We live in a deeply confused age regarding sexuality and the body. We can understand Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it,” concept regarding pornography in terms of necessary legalese, but especially in this day and age, Christians (and the world) need more specific guidance. How are we to understand how the body can be used in art?
I wish I had the time and theological understanding to devote to John Paul II monumental Man and Woman He Created Them, where he developed a full-fledged “theology of the body.” Though I read only very small portions of the text, those few parts have made a huge impression on me.
First, he makes the observation that nakedness is mentioned in a spousal connection, which means that nakedness is a kind of gift of one to the other — a revelation, in fact. For this can rightly be called a gift because it involves a kind of mutual possession of one another — “I am yours and you are mine.”
These ideas of possession and gift lead to another truth, that the body itself is a form of revelation. I had never realized this before, but of course it makes perfect sense. We talk often of how the beauty of flowers, or the variety of the birds, or the majesty of mountains, reveal something about God Himself. But we (or perhaps just I) forget that the body of course is part of that same creation that will reveal something of the Creator. And perhaps the body may reveal more than mountains or flowers, as He made humanity of all creation in His image.
These truths deserve more contemplation than I can give them. But I do think that John Paul’s wisdom can give us profound guidance on the nature of the body and how the body can or should be used in a “public” way. He writes,
Artistic objectification of the human body in its male and female nakedness for the sake of making of it first a model and then a subject of a work of art is always a certain transfer outside this configuration of interpersonal gift that belongs originally and specifically to the body. It constitutes in some way an uprooting of the human body from the configuration and a transfer of it to the dimensions of artistic objectification specific to the work of art or the reproduction typical of the works of film and photographic technologies of our time.
In each of these dimensions, and in each of them in a different way, the human body loses that deeply subjective meaning of the gift and becomes an object destined for the knowledge of many, by which those who look will assimilate or even take possession of something that evidently exists (or should exist) by its very essence on the level of gift–or gift by the person to the person, no longer of course in the image, but in the living man. To tell the truth, this act of “taking possession” happens already on another level, that is, on the level of artistic transfiguration or reproduction. It is, however, impossible not to realize that from the point of view of the ethos of the body, understood deeply, a problem arises here. It is a very delicate problem that has various levels of intensity depending on various motives and circumstances, both on the side of artistic activity and on the side of knowledge of the work of art or its reproduction. From the fact that this issue arises, it does not at all follow that that human body in its nakedness cannot be the subject of works of art, only that this issue is neither merely aesthetic, nor morally indifferent.
This, I think, trumps “I know it when I see it.”