Society often avoids talking about issues that make us feel uncomfortable, especially sex. Although it is such a huge part of our lives, human sexuality is rarely discussed because it has the ability to cause controversy. Our opinions can often divide us from our friends, family and community at large. It can be simpler to be offended by nudity than to ask ourselves why it offends us. Questioning what stands before us can force tough realizations or alter our longstanding views on big topics, all changes which are hard to swallow. Art often acts as the catalyst to our intellectual laziness, forcing us to face rocky issues we would rather ignore. However, as an artist this theme remains difficult to approach, as audiences are immediately apprehensive to any visual works that portray nudity or sexual topics. So why do they?
Many can understand the old masters’ studies of the human body or the sexualized depiction of Greek goddesses, but are stumped as to why artists of today continue to push the boundaries of propriety. It can be difficult to face new views of sexuality no longer restricted to traditionalist female nudes rendered by a male hand. The novelty of these works is beyond the comfort zone of the masses, as it challenges what we have been told is “okay” to see and what is “art.” It remains challenging to recall a famous painting that depicts homosexuality or a male nude drawn by a female artist. Sophomore Michael Williams challenges these comfortable depictions of nudity to revolutionize our dated perceptions of sexuality.
“If you look at art history, nudity has always been centered around the male gaze towards the female body which is always white, certain proportions, very fine definition of woman and that’s not what all humans look like,” Williams said.
Williams possesses an extremely developed abstract style that flows through his work. In and outside of class he creates a diverse series of work which portrays many different subjects. He constantly tackles a variety of meaningful issues, anything easily observed from something as innocuous as his Instagram. Over a cup of coffee, Williams explained the importance of dealing with subjects of nudity and sexuality despite fragile audiences. “How societies choose to portray healthy sexualities speaks a lot to their values and their ethics,” he said. “If you want to promote healthy lifestyles that are accepting of all different types of people, then you need to show healthy relationships… the whole concept of anything that has sexual imagery deemed as pornography is harmful to having a discussion on developing healthier sexualities.” What is shown to the masses is, in some respect, what we will receive in turn. If male homosexual couples are the only ones portrayed in media, female homosexuals may feel less comfortable publicly displaying their relationships. Public images create public standards and by allowing our standards to be so stringent we limit the minds of our population.
However, in order to facilitate “healthier sexualities,” we have to first accept our bodies and those of others, not be ashamed.
Williams seeks to promote body positivity, and he begins this revolution with finding comfort in his own skin– enter “Tasteful Nude Tuesdays.” This charcoal nude self-portrait drawn as a mirror selfie is the start to a possible series of censored nude figures. In this drawing, he approaches this serious topic with a lovable silliness: an emoji covering genitalia. By lightening the mood, viewers are able to smile at the human figure and feel more at ease in its presence.
“I feel like I’ve definitely learned to become more comfortable in my body, but we’re not really taught to be comfortable in our bodies, at all, like at any time, there’s pressure.” Williams said. He believes this stems from the plethora of advertisements and societal expectations we are bombarded by on any given day. Williams said these pressures make people feel like they should not be comfortable in their own skin, “it pressures you to change yourself even though you don’t have to change anything.”
Williams believes the only way for us to confront stigmas and feel safer in our own bodies is to talk about it. An honest conversation about sexuality is the first step to correcting close-minded tendencies. William’s work does the service of putting it all out there, making his audience think and talk with each other about what sexuality can mean in their lives and in others. He catalyzes this process of acceptance by facilitating an environment in which body shaming and who is attracted to whom is irrelevant in the wake of creating positive relationships with ourselves and others.
Freshman Chloe Hogan also feels that nudity should not be avoided in art. “I think honestly it would be a disservice to just try and ignore sexuality and nudity in art because it’s a part of our lives,” Hogan said. She chooses to do so from a female perspective, satirizing the way in which female nude bodies are shown as objects reduced by the male gaze. She cites how the Metropolitan Museum of Art features mainly male artists and mostly female nudes, and she seeks to change that. Her paintings, full of rich color, expressive texture and pop culture references tackle women’s roles among other things. In her oil painting “Housewives” she draws inspiration from the work of Louise Bourgeois by examining the woman’s place in the home and greater society, replacing the face of a nude woman with a house. As a woman, she feels a special connection to female portraits, explaining that every portrait is a self-portrait. By painting subjects which she understands well she is able to deliver a fresh and defined point of view to her audience.
While Hogan hopes that our generation is more open-minded to controversial works, she questions whether we actually are, having had her art vandalized with “nice tits” written across a painting in high school. She was shocked and appalled at the crude words, “It was terrible but just a learning experience.” One she has translated into inspiration to follow her work wherever her paintbrush takes her without worrying about pleasing everyone. The world in which we live is not nearly as progressive as we believe it to be and seeing a woman’s perspective of her own gender’s body is still a rarity. We all know that sex is often a two-way street, so maybe it is time we examine the point of view of women.
Next time you pass by some nudity in the hall, delve deeper past the physical qualities and avoid reducing the figure to something meaningless. Student artists are finding innovative ways to address important flaws in our society. Williams reminds us that “there are so many resources… so many educators and people talking about representations of sexuality. Just keep learning,” and Hogan encourages us to “be open minded…really look at it as art and think, okay does the nudity have meaning here?” In the most formative years of our lives, it is important to stay open-minded and question what stands before us rather than merely taking it at face value.