Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Naked and the Nude... some thoughts

Kenneth Clarke’s essay The Naked and the Nude asserts what it will with such directness and clarity, that one could be excused for responding with a simple “I agree completely”. However, since complete agreement is boring, and complete disapproval is presumptuous, it might be better to explore a singular point of interest, so as to avoid being either dull or boorish.

The essay is chock full of observations, which are worth summarizing below in order to hold before one the sum total sum total of Clarke’s insights.

Nakedness and nudity
Nude as form of art, not subject of art
Nude as perfection
Aristotle’s concept of art bringing nature to a finish
The Classical Greek Mind
Mathematical perfection, harmony, order
Cult of nakedness, conquest of inhibition
Human wholeness, mind and spirit are one
Matter and form are one
Theories and difficulties with ideal proportions
Impossibility of the photographic nude
The nude as representing ourselves
Animal representations vs. Human representations
The desire for human contact in our reaction to the nude
The absence of nudes in Asian art
The nude as dependent on abstract view of body
Classical desire for figure gone forever

Such a thorough analysis of any subject matter will tend to produce respect for the subject, if only a begrudging respect. However, one suspects that Clarke’s respect for the nude is not so begrudging, and that the depth of his analysis equals his reverence for the subject. Given that, it seems unexpected that he should wrap up his essay with the following statement.

“Such an insatiable appetite for the nude is unlikely to recur. It arose from a fusion of beliefs, traditions, and impulses very remote from our age of essence and specialization.”

One can imagine modernists heaving a collective sigh of relief, and traditionalists feeling betrayed. But no one should feel vindicated or eradicated by Clarke’s remark. For just as the nude is not a subject of art, but a type of art… so too could we should see Clarke’s remark as asserting that the nude is not an simply a product of culture, but that nude is a type of culture.

What type of culture would that be? Well, a culture of nudity, of course. In the simplest terms, the nude stems from nudity, with which the Greeks were familiar and comfortable, and in which they exalted. 

The difference between this Greek attitude and our own can be measured by noting how odd it sounds to relegate the exalted category of The Nude to the term nudity… a term which connotes a kind of campy silliness… images of nudist colonies, flaccid penises, butt cracks showing above towels, and cartoon caricatures of women desperately covering their breasts and naughty-bits when the bathroom door accidentally slides open to reveal their pale flesh to a gentleman caller.

Nudity to us is silliness… a silliness at one end of the spectrum of our collective body image. The other end is pornography. And there we are, stuck in the middle… turning away in laughter from the one end, and shame from the other… and in the end requiring the exalted category of The Nude to even see ourselves. Alienated to that extent from our bodies, the mirror is not good enough.

The very differentiation between the naked and the nude serves to define this distinction to a modern western mind that needs to dress up nudity (nakedness) in order to make is socially acceptable. Would the Greeks have held this distinction? Greek pottery reveals endless images of nudes men and women in countless arrangement…. all of them would be totally ridiculous in our culture… but the Greeks wouldn’t bat an eye.

Imagine going to department store and buying a vase covered in drawings of contemporary people running naked through the country. If one could hold up a scientific instrument to measure how absurd that would feel to us, then THAT would be the difference between our world and the Greek world.

Would the Greeks even understand the distinction between the naked and the nude? For Clarke, the need to distance the naked from the nude derives the need to correspond his thought to the general mind/body dichotomy that dominates western philosophic thought. The Greeks originated philosophic thought on these matters, but don’t seem to be subject to this particular duality.

Clarke alludes to both of these conditions ( culture of nudity and absence of mind/body duality) in the following paragraph, in which he also frames the issue of the cultural relativity.

“Greek confidence in the body can be understood only in relation to their philosophy. It expresses above all their sense of human wholeness. Nothing related to the whole man could be isolated or evaded; and this serious awareness of how much was implied in physical beauty saved them from the two evils of sensuality and aestheticism.”

Mind/Body Duality

In  the last sentence above, Clarke equates isolation with sensuality, and evasion with aesteticism.

Cultural Relativity:

“Greek confidence in the body can be understood only in relation to their philosophy.”

The use of the word confidence seems innocent enough, until one considers that it is not as assertive as a term such as belief, which might just as well have been used here.  Confidence is an empirical notion… the idea of a reasonable expectation, not an absolute awareness. To use the stronger word belief would require one to argue more formally. This would require a formal philosophic system. It would also imply that cultural ideologies are somehow contained in formal systems, which is not generally the case.

So instead we are given the term confidence, which means we don’t have to jump down the philosophic rabbit hole, and can instead simply accept that whatever the Greeks were, that they were the product of whatever came before them, that led to their particular evolution.

A parallel situation can be seen in the evolution of animals, where the identity of the mutation (the new species) is contained in the scientific analysis of the mutation. However, the identity is not the cause of the new species. The new species is a mutation of an old species.  If we apply this thinking to Classical Greek culture, then we can say that the identity of Classical Greek culture is contained in the historical analysis of those times, but that the cause of Classical Greek culture is not.

I can more easily imagine a great cosmology springing forth from a young child staring intently into the heavens, than I can imagine a great cosmological theory stoking the desire to explore. Theories may explain natural inclinations, but they do not give rise to them. Mostly, theories give rise to other theories, and theorists.

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