On and off over the last month, I have found myself arguing in my head that the history of art would still be full of nudes if all people were asexual. It isn’t something I ever expected myself to have an opinion on, much less not be able to stop thinking about, and I really didn’t think I’d spend a significant amount of time looking at nude art in order to write a post (and even identify a few favorite nudes!) but here I am.
It started after I reviewed the book Understanding Asexuality by Anthony F. Bogaert back in the end of October. One of the chapters I didn’t mention in my review is called “Art and Food on Planet Sex.” It has two main intents, first, to give insight into the lived experience of asexual people and second, to demonstrate how embedded sex is within most cultures. It attempts to do this by posing the question: what would life be like if all people were asexual?
Bogaert’s chapter considers the question by examining two main aspects of culture, as mentioned in the chapter title, art and food. I am going to limit my discussion to the part I can’t stop thinking about: art. As a disclaimer, I know very little about art. I enjoy some of it when I see it and did take and enjoy a drawing class in college, but I don’t spend a lot of time looking at art and haven’t drawn anything since that class, though I do spend an inordinate amount of time taking photographs, mostly of flowers and landscapes.
At the beginning of his musing on the subject of art and asexuality, Bogaert writes, “While wandering through galleries, eyeing renderings from various classical and modern eras, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that sexual interest and attraction has always driven, at least partly, aesthetic sensibilities” (124). He is referring to the prevalence of nudes and particularly female nudes and goes on to write, “I’ve even imagined, with tongue in cheek, whether curators might close down their galleries if for some reason a woman’s body was not allowed to be shown, as there would be no art left to display! I’ve imagined big, flashing neon signs outside of galleries announcing, Gallery closed due to shortage of nudes… Gallery closed due to shortage of nudes…” (124-125). Which is rather amusing, except in the context. Taken in context, it basically suggests that art galleries would be closed if all people were asexual.
In the next paragraph, Bogaert explains that he was just joking: “Of course I’m exaggerating the point, as there is a myriad of themes in art beyond women’s bodies. I am also not arguing that nudity and the human body are found in art only because of people’s sexual attraction to them” (125). And that is all well and good, nice that he clarified that, but a bit too late for me because I’m already indignant.
And Bogaert goes on to write, “What would it be like if art had no aesthetic linkage to sexuality whatsoever? Would depicting a nude (and the genitals in particular) have the same fascination, and garner the same attention, as depicting, say, the middle toe does for sexual artists? I expect that in a completely asexual world, art would be very different indeed. Thus, the current bevy of nude paintings…would turn into a scattered few” (127). Still indignant, reading that was what got me started creating arguments in my head as to why there would still be nudes in an asexual culture.
Part of my response to Bogaert’s second question is that just because a piece of the body isn’t personally fascinating doesn’t mean that an artist wouldn’t depict it. Sexual artists don’t just leave out the middle toe because they find it uninteresting. Asexual artists wouldn’t leave out the genitals just because they found them uninteresting. The larger part of my response is that the whole body, nude or not, cannot be compared to the middle toe, the way the genitals can be. My answer to the question as stated is that depicting the genitals would probably have the same fascination and garner the same attention for asexual artists as depicting the middle toe does for sexual artists, but that depicting a whole nude human body would not. A better question about the whole nude would be: Would depicting a nude have the same fascination, and garner the same attention, for asexual artists as it does for sexual artists?
A few paragraphs later, Bogaert asks a similar question, except the way he posed his question isn’t as nice as the way I posed mine. He asked, “Would an asexual person’s presumed lack of sexual aesthetics extend to a lack of appreciation for all aspects of beauty in the human form?” (127).
His full answer is, “Some asexual people may have an appreciation of faces and the body on an abstract level, having taken in our culture’s norms and standards of beauty. In addition, some asexual people may still have a deep recognition and lure for “romantic” beauty in others of their preferred sex if they are romantically inclined. Third, humans may have an innate recognition of beauty, independent of both romantic and sexual attraction to others. Indeed, innate “beauty” and “ugliness” sensors may exist in the human brain, and this may have to do with tendencies to approach or avoid others in the evolutionary past. For example, our ancestors may have avoided unattractive people because their unappealing features could have been a sign of a potentially contagious disease process, and thus they would have been important to avoid. Interestingly, research has shown that infants prefer to gaze at beautiful faces more than average or unattractive faces (Langlois, Roggman, Casey, & Ritter, 1987). Thus, the mind’s beauty-recognition mechanisms may be partially decoupled from the mechanisms associated with both romantic and sexual attraction, and an asexual person may still retain some level of this appreciation for beauty.” (128)
This is the question that really bothers me. The answer just makes it worse.
I find both question and answer personally insulting because they strongly imply that asexual people have a diminished or completely lacking appreciation for human beauty because they are not sexually attracted to other people. But I also think it is an insult to all people because it implies that human beauty is mostly about sex and thus that sexual people can only see human beauty when they experience attraction.
Sexy and beautiful aren’t the same thing. They may significantly overlap, but they aren’t the same thing. It may be true that most people don’t get past the sex part of beauty, because biologically and culturally most people are wired to fixate on sex. But every person who has ever paused, even for just a moment, to marvel at the things his or her body is physically capable of has gotten a glimpse of human beauty that isn’t connected to sex. I think the average person is most likely to think about this type of beauty after having broken a bone or spent time with people for whatever reason are unable to use their bodies in the ways most people take for granted. We are physically capable of a lot of pretty incredible things thanks to the bafflingly odd and beautiful way our bodies are shaped.
Humans also have the fairly rare advantage of not being covered with fur or feathers, allowing our skin to show off the beauty of the muscles that allow us all motion to a greater degree than most other animals. Horses are a notable exception.
It is this sense of wonder rather than sexual attraction that underlies my sense of the human body as beautiful. If sexual people can’t see past sexual beauty to that beauty based in wonder, then they are the ones with the diminished appreciation for human beauty.
After coming down strongly on the side of scientific bet-hedging as to whether asexual people can still appreciate human beauty, Bogaert does include a couple quotes from asexual people about their perception of human beauty, which is the closest he gets to actually exploring the lived experience of asexual people. I really like one of the quotes, particularly because it reinforces my point that sexual beauty is more limited than other types of human beauty: “I love the human form and regard individuals as works of art” (128).
So the answer to my earlier question, whether depicting a nude would have the same fascination, and garner the same attention, for asexual artists as it does for sexual artists, is no. The fascination wouldn’t be the same and the amount of attention to a nude wouldn’t be the same in an asexual culture, at least in part because the depiction of bodies wouldn’t be so controversial because they wouldn’t be connected to sex. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there wouldn’t be nudes.
I have to admit that if I were an artist, I probably wouldn’t draw or sculpt full nudes. I would be more likely to paint hands, faces (especially the eyes), shoulders and arms, calves and feet, and the throat and collarbones.
But I will also say that I made that statement as the me of this, very sexual, world. In this world, I am not very comfortable with bodies, mine and everyone else’s. I’m pretty sure that most of my discomfort with both my own body is due to the fact that in this culture, the act of looking at bodies is almost always connected to sex. Unfortunately for me, I really, really don’t want my body to be connected to sex, but I can’t control what other people see and look at when they look at my body and that makes me uncomfortable. Similarly, it is hard for me to look at bodies, particularly naked bodies because of the cultural connection between bodies and sex. I don’t want to be caught looking and have it be assumed that because I am looking at bodies I am interested in sex.
If bodies weren’t automatically connected to sex, if all people were asexual, I think I’d be a lot more comfortable with my own body and a lot more interested in other peoples’ bodies. I might even be interested in drawing the whole human body. Not living in an asexual culture, it is really hard to say.
Ultimately, Bogaert is probably right that in a world in which all people were asexual there would be fewer examples of nude art. But just as importantly, the nudes that were depicted would look different from those we see in museums and art galleries today. In an asexual world, nudes would be much less likely to be woman reclining or sitting on beds or standing in odd postures (if you went by the paintings I looked at to write this post, pretty much no woman has ever stood straight upright with both feet planted firmly on the ground). There would be less focus on the genitals and breasts. There would be more action, more motion, more emotion. The poses would be more casual, more every day, or else even more extreme to demonstrate how strange and wonderful the human body really is.
Feature image from http://www.ancient.eu/Greek_Sculpture/.