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The Nude

Survey In Western Culture, Eastern And Western Attitudes Toward "nudity", The Conundrum Of Non-western Culture And The Idea Of "the Nude"

Although the English word nude is derived from the Latin nudus meaning "naked," "bare," it connotes, especially in such phrases as "in the nude" or "The Nude," more than a state of undress; rather it indicates a work of art, a cultural convention, and a socioreligious attitude. The term The Nude signifies a Western cultural ideology while nudity is a universal human condition.

The British painter Walter Sickert (1860–1942) is credited with the first art critical discussion of "The Nude" as a formal convention of academic art (1910). Formal academic analyses were initiated with Kenneth Clark's 1953 Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts on the meaning and motif of "The Nude" in Western art that he subtitled "a study in ideal form." Clark described the distinction between "The Nude" and "the naked" as a cultural attitude predicated on political, religious, and societal perceptions of the body and human sexuality. The classical Greek was nude while the medieval Christian was naked. The former recognized the body as an embodiment of sacred energy and form interdependent with philosophic and cultural attitudes toward the individual person, human dignity, and creativity. The latter was premised upon the recognition of human finitude and the sinful state in which Christians lived, and thereby affected Christian perceptions of the individual person, human dignity, and creativity.

As a state of both physical nakedness and spiritual power, the nude figure is an elemental component of the cultural legacy of human civilization. The vast differences in the spirit and the reception of both the human body and the meaning of nudity from the prehistoric to modern, from East to West, deepens the layers of cultural accumulations. Nude figures are found in gendered formations of both male and female in the guises of divinities, heroes, warriors, or mythological beings. This iconology is bequeathed visually from Egyptian monuments, Khajuraho reliefs, Cypriote statues, Indian and Persian miniatures, and classical sculptures.

"The Nude" as defined by Clark is not a proper iconographic category, although it appears in Western art both in religious iconography and in a variety of artistic topoi ranging from historical, mythological, biblical, allegorical, narrative, and pornographic themes to genre scenes. "The Nude," however, is a Western type relating concepts of the body, philosophy, religions, and aesthetics that begin with the recognition of "The Nude" as an aesthetic object and as "high art" first in classical Greece and then in the Renaissance.

Portrayals of the human figure as incarnation or manifestation of the deity is a fundamental connector through the arts and religious values of East and West. The Western disposition is premised upon the classical Greek tenet that the idealized perfection of the physical denotes the model of divine beauty. The Eastern classification proceeds from the Indian principle that the creation of supernatural beauty is through abstractions of the physical body. Nonetheless, there are regional interpretations on the meaning of nudity throughout Eastern and Western cultures. In India, nudity suggests simultaneously the sensuality of fertility spirits (female nudity) and supreme yogic control (male nudity); whereas the human body is a didactic illustration of moral and ethical teachings in the Far East, especially with the advent of Confucian ethics.

The decision to depict nudity whether for a male or a female figure is as much a decision of aesthetic and artistic appropriateness as it is a moral issue. For example, many world religions identify those believers who celebrate religious rituals and ceremonies "sky clad," that is, naked. Among Tantrics, the state of being "sky clad" signifies the state of being without rank, caste, or socioeconomic class. For Jains, because the Jain path to enlightenment is through extreme asceticism, there was a conflict between nudity as a state of purity and the impurity of women. Nudity represented the highest ideal of nonattachment; however, the question was whether women could attain enlightenment and salvation. By 80 C.E., Jainism was divided into two factions over the relationship between nudity, salvation, and women. Digambara advocated the necessity of nudity and extreme asceticism as the path to salvation; and that, because female nudity was unacceptable, there was no salvation for women. Shvetambara recognized that ascetic nudity was not the only salvific path, thereby affirming the possibility of female enlightenment.

Other religious traditions, whether premised on mythology, revelation, or scriptures, identified female nudity as a positive value. For example, "the goddess" was identified as dwelling in her flesh, not in her garments. Her sacred power, as with that of mortal women, was released by a state of nudity, whereas the magic power of gods and men required the condition of being fully clothed as self-definition was concretized in uniforms, badges, and decorations of rank. Body types, attitudes toward the body, and the artistic renderings of the human form reflected religious and societal values as much Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci. Pen, ink, and water-color. The classical perspective on the nude, said to be represented by da Vinci's 1492 sketch, held that man symbolized the harmony of God's universe and a kind of divine beauty and integrity. © CORBIS as the decision to depict an individual as an identifiable person or as simply a male or female type.

There are four principal philosophic perspectives on "The Nude" in Western culture. The classical perspective is established from the Platonic mathematical foundation of all forms in combination with the Neoplatonic conviction that the human was a symbol of the harmonious arrangement of the universe as a reflection of God. Christianity reversed this view in response to the theological attitudes toward human fallibility, finitude, and original sin as pronounced by Augustine of Hippo (354–430) and Jerome (c. 347–?420). Renaissance philosophers retrieved and reframed the classical definition as epitomized by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), who identified "Man as the measure of the Universe" and envisioned "The Nude" in his Vitruvian Man (1492; Gallerie dell' Accademia, Venice). The modern position is predicated on the liberation of "The Nude" from the boundaries of mythology and religion during the Enlightenment, and finds its fullest expression in Gustave Courbet's The Origin of the World (1866; Musée D'Orsay, Paris).

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