I am an art major here on campus, which often times means that what I am working on is strange and uncomfortable to other people. Beyond that, I am a figurative painter. I paint and draw people and those people are usually nude. This puts me in a very strange position in Covenant’s community because, as Christians, we often have a hard time being sure of what to do with images of nudity. The female nude has a twisted and dark history. From the very beginning of time women have been portrayed in art. Some of the earliest art we have record of depicts women as a goddess of fertility, taking away facial figures and emphasizing them as child makers alone. Throughout history this morphed to women portrayed as mythological beings to ensure that male viewers could feel more comfortable looking at their bodies for pleasure. Even later, women of other races were sexualized in art because they were seen as other and there for the taking. This view of women hasn’t changed throughout time even if our art looks drastically different. Now we deal with the digitally edited and sexualized image instead of the handcrafted portrayals. Every day we are surrounded by images of the body and we can all agree that they don’t portray women in a healthy way. But I have struggled throughout my life feeling like there must be some other way to understand our physical reality. I grew up as a dancer. I was trained to see the beauty and power that the body has. So I ran into a problem when I started my artistic schooling at Christian schools. I wanted to depict the body, but often times what I did was far from accepted.
Last year I took Professor Kayb Joseph’s Figure Drawing course, a class that often flies below the radar in the web of core and more interesting classes. My life as an artist has never been the same since. That class took me from being a student to being an artist. Not only was I taught anatomy and academic technique but I was mentored through a theological understanding of our bodies and our relationships to other people. Much like any other art class we needed to learn how to see our subject before we could learn how to draw our subject. This was especially important to our class because our models were other Covenant students. There is a theory about figure drawing that we as artists are incapable of drawing someone without objectifying them. We either sexually objectify them or treat them no differently than we would a bowl of fruit. Models for the nudes that we see throughout art museums were generally hired prostitutes which provides this historical assumption of objectification. However, in Kayb’s class we are taught that there is another option. As Christian figurative artists we are called to depict not just the body, but the body, soul, and spirit in our works. In this way we are attempting to look at our models and depict them through loving eyes as a fellow image bearer in Christ.
I am now in Christ and Culture and there is a section of our text book, “Culture Making” by Andy Crouch that really speaks to this conversation of nudity in art. Crouch talks about the practicality of how we change culture. He says that we cannot just stop a cultural norm from being true. Instead, if we want it to change, we need to replace it with something better. As students of Covenant College this is how we are called to make “In all things, Christ preeminent.” Instead of trying to hide from things that have a dangerous history in our fallen world maybe we can come alongside people and offer our different viewpoint as Christians. For my study in art, it means that I can’t fix the way that the nude body is wrongly portrayed by never making nude art. Instead, I enter into the conversation to offer up an alternative way of seeing a nude form. Instead of the historical tradition of the artist using the body of the model as a tool for art, I want to serve people by taking the time to look and care for them and love them through my art making.
So as the church, maybe this can speak into how we interact with the issue of the nude body in our culture. Fearing the body and avoiding it as a visual language leaves all of the power to define how bodies are used up to a secular culture. Maybe we need to take part in this tradition and create another voice among the broken views of the body.