Why could this unexpected imposition of nudity—nudity wonderfully portrayed in a renowned masterwork, no less—have such a stunning effect on its viewers, I wondered? Was it because they were stiff-upper-lip Americans rather than sassy French? Was it due to the painting’s realism? Or was it because the organ in issue was depersonalised due to the absence of a head and limbs? Perhaps the more important question is this: what role does nudity play in art?

Nudity’s Changing Role in Art

Nudity has been a part of art for almost as long as people have been making it.

The earliest depictions of nudity were frequently homages to fertility, which eventually gave way to the ancient Greeks’ expression of appreciation for the human form—usually male depictions of nude gods, heroes, athletes, and warriors—which eventually gave way to the ancient Greeks’ expression of appreciation for the human form. The Greeks tended to dress women in their art, a practise that wasn’t abandoned until Praxiteles sculpted a naked Aphrodite in the fourth century BCE. Seduction began to infiltrate western art around this time (though it is worth mentioning that the Hindus had worked sexuality into their art for some time).

Today’s Art: Nudity

Nude art in the twenty-first century is open to new concerns thanks to rule-breakers like Duchamp.

Art that depicted nudity in explicit and sometimes disturbing ways pushed the bounds of social acceptance during and after the sexual revolutions of the 1920s and 1960s-1980s. Women began to demand control over images of nudity, and female artists and models began to raise problems about the artist’s, the subject’s, and the viewer’s power relationships.

Cindy Sherman’s art, for example, provided a voyeuristic depiction of themes and questions related to beauty, violence, love, domination, and agency. Her subjects (including herself) posed freely, although they were frequently in controlled, terrifying situations that elicited sensuality, allowing the viewer to wonder about their own role in this perplexing power dynamic.

In the #MeToo era, all nudity-based art has become political, evoking more concerns than ever before. Who is modelling, a stranger, a friend, or a lover, and what does that relationship imply? What are you hoping to achieve—shock, admiration, or arousal? **Is nudity liberating or objectifying?

Each of us has a body and was born nude, but our relationship to our own bodies and the bodies of others has been twisted for ages due to a variety of complex social factors. Nudity in art acts as a mirror, pushing us to examine how society has muddled our body relationships. It pushes us to question where our own ideas fit on these spectrums, reminding us that the human body can be both beautiful and hideous, innocent and sexualized, free and controlled.