Monday, January 24, 2011

Introduction to “Good Art / Bad Art” from a Christian Standpoint; On Nudity and Art

Ever since graduating from Hillsdale College and starting a career in painting, I have searched for ways to use my artistic calling to glorify God and contribute to our culture in a way that is meaningful and uplifting. In my quest for meaning, I’ve received a lot of advice and suggestions. Many people suggested that I write and illustrate children’s books, donate my time to churches by painting murals, or paint narrative scenes depicting stories from the Bible and great biblical truths. While all of these things have their place, I found that whenever I heard such proposals, I was hardly enthusiastic. Recently I’ve figured out why my reaction was so indifferent and half-hearted.

“Christian art” as we know it has become watered down and sentimental, with little or no basis of reality. It leaves us feeling either warm and fuzzy or cold and empty, because the gravity of everyday life has been stripped from it, leaving only the Hallmark-esque, Sunday-school art we’ve become accustomed to. In fact, we are afraid to embrace “Christian art” as anything more, lest we fall into the secularism of our time.

But what if there’s no such thing as “Christian art?” After all, Christians are not perfect – they, too, can have a skewed vision of the world, and so their art will follow accordingly. Biblical themes have been portrayed in art by Christians and non-Christians alike (something we will get into later on, among other things). How are we to determine which works of art are “good” and which are “bad” from a biblical standpoint? And how will we decide as artists what kinds of subject matter to portray in order to contibute positively to our world?

Though I have little experience and I don’t claim to be an art critic, I’ve given this matter a great deal of thought. So… I humbly offer my opinion here in the hopes that this discussion will spark some thought, and perhaps even inspire other Christian artists out there to reevaluate their own standpoint on art and culture.

The Nude: Timeless Symbol of Culture and Worldview

I’ve decided to start my series on “good art / bad art”, with the topic of nudity. I know, it’s a strange way to begin, but I got your attention, didn’t I?

Nudity is actually a subject that encompasses all the aspects of art which I would like to address in my discussion. These aspects incude content (what it’s about), form (the craftsmanship of the work), purpose (what it’s for, or what message it intends), and historical context (how people would have understood the work at the time of its creation).  If the content and form are both good - that is, if the idea or message conveyed is good, and the work is technically excellent, then the work of art may be called "good." We will find that there are many things we enjoy, such as songs, paintings, or movies... but they might not be good based on these guidelines. Taste must be differentiated from truth.

When my husband and I first moved to Texas, I proudly displayed my paintings and drawings in my home studio space. Many of them were academic nudes from various classes I had taken, including a series from my studies at the Florence Academy of Art. However, shortly after we moved in, some family members came to visit, and they brought their two young kids. These children, both under the age of nine, had never seen fine art nudes before. I felt embarrassed and slightly awkward as they peered up at my drawings and exclaimed, “Look, bare butts! Boobies!”

As humorous as this situation may seem, the topic of nudity in art is actually quite a quandery in our culture today, as people are either passionately for it or adamantly against it. Christians and conservatives are especially indignant about their children being exposed to the naked human body, whether it is considered fine art or not.

The truth is, we are indignant because we are ignorant.

The Nude in Art History

Considering how often the nude has been portrayed throughout history, I'm not even scratching the surface here, but I'd like to explain the relevance of historical attitudes towards nudity, as well as knowing the story or idea that a work of art is portraying.

According to the ancient Greeks, who believed that man was the measure of all things, the human body represented an ideal. Thus, the Greek sculptures we see depicting the nude (such as Myron's Discus Thrower, below) show us this ideology. Greek art is highly idealized, as its purpose is to show us what the human form should look like, rather than what we see. Though Christians are inclined to disagree with the content of Greek art (i.e. false gods, deified human beings), we cannot deny that this art is excellently crafted and beautiful in form.

Myron, The Discus Thrower (Roman marble copy- 400 BC)

 Looking at art from the Middle Ages, we see very little nudity. The Medieval artists were focused on creating art that was more symbolic and pointed upwards to God. We especially see iconic depictions of the Madonna and Child, and the saints. Mary is shown to be pure and supernatural. She is not painted realistically, or meant to describe a particular moment in time, as a photographic image might. Instead, she symbolizes something of great importance, which crosses beyond time or history.

Duccio (1255-1318 AD), Madonna and Child, tempera on wood

As the Renaissance dawned, however, artists began to look back at the art of the ancient Greeks and Romans. There was a renewed interest in anatomy and linear perspective. Humanism was growing in power and popularity, and quite often, went together with Roman Catholicism rather than against it. It is very difficult for us to imagine the world before Humanism, because we are still living under its influence. The basic idea, of course, is that man’s insight and power are what shapes the world. Once the Reformation took place, Humanism catered almost entirely towards secular activities; however, the Renaissance was steeped with it, and so we must attempt to understand this worldview when studying classical art.

The most common nude themes we see in 16th and 17th century painting is those of Venus (or Aphrodite) and other Greek and Roman deities. Whereas the ancient Greeks and Romans worshipped these gods religiously, no one in the Renaissance actually worshipped them or believed they existed. However, the images of pagan gods became allegorical symbols of very real concepts which could be made visible through art. For example, Mars stood for war, Venus represented beauty and love. The classical Venus was always depicted respectfully and symbolically. Though she herself was not “real,” the love and beauty she represented was absolutely real, and gave the viewer much cause for reflection and realization of that reality. An excellent example of this is Titian’s “Venus and Music.” The woman reclines nude on a couch, while a musician plays. The two figures are separated from each other, but the organist gazes back upon Venus, looking to “love and beauty” for inspiration in his music. It is this symbolism that makes these paintings meaningful; the reclining nude in 16th and 17th-century art represents inspiration. She is a muse. She is not a woman of questionable propriety, because she is not real. Instead she represents the higher things and provides a way for man to contemplate human values and truth.

Titian, Venus with Organist and Cupid (c.1548)

Later on, with the dawn of modern art, the symbolism of the nude would gradually be stripped away, along with meaning as a whole...

However, this is getting long enough for a single blog post.




  1. Anna, Extremely insightful and well put. As a Christian, nudity in art is something that I have always struggled with (especailly since I am a homeschooling mom teaching art history at home to my small children.) You have given me something to think about. I appreciate it.

  2. Thanks, Julia! This is only the beginning. I still have lots more to say. But I know exactly where you are coming from. I was home schooled all the way through high school, in very conservative and sheltered environment. Keep reading - I hope that you will be encouraged!

  3. Very interesting post. I don't think I've seen anyone else brave enough to tackle this. I was initially wary to comment in favor of seeing what more was to come, but I can't always claim wisdom as a strong suit. I reside in Las Vegas now, but grew up in Terrell Texas. I too, lived in Garland near Town East Mall at one point, til I joined the Army and moved my family to German.

    I was practically raised in a church and I gave my life to Christ at a young age. It was Germany, however, that gave me a new perspective on nudity. I even became an art nude model for my local college soon after the military (as well as a pro model). I am now a full time photographer, but I began specializing in nudes as an enthusiast, only. It's not what I do for profit. It was not easy justifying this to moms, who's still in Terrell, by the way. I've come to terms with what I do and shoot women of all walks of life, sizes, ages, and shapes. Glamour is not my thing...natural as possible is what I prefer.

    At some point, I too plan to address this issue or at least my perspective on it more thoroughly and am fully interested in your take as well. I may be inclined to quote you. I'm anxious to see where you go with it. A history on nudes is good, but I'm looking forward to seeing another Christian's perspective on the nude.

  4. @Photo -
    Thank you for your comment and for reading my blog. I am happy to tackle this subject; interestingly enough, I am really a people-pleaser, however, I also love controversial subjects, and it's gotten me in trouble a time or two. :-)
    I have heard that nudity is common in Germany and very much a part of the culture. I will probably mention culture differences later on, as I feel that is an important thing to consider when looking at art. My discussion on art history has gotten lengthy, but I feel it's an important part of this, so bear with me. :-) I'm looking forward to getting around to my point as well. I haven't had a chance to finish yet because I'm very busy with several painting projects right now (not complaining!), but please, keep coming back to my blog - I will have the conclusion to this series very soon. And tell your friends to read it! :-) Thanks again and God bless!

  5. Anna, I'm glad I was able to find you on Facebook after you posted your painting of Liberty Kat since it led me to your blog. I wrote a similar blog post this past February, but from a model's point of view. I don't know if you've seen it among the other posts, but here's a link:


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