Question: "What should be the Christian perspective on nudity in art?"
Answer: The Bible has much to say about the human body, which was not only created perfect by God, but also created unclothed. Adam and Eve were innocent in their nakedness, but when they sinned, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Genesis 3:7). Never before had they realized they were unclothed—the concepts of “clothed” and “unclothed” were meaningless to them. But sin affected their hearts and minds, creating vulnerability, guilt, and shame, and these things produced fear (verse 10). In their attempt to cover their spiritual shame, Adam and Eve intuitively covered their bodies. We should note that, when God took away their fig leaves—a sadly inadequate covering—He replaced them with something more permanent—animal skins (verse 21). Thus, God regarded clothing as appropriate and necessary in a fallen world.
We are not saying that the naked body is evil or repulsive; on the contrary, we see the body as a beautiful part of God’s creation. However, due to the fall, nudity now has implications of sinfulness attached to it. With few exceptions, the Bible presents nakedness as shameful and degrading (Genesis 9:21; Exodus 20:26; 32:25; 2 Chronicles 28:19; Isaiah 47:3; Ezekiel 16:35-36; Luke 8:27; Revelation 3:17; 16:15; 17:16). The only passages in which nudity is free of shame are those that describe Eden’s idyllic setting or that deal with marital relations (Proverbs 5:18-19; Song of Solomon 4).
In concert with biblical principles, most societies attach negative connotations to public nudity and place taboos on it. It is interesting, then, and somewhat puzzling, that those same societal taboos do not apply to artistic displays; a gallery may be full of nude statues, but the people viewing those statutes are required to be clothed.
So, Western culture has determined that nudity in art is permissible. What is the Christian perspective? Can nudity be used in a valid presentation of truth? Can artistic nudity be part of making a larger, legitimate point? For the Christian, does exercising “artistic license” justify portrayals of the nude human form?
Of course, all sorts of tangential questions also arise: What about partial nudity? Is a bare leg too suggestive? What about cleavage? If someone paints a scene from the Garden of Eden, how much shrubbery should surround the carefree couple? Does Michelangelo’s David need underwear? Where does “art” end and “pornography” begin? If lust occurs, whose fault is it—the artist’s, the viewer’s, or both?
We can’t answer these questions in all their particulars—we’ll leave that to individual conviction and conscience—but we can lay out some general principles concerning nudity in art. The first two we’ve already touched on:
1) The naked human body is not inherently sinful.
2) The Bible portrays public nudity as disgraceful.
To these we would add the following:
3) Lust is sin (Matthew 5:28; 1 John 2:16). We are responsible to guard our own hearts against lust. “Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:14-15). We should make every effort to avoid whatever causes us to sin and make no provision for the flesh (Romans 13:14). This means that, if a visit to the art gallery arouses lust in the heart, then, by all means, stay out of the art gallery.
Related to this is our responsibility to guard against inciting lust in others. We realize that some Christian artists draw, paint or sculpt nudes, and they do so with a clear conscience. We are loath to pass judgment on anyone’s personal convictions; however, Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 are powerful passages on conviction, freedom, and stumbling blocks. We all bear a responsibility to our brothers and sisters in Christ, and the Christian artist must find a way to balance “artistic integrity” with his obligation not to obstruct the spiritual growth of others. To paraphrase 1 Corinthians 8:13, “If the art I create causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never create art again, so that I will not cause him to fall.”
4) Christians have been called to modesty (1 Timothy 2:9). In this matter, we wish to strike a balance between legalism and licentiousness. We don’t want an “anything goes” attitude, but neither do we want to wrap women in burqas. The basic guideline is for Christian women to dress “modestly, with decency and propriety.” Of course, this instruction is for living people and not for art, but perhaps there is a connection, if indeed art imitates life. Why would a Christian artist paint a model—who is to dress modestly—in an immodest way? Why should Christian art be held to a lower standard than the Christian himself?
5) Christians should have nothing to do with the evil that is pornography. It is true that our culture differentiates art and pornography, and we understand that artistic nudity does not necessarily equal pornography. But we must remember that we live in a fallen world. The legal definition of pornography—the attempt to quantify “obscenity” and gauge “salacious intent”—becomes meaningless when someone is lusting at a picture. It does not matter what the intent of the picture is—if it incites lust in someone’s heart, then there is a problem.
Some artists attempt to disassociate nudity from its sexual connotations and thereby justify depictions of the nude human form. These artists may be attempting to portray vulnerability or recapture a lost purity; they may be trying to promote an innocent appreciation of beauty or glorify the Creator of the body. We agree that humanity could use a little more recaptured purity and recognition of beauty, but we question whether artistic nudity is helpful in a society saturated with sex.
Jeremiah 17:9 warns us that “the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked.” Part of the heart’s deceit is self-deception, as we try to convince ourselves that we are not affected by sin, that we are somehow uncommonly resistant to the temptations “common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13). That fact is, none of us are free from the influence of the flesh (Romans 7). It’s easy to say, objectively, that a certain nude image has artistic merit and communicates truth, but as fallen human beings, we all bring a measure of subjectivity into play. That subjectivity—combined with the emotional response that art seeks to induce—makes artistic nudity problematic, if not impossible.
6) Art, since it is created by morally responsible beings, is not morally neutral. It is a myth that art is inherently good simply because it is “art”; likewise, it is a myth that art is morally neutral, regardless of subject matter. We cannot evaluate art on mechanics or technique alone; we must also consider intent, theme, and subject matter. Philippians 4:8 can serve as a guide for judging the intangibles: is it true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy? This is the standard to which Christian artists are called.
In the end, we would say that, if possible, nudity in art should be avoided. This may not correspond with the world’s thinking, but it should be no surprise to find the world at odds with biblical principles. By no means are we advocating a withdrawal from the art world. We earnestly need Christian artists, critics, and patrons. Neither are we saying that the study of art, human anatomy, or artistic nudity is a sinful pursuit. But we urge believers to be extremely careful when viewing nudity in art. Put on the full armor of God and stand against the devil’s schemes (Ephesians 6:11-18). And, for those creating the art, remember that God clothed Eden’s emigrants. What God has covered, let not man uncover.