Peter Leithart on the Nude in a Pornographic Age

These intriguing thoughts were published today over at the First Things blog. Excerpts below, but the entire article can be found here. Also (for my money), Leithart’s blog is one of the best Christian theological blogs out there that is both philosophically engaging and honestly “catholic” in its perspective. It is a great blog to occasionally peruse and add to your Google reader.

We live in a pornographic age that falls dismally short of creating what Pope Paul VI called a “climate favorable to education in chastity.” But we misconstrue the problem if we worry only about the sheer number of unclothed bodies, the sheer expanse of exposed flesh, that appears on TV, in film, or on the web. The fundamental problem is not a lack of clothing but the widespread failure of mass and high culture to represent the truth about the human body. We no longer have a visual idiom that enables us to depict the beauty of the human form without arousing lust. Combatting pornography requires not the suppression but the revival of the nude…

Against the moralist, we can pose the arguments of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. This is somewhat surprising, since John Paul is himself a moralist. Bodies, he argues, are expressions of spirit, and human bodies are made for personal communication and communion. Artists cannot avoid objectifying bodies to some degree, since all art uproots the human form from its real-life personal subjectivity: Painted bodies don’t look back at the viewer. For this reason, the depiction of the human body in art is never “merely aesthetic, nor morally indifferent.” Depicting the body, clothed or not, is inevitably an ethical problem…

Modern art commonly fails this ethical test because it operates on the “naturalistic” premise that “everything that is human” has a right to be depicted in art, no matter how shameful or disgusting…naturalism fails because it doesn’t tell the whole truth about man. In its pornographic guise, naturalism reduces the body to an object “intended for the satisfaction of mere concupiscence.” In its aesthetic guise, it often makes the body an object of terror and shame. It is not that naturalism is too truthful; it is not truthful enough, since it denies the central truth that human bodies are created for communion and mutual gift, to express the human spirit, to unveil God’s image on earth…

What is ultimately needed is not a revival of nude sculpture and painting per se, but a revival of the sensibilities about persons and bodies that produce works to display the glory of human flesh. To fulfill this requirement, artists need more than a theory. They can be trusted to depict human bodies honorably if they pursue what Jesus demanded, “purity of heart.” And that, as John Paul well understood, depends on a fresh evangelization of artists and art.

-Peter Leithart (on First Things blog 9/14/2012)