Art is one of the most powerful, transcendent means of communication. When faced with a work of art, an audience may sometimes find itself speechless and unable to render an adequate response. This is because art speaks for itself. Art has the power to assume its own identity regardless of the intentions the artist had when creating the piece. Artist Kiki Smith described this characteristic of art in an interview. She explained that, “the thing about art is, you sit around thinking about things, then you make this object that has its own trajectory.
Sometimes you have some control over it, but your thinking about it is really a private activity” (Smith Interview, 36). The creation of an artistic piece is a private matter; the intentions of the artist are lost in the piece as it is left to speak for itself in the public eye. But, when art speaks it does so silently and its message is susceptible to changes overtime. What I mean by this is that art creates different relationships with different audiences and the message or story being shared by the art is as interchangeable as its audience.
As time passes, society changes, people change, and so does art; especially the individual’s perception of art. The past never dies but it does evolve. The core foundation of art will always be there. Art will always maintain the ability to relate information to people without directly saying anything. What changes over time are the messages artists try to convey through their artwork and the reactions they generate. One of the main purposes of Greek artwork was to create an accurate display of the nature of perfect symmetry in the human body and instill this sense of natural human beauty within the audience when faced with the statue.
The Canon” is a sculpture of a nude standing male in which the perfectly symmetric and harmonious parts of the human body are accentuated in a sculpted figure and is an exemplary model of what the ancient Greek artists strove to achieve in their artwork. His masculine features are emphasized in his nudity in an act of celebrating the human form and all of its glory. The details of his body speak to the audience, begging them to react strongly and in adoration of his superb masculine form; The Canon inspires. Although the symmetry of the human body will never be lost over time, the Greek infatuation with this symmetry was lost.
Naturally as symmetry was being remembered but no longer incorporated as the main focus of artwork, art had to shift its focus to something else. The artistic delicacy of re-enacting the perfection of the human body was still intact in Renaissance art, however it no longer held to be the main purpose of what was being expressed in the artwork. The ancient artwork of the Greeks tells a story of symmetry, beauty, and perfection while the artwork during the Renaissance tells a story of God, His work, and Christ.
Renaissance art focused on the information being circulated at the time as well as the resonating themes of Christianity. During the Renaissance, nudity was used to extoll Christ’s relationship to humanity. “Now, what man praises most especially in God are his works and deeds. Of these, the first was the act of Creation; but the second great deed was his becoming flesh and dwelling on earth” (Steinberg, 9) Christ’s naked body would be used to engage the audience in the art of Christianity.
In Holy Family with Saint Anne by Hans Baldung, Christ is shown as a nude baby. The controversy of the picture derives from the detail of Christ’s grandmother seemingly caressing Christ’s genitals. The controversial appearance of Christ’s genitals “is the stuff of Renaissance art: the humanization of God; the more ‘superwonderful’ the more tangible you can make it” (Steinberg, 10). Steinberg explains that, “the objective was not so much to proclaim the divinity of the babe as to declare the humanization of God” (Steinberg, 9).
The bare flesh of Christ being depicted was therefore symbolizing the story of Christ’s humanity (or rather the humanity of God). The prominence and bluntness of his genitals provokes the audience to react with an appreciation for God, Christ, and the actuality of Christ’s humanity. This, representing the unclothed body, is a natural part of art history. But, as times changed and excitement over what was being captured (e. g. symmetria or Christianity) subsided, so did the art being created and so did society’s views on the depictions of the unclothed body.
In a new age of an overwhelmingly new influx of technological advances came a new and very different perception of the human body. “In present western society our perception of the body is not determined by art or by philosophy but by film and advertising. A person’s view of his own body is no longer controlled by social or religious parameters but by concealed economic interests” (Baltrock). Depicting the nude body in sculptures or in art in order to resonate the beauty of the human body was lost as society began to focus on other means of representation.
Using art to accentuate features of the human body was no more. People now are being given conflicting messages about the human body that are incorporated in the media. Rather than share messages of the body through art, art began to be used to share personal messages, personal dilemmas, cultural messages, and the naked body would even be used in a form of protest. Intra-Venus by Robert Mapplethorpe is an image of three collective photographs of a naked and elderly woman in questionably graphic and sexual positions.
The purpose of the photo was not to indulge the audience in the naked aging of the human body, but to challenge existing artistic norms. Mapplethorpe was successful in that his art consistently provoked strong reactions from its audience; and perhaps this is the point of art. The purpose of art is to engage its audience and compel a response. What would the point be if not to invite people to respond to it? Art has been doing this throughout all of art history because “images compel the senses in ways that are both taboo and intrinsic to art” (Dennis).
Regardless of what type of a reaction is drawn, the whole purpose of art is to induce a strong response from its audience, and generating responses is intrinsic to art. Picasso’s piece Demoiselles d’Avignon depicts naked woman in a brothel. The piece of course generated a strong response from an audience being that the scene in the piece was of a brothel; and perhaps this is why he chose such a controversial subject. Perhaps, Picasso intentionally made the piece one that would produce a strong response. In “The Philosophical Brothel” Steinberg goes in depth discussing the details and meanings of Demoiselles ’dAvignon.
He describes Picasso’s intentions of specific details in the picture. Steinberg states that “what he wants is a restless beat and a reactive presence” (33). The presence of a chaotic scene in in his picture was an intentional means of provoking reactions from its audience! Nude art, nakedness in art form, the art of the unclothed body will never fail to create a reactive presence. Any form of the naked body will compel a person to react, particularly in art. Art has always, and will always, compel its audience to react to it.