Art and the Human Person: Thoughts for Artists and Viewers of Art

Given everything we now know about the human person, male and female, the theology of the body, the purpose and the problems of sexuality, let’s take a moment and consider art. Specifically, visual art, in any form, which takes a human body as its subject. What did St. John Paul II think of nude paintings, for example?

First, we define some principles for the evalutation of art.

  • Bodies are personal. The  body does not exist and cannot be considered by itself, as if it were merely an interesting shape for design. The human body is always the body of a person, and it is always either male or female. It must also be considered in the context of experience – the experience of living that body, and of its physical interactions, especially with the opposite sex.
  • It is possible to “look” the wrong way. When we look at a painting or a sculpture of a person, it is not possible to completely separate that experience from our real, lived experiences of people. “Whoever looks at a woman to desire her” applies to art as well.
  • Ethics apply to art. Culture and art help to define our values, for better or worse, and they can certainly be a help or a hindrance to chastity. This places ethical obligations on both the artist and the viewer of art.
  • Body is a gift. The proper, natural context for nakedness is in a mutual, loving, respectful, spousal relationship between a man and a woman. Any representation of a human body necessarily abstracts it to varying degrees from this context.
  • Art is anonymous. An artist who publishes his work, and a person who becomes a subject of art, submit the art to viewers they do not know. It is impossible to ensure a respectful reception. The dignity of the body is threatened.
  • Clothing exists for a reason. Besides keeping us warm, clothing offers protection from lust. In fact, John Paul points out that as a culture makes progress in authentic humanity and in morality, it moves away from anonymous nudity toward an instinct to cover nakedness. What does that say about 21st century America?
  • All people have good and bad instincts. At our best, none of us wants to be an object of lust or to lust after others. At our worst, sometimes we do. Various conditions prompt people toward chastity and noble behavior or toward impure behavior.
  • The body has intrinsic dignity. No one has the right to  violate the personal dignity of another person by looking at him or her with impure thoughts and intentions. No one has the right to give others the opportunity to do this, or worse, to all but force them to it by means of indecent images.

Next, it is important to note specific considerations for different types of art:

In the performance arts – dance, theater, and sometimes musical performances or sports – the living human body is the art in itself. The audience is physically present and in some manner of actual relationship with the performers. The environment and context are controlled and specific. These arts rarely present the question of nudity per se, but a dance can certainly be intentionally provocative or not provocative at all, and an individual viewer can choose to watch anything with an impure eye.

Drawing, painting and sculpture which use the body as a model and subject have a completely different relationship to the human body. The body appears through the lens of interpretation by the artist. The artist has many factors at his disposal to communicate a message and to encourage either a pure and edifying look or an impure and suggestive one. In this medium, the naked body can sometimes be used in a chaste and beautiful way.

Finally, photography and film reproduce a particular human person with no intermediary. This last type of art has particular ethical problems not found in the other arts. For instance, when a photograph or a video is spread widely on TV, in a magazine, on the internet, or in a movie theater, a real individual person often becomes anonymous. It is possible to say, “I’ve seen you,” in relation to the subject of a photograph, much more directly than we would regarding a painting. Consider this – before the invention of photography, the faces of individual people were seen only by those close enough to see them! A painting, even a realistic one, is not comparable to a photograph in this regard. The focus of a photograph is generally more on the subject and less on the artist and his message; he has fewer options and techniques at his disposal. A photograph of a naked person, however carefully taken, is much more likely to arouse impurity than a tasteful painting of the same. I would say that the implications of this section are that naked photography or film are never in good taste, but that is not stated explicitly.

The conclusion of these reflections is not that the body, even the naked body, should never be a subject of art. It does mean that painting a body, even a fully clothed body, or viewing such a painting, is never morally indifferent.

The Responsibility of Artists

When is it pornography? Obviously this is the ultimate ethical question at stake here. We all know what pornography is, but for the sake of argument, a definition: pornography is any performance, painting, sculpture, photograph or video which violates the intimacy and privacy due to a person’s body in its masculinity or femininity and which violates the innate nature of the gift and of reciprocal giving inscribed in human sexuality.

Good art, particularly when human bodies are the subject, can actually teach and foster the dignity and value of the human person and the human body. Art can communicate the spousal meaning of the body wordlessly and powerfully. It can lift the entire culture and society to a higher plane of thinking and seeing. Bad art, especially pornographic art, can deform and destroy the same values and virtues in an individual person and in an entire society. For this reason, artists have a serious ethical obligation.

Here comes the hard part – if he wants to communicate the correct ideas about the body, the artist who wishes to depict the body must live these values himself. The artist, whether a painter, sculptor, dancer, director, photographer, filmmaker or screenwriter, must be chaste! We already established that you must live and think in purity to really understand the body and the human person, especially in its masculinity and femininity. Well, if an artist wants to communicate about the body, he must understand it. And to understand it, he must live it properly himself. How often is it quite clear when watching a TV show that the writers and the actors are unchaste? Doesn’t that show pull you toward the same base thoughts? A painter does not just show a body itself – he shows it to you through the lens of his own ideas about it – he invites you into his world and his values.

There are many beautiful paintings, sculptures and dances which are truly sublime – we look through them to a higher plane. We see the full truth about man as a person with dignity, male and female as they were meant to be. But there are many more which make us feel embarrassed to look at, inappropriately aroused, or both, due to the way the body is depicted. When we react this way, it is because of an intention, either our intention or the intention of the artist, to use the human body as an object of enjoyment and gratification.

In Humanae Vitae, Paul VI directs us to create a climate favorable to chastity.  “One can say that this is one of the fundamental dimensions of human culture, understood as an affirmation that ennobles everything that is human.” (TOB 63.6) Various types of images let us see man, male and female, in different ways – a sculpture, a painting, a ballet, a play, an opera, a biography, a poem and a novel all portray different aspects of man. There is an ethical aspect to creating any type of image of man. There is also an ethical aspect to viewing it. Good art expresses the entirety of a person, and in turn, passes this task (the body is a task) on to the viewer, who can either take up the challenge through the art or exploit it superficially for gratification.

Thoughts for Viewers

As a viewer of art, here are some things to keep in mind for the future. (Note that this list is my own composition based on TOB and not at all from St. John Paul.)

First of all, if you find yourself drawn to thoughts that are impure, objectifying or demeaning while viewing any painting, sculpture, dance, play, photograph or video, stop viewing it! It may be useful to consider later whether the problem was with the art itself or only with your viewing of it. If either the artist or the viewer are unchaste in intention, an unchaste message will be communicated. An impure person will struggle even with a great Renaissance painting – if you need proof, consider a typical 14-year-old boy. On the other hand, some “art”
is in poor taste and cannot be viewed respectfully by anyone.

On a deeper level, when viewing any type of art which portrays a person, consider these questions, especially if the body or sexuality is a prominent focus.

  • What is this telling me about the person or people depicted, as individuals?
  • What does the person seem to be experiencing? What would it be like to be this person? To meet this person? To be his/her brother, mother, husband, friend? (Whatever relationships are natural and obvious to consider for the work in question.)
  • If the previous questions have no answers, why don’t they? Is the work dehumanizing? Or simply conveying a message unrelated to the particular subjects?
  • What is my experience as the viewer of this work? What experience do other viewers likely have?
  • What do I imagine the experience of the painter, performer, photographer or model was?
  • Does the work affirm the spousal meaning of the body? In other words, is it clear that the people are in, or are meant for, personal, affirming relationships? Does it convey a conflicting message?
  • Does the work give the subjects dignity?
  • If anyone is wearing less than the usual amount of clothing, why is that? Is it a functional reason or an aesthetic one? How does it change the message and the viewing experience?
  • Does the artist invite lust? Chaste reflections on the human person?
  • Will viewing this piece be an aid to chastity or a detriment? Which effect will it have on the culture and society?

I would be very interested in any comments on any of this material, as I am neither an artist nor a particularly experienced appreciator of art. Can you give particularly good examples of art affirming the human person, body, or sexuality? (Don’t share your bad examples, please!)

In the next post we will begin the third section – eschatological man. We will examine human sexuality in light of our eternal destiny and our redemption.


One thought on “Art and the Human Person: Thoughts for Artists and Viewers of Art

  1. I think Bernini is a great example of an artist who shows a great deal of respect for the human person in his artwork. My two favorites are “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa” and “Apollo and Daphne.”

    “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa” is perhaps one of the most sexually charged images I have seen, yet she is fully clothed. Bernini seems to me to use human sexuality as a metaphor to try to express the spiritual delights of union with God that the saints can only begin to describe in words.

    “Apollo and Daphne” is, I think a good image of the dehumanizing effect of lust. If you know the story, Daphne has (in a sense) “vowed virginity” as a follower of Artemis, yet Apollo, pierced by the arrow of Eros lusts after her and chases her. Just before he catches her, she is saved by being transformed into a laurel tree. Bernini’s sculpture shows the transformation of Daphne in progress. If the sculpture is seen from behind- from the point of view of lust – you see Daphne as a tree. When you look at the sculpture from the front – from the opposite point of view from lust – you see her as a person.


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