The Sacred and the Profane
Is nudity profanity? The fine art of perception
By Faye Flam – The Philadelphia Inquirer
May 29, 2006
Dennis McNally was carrying some of his paintings to his office at St. Joseph's University when a top administrator stopped him and asked to see them.
McNally, a Jesuit priest who chairs the department of fine and performing arts, demurred, knowing the man had objected before to his use of nude models. The administrator, no longer on staff, insisted.
"That looks like Jesus," McNally recalled the man telling him. "And he's naked... . That's a terrible sin, painting Jesus naked."
McNally didn't think so. But he concedes that when it comes to nudity, the line between the sacred and profane, the pornographic and the artistic, is not at all obvious.
After passing through corridors packed with student paintings and sculptures, I met McNally in his small office in the Tudor-style building that houses the art department at the university.
He told me people relate to nude figures in paintings because we connect to their humanity. And it takes skill for an artist to learn to paint the whole human body. He likes to start his art students drawing from live nude models right away, leaving the fruits and flowers for later. "It's a way of getting in touch with yourself," he said.
McNally eventually drove me to his studio a few blocks away, where he keeps dozens of huge, colorful paintings, some incorporating glitter to enhance dripping blood and other details. He paints a mix of abstract images he sees in dreams, religious images, and illustrations of the world's wrongs - the disappearance of young people in Argentina, the shooting of a man and child outside a soccer match in Israel.
It is a little surprising to see nudity in religious art - Jesus with no loincloth at his crucifixion. And yet, it was clear from seeing these paintings that we do connect to nude bodies in a timeless, universal and human way.
People have long associated nudity with sex and associated sex with evil, McNally said. In fact, the human body has caused consternation for ages. St. Augustine struggled with the idea of duality - that the body and spirit are separate, the body vile and the spirit pure. And this idea goes back much further - to the Greek Stoics.
It wasn't mindless prudery. Those who get too caught up in the physical, bodily, sexual aspect of life shortchange their humanity, he says. There's more to life than orgies.
Beautiful nude images can have the power to simultaneously repel and fascinate us, McNally said, citing religious scholars such as Rudolf Otto and Mercea Eliade. Nudes that incite sexual feelings can frighten with their power, he said. "Sexual impulses are not as controllable as the impulse of appreciating beauty."
Other artists say displaying art with nude figures is only controversial here in the United States. In Europe it's no big deal.
Nudiphobia may also have something to do with our patriarchal, ownership-based culture, said Christopher Kovats-Bernat, an anthropologist at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. Spouses are led to feel they own each other and have exclusive rights to see each other nude. That may explain why some women feel cheated on when their husbands go to strip clubs.
"The concept of private parts comes along with private property," he said.
Perhaps art is the best medium to spell the difference between Michelangelo and Playboy. It is a difference in poses, in lighting, and most of all, in intent.
When Titian painted his Renaissance masterpiece The Sacred and the Profane Love, the artist depicted two female figures - one nude and angelic, and one glamorously dressed and coiffed. "Both are beautiful," McNally said, "but the one who is profane is the one with the clothes on."