members of the groups Lal Shakti and Rashtriya Hindu Ekta Manch attacked artist Radha Binod Sharma and threatened to destroy and abscond with his paintings. The accusation levelled was that Sharma’s paintings were vulgar and showed women in bad light.

 Nudity in art: Vulgar and catering to the male gaze, or an aesthetic exploration of form?

Henri Matisse's 'Blue Nude'. Representational image. Reuters

It would be naive not to acknowledge the tender, and at times tenuous, relationship between nudity and art. By extension, that relationship is far more strained and debatable in the case of female nudity. Ever since the birth of feminism and gender-just lines of questioning, the debate has only further been muddled or fed to the wood-chipper for noise, rather than reason. To be honest, it is a fairly complicated debate. The history of mankind is in large parts the history of man. Of that, there is little to debate. Women have simply not been given their place except for when a man has decided to do so, tinctured with just the right the amounts of intoxication of body and mind, of ideas and a future that promises them their place.

For all the senas of the world, sharpening their tongues and ideological machetes, a trip to the Khajuraho temples is sufficient — also for them who think this is a ‘western thing’. Let history be their reckoning. For the debate on nudity, however, that especially of the female form in art, we have plenty to think and discuss, neither of which can be exhaustive. From Picasso to Auguste Rodin’s famous The Kiss, to our very own, and recently in the news, Bhupen Khakkar, all have, in some way or form dealt with the human body and nudity.

Firstly, we need to separate nudity of the body to that depicted in art. For the simple reason that while one is reality, the other is a cosmetic re-imagination (however close to reality). Art imitates life, or life imitates Art; whatever side of that argument you are on, the two aren’t the same thing. The vulgarity of an exposition has to be therefore considered in the context of that exposition and not in the context of the reality we know, and in most cases, despise being a part of.

Secondly, the human body, male or female, is a beautiful thing. Any number of superlatives can be listed to accentuate the statement. Think of it as an acoustic version of our clothed, protected realities. Our bodies are the cause of so much concern, care and even admiration in life, that it is pointless to escape its influence even if to you it is powdered and for someone else it is the solid rock on his or her chest.

Thirdly, let us come to the female body often considered an art-form unto itself. The aesthete of the female form is self-driven, perhaps, even helped by narratives supplied by men. Curves, shapes and sensitivity are things you associate with the female form. For the male form, it is more mechanical, even mathematical – like a six-pack or a v-shape etc. There is, therefore, so much that can be elicited in imagination, from the female form that does not require quantification. Something that instantly clicks in aesthetics and has a natural flow to it.

All that said, art has over the years been created by men. There is then a case of one mirror ‘looking down’ upon the other. The woman has found herself a subject, long enough for her to feel like an object. For starters, the male gaze is an obvious issue. Too many artists (if they can be called so) leverage the female form as a way to sexualising whole discourses, let alone pieces of art. Pornography is an industry in itself. And it definitely doesn’t call for a discussion on who is the object there. Bollywood too, supplies item numbers by the assembly line. Though nudity hasn’t caught up there, the vulgarity via the-workings-of-the-camera itself is far more threatening than a piece of art hanging in a gallery that a handful of people will choose to visit, and much less choose to buy. They’d prefer the limp labour of the meadow, delivering pretty much everything you expect — the sun, a river, and a few flowers; always those flowers. That safe netting at the bottom of a conscienceless existence, the refusal to question, query or imagine in another way possible.

What people in general need to acknowledge is that art produced in a ‘safe space’ and catering to that alone, is no art at all. While female nudity drawn through the male gaze is a problem, it also in a way, deconstructs the gaze. Baring all leaves little to the imagination and can only stifle the gaze that has forever fed on uncovering and undressing. That is not to say that all art has to be nudity or all nudity is art. The aesthetic treatment of a piece is what makes it. And while it is impossible to deny that no art is free of its politics, it is also important to understand that not all art is a statement. It is also a form of query. Not every painting is telling you what to think, some are merely asking questions and pondering along with you.

Updated Date: Dec 10, 2016 09:32:31 IST