Thursday, December 10, 2009

Naked Truths

"There are those who so dislike the nude that they find something indecent in the naked truth." - F.H. Bradley
I've taught drawing many years now, and every so often have to try and accommodate the occasional student who has issues working with a nude model. Seems right around the time any semesterly friction fades from memory is when it begins all over again with another. As with many other things that happen in any given classroom, I'm always extremely grateful to have the overwhelming number of students be enthusiastic, if not at least tolerant of my teaching style. They seem to be open to trying new things and are open to new ideas - you know, kinda like the underlying assumption behind the liberal part of a College of Liberal Arts.
Sad to say there is an increasingly vocal and resistant contingent that will come to class with blinders firmly in place, brooking no argument and allowing for absolutely nothing that doesn't possibly conflict with their worldview.
Thus we're seeing a resurgence in obstinate fingers-in-the-ears la-la-laaa-I'm-not-listening in (for example) the fields of basic biology and geology. This is the artistic equivalent of creationism and intelligent design, and in my encounters in the studio the rationale stems from the same place - fundamentalism. Thorny issues such as decency, shame pre-marital chastity, modesty etc. find an easy out on purely religious grounds, and a teacher has to ferret out the legitimate against the intellectually and morally lazy.

There's an argument to be made against even exposing Beginning students to figure drawing, but my approach has always been the rock-skipping method of introducing a wide range of media and subject matter right at the outset, so as to provide breadth (as opposed to depth, which is the purview of Intermediate & Advanced courses) and hopefully facilitate a connection with something along the way. Plus I personally view drawing the human form as one of the penultimate expressions for an artist - not necessarily the best or highest artform but maybe analogous to a symphony versus bluegrass (one is definitely more fun jamming out in the festival parking lot). It's also viewed by many as being the hardest subject matter to attempt, above and beyond all the historical, academic and practical aspects of using models in a classroom. Does this mean a student cannot go on to be a good artist without studying the model? Absolutely not - no more than attending art classes is s prerequisite of artistic success. I've grappled with this subject here a couple times on previous postings, and maintain that it's crucial to understanding the basic, underlying anatomical influences on the human form, whether it's drawing, painting, comics - virtually all the mediums in art will touch upon some aspect of figurative influence. Also training in the observational ability to translate/interpret movement by using gesture is a very useful skill.

*Update: forgot to add linkage to some basic information available on-line with helpful guidelines when dealing with models for the figure drawing portion of the class...

I remember the first human brain I ever dissected for an Anatomy & Physiology lab: holding the organ in my two hands made a lifelong, indelible impression (especially given my years as a philosophy student focusing on neurological side of things), and it gave me profound insight about what it means to be a human being. The same almost clinical, objective detachment is an acquired perspective to adopt when working with a model, and yet at the same time one cannot escape the powerful connection with a reflection of your own humanity.

There might be an initial awkward and nervous phase before everyone settles into the routine: my foremost priority is making a professional and respectful atmosphere that's conducive to focusing on work. And this abrupt shift in focus is immediately seen in the student works, for some it's like an overcompensation to studiously ignore it by paradoxically concentrate even more on the task at hand. Whatever the psychology, some excellent pieces are the direct result - and you can't overlook the fact that they should all, in theory, by now be capable of making their own aesthetic choices in creating a work of art that will stand on its own.

Here's a heavily redacted excerpt from a sample email exchange between a concerned student and myself (note - always spell-check your emails, and really, try to at least spell your teacher's name right):
"In Matthew 5:28 it says " But i tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." The same can be said for women. I don't want to even have bad thoughts enter my mind. .... All is see is some one trying to become more sexually appealing. It is really to catch someones attention in the wrong way. "
Prevailing American social norms have corrupted the view of nudity to where it is sadly and mistakenly equated with pornography. Indeed figure drawing presents students with an alternative opportunity for demystification and acceptance of the human body, and learning to separate nudity and sex. A deeper, richer understanding of the human form is a hallmark of respectful and mature individuals as well as artists. It can be enough of a challenge to try and counter the stereotypes that exist about art and nude models as it is without complicating the issues with face-palming examples of amateur theology. My abbreviated reply to the email above mentions this :
"..."lust, adultery" etc: you are projecting issues that simply are not there..."
However, all that being said, my job as an instructor is not only teaching about art (learning how to draw) but also to serve to some degree as a representative of other serious artists in the community. So along with providing technical training there's a bit of a role model thing going on, simultaneous with acting in the capacity of upholding professional and academic standards. Demonstrating tolerance has to be balanced against tolerating foolishness: pitting my convictions, personal and professional, against an uninformed opinion tests both parties - which needs to be done carefully on an individual basis. If you don't have the time or patience to do that, then you shouldn't be teaching.

Lastly, here's an excerpt from the First Amendment Center's website on the question "Can a college student invoke his or her religious beliefs to avoid engaging in an objectionable type of artistic expression?"
Suppose a student is taking a drawing class. Part of it involves sketching a nude human body. If a student has a religious objection to observing or drawing unclothed models, he or she might ask to be exempted from that section of the class without damage to the course grade. Such an exemption may or may not be granted.
It stands to reason, under a doctrine established by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1943 decision West Virginia v. Barnette, that no one may be compelled by a government actor to do something that will violate their conscience. Accordingly, it would seem that the same could be said for students who find religious or moral objections to certain practices normally required in a course of study — that they should be allowed to take on comparable tasks, modified to meet the requirements of their worldview.
Also some great comments in this vein (from both sides) are on this Catholic Answers Forum thread:
"Real art is not creative so much as revealing. It uncovers aspects of God's creation, makes visible the beauty He has placed in the world, and shows fundamental truths about our world and our humanity in vivid, visceral ways.

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