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Nudity in the Art and Life

In 1973 David Manzella, while chair of the Teacher Education Department at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), proposed the inclusion of the figure drawing as part of art education beginning in elementary schools, stating the relevant goals as “expansion of awareness of the physical environment and developing awareness of all forms of the visual arts offering an opportunity for nonverbal expression”. With respect to nudity, these goals also served as an opportunity to provide a positive view of sexuality in opposition to the alternatives of commercial exploitation, pornography or ignorance. This proposal went no further than the addition of figure drawing to the Junior program at RISD for students 13 to 17 years old. Rather than use models from the usual RISD program, college students in art were recruited to pose for the new program. After obtaining permission from parents, the classes were held with generally positive results.

The optimism or perhaps the arrogance that basic cultural problems could be addressed by radical change did not survive into the 1980s, but instead created a conservative backlash on many fronts. The idea of nudity as a positive expression of humanity that included, but was not limited to sexuality gave way to an even more complete identification of nudity with either sexual exploitation or shame. During my childhood it was not so; artistic nudity could be published in mainstream magazines and the nudity of small children at a beach was taken for the innocence it was. Now we have a society where there is a constant stream of idealized, sexualized bodies in the media without the everyday experiences that might allowed for the development of a realistic body image.

Studies find that the majority of young people now see human nakedness in the media long before they see naked people in real life. The media context is almost always sexual, and often includes violence. There are rarely depictions of ordinary people going about their everyday lives of dressing and undressing, bathing, or simply being naked because they are comfortable doing so. The result is the proliferation of bodily and sexual dysfunctions. Young people send naked photos to one another by phone, but do not want to shower together after gym class. The figure drawing group remains an exception within this general environment of social dysfunction. It is a place were one can look at naked strangers without shame and appreciate the variety of human bodies.

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