Nude Beauty for Porn Addicts

With all due respect – which I understand to be a statement that allows you to say anything you want – there were a lot of wrongheaded responses to my last two posts on pornography. Most were centered along the fallacy that there exists no difference between nude art and pornography, or if there does, it is so slight a difference that it is irrelevant. There was also the general insinuation that the real, deep reason I’m even posting about this at all is because it gives me an excuse to masturbate, to which I chuckled. So that’s why so many people hang out in the Sistine Chapel.

However, the one objection I take seriously is that ‘yes, all of this is true, but to the man addicted to pornography, this truth can be nigh unrecognizable.’ That such direct pathways from nudity to lust are carved out in the brain matter of modern man that goodness, truth and beauty are almost immediately corrupted. That maybe, once upon a time, in a land free from pornographic advertising, a culture with an appreciation for nude art would have been a chaste culture, but no longer. The answer to pornography then, is not to foster an appreciation for the beauty of the human person, and the naked form, but to avoid nudity altogether. For even if it is good, it is dangerously easy to corrupt.

This argument has the virtue of being simultaneously true and false. It is true in that the appropriate response to lusting after something is not to somehow ‘artify’ it. You’d do better to jump into a bramble-bush after St. Francis, or hire an old Jewish woman to slap you in the back of the head whenever your eyes begin to glaze over.

She'd be glad to.

It is false in that it submits the battlefield to the pornographers. It is an acceptance of defeat: “We can’t do it. We can’t see the beauty in the Virgin, in the nude form, so we’re leaving. Take nude art, make it as corrupted as you want – we won’t look at any of it.” This is obviously the wrong attitude, because we Catholics are supposed to transform the culture by way of beauty, not remove ourselves from anything that has the potential to be corrupted. (Quick Note: Everything has the potential to be corrupted.)

If we revolt in the direction of puritanism – avoiding nudity in any context at all – we’re denying the beauty of God’s works; his works have been conquered by our sin. For the porn-addict, this ‘total avoidance’ may be a good practice at first. But as a lifetime method of developing chastity? One might as well try and develop patience by studiously avoiding other people.

So the answer must lie somewhere else. I hold that for the porn-addicted/lust-struggling art-viewer it is this: To recognize the beauty in nude art with an awareness of your own propensity to lust. To, by prayer and fasting, implore God for an uncorrupted view of the human person. Of course, this begs the question: How can one gain this view? In other words: How can a porn-addict view nude art without fear?

It seems to me that if it is the display of true beauty that separates nude art from pornography, than the ability to appreciate how this beauty is being displayed by the artist, and to recognize it as glorifying the human person is essential to ‘tearing out your eye’ that causes you to sin; to destroying the pathways that take beauty and rot it to lust.

So let’s take Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, a work we are all familiar with. Instead of approaching it with fear and trembling, let’s say a Hail Mary, and give it an honest appraisal. Where is the beauty that separates it from pornography? How does it glorify the human person?

To take on this task, I’ve been learning about all sorts of brilliant artistic techniques, and how they glorify humanity. Each one blew my mind as I found them present in the above painting. (I wanted to authentically ‘find’ these techniques, in order to judge whether understanding and appreciating actually does help a man to view nudity in the light of God’s marvelous creation.) I’m sure I got odd looks when, having been measuring the proportions of Venus for 20 minutes in the computer lab, I found the ratio and cried out “Holy crap, that’s awesome!” far too loudly.

For obvious reasons, and after you’ve said your prayer, start by looking at her face. It is undeniably beautiful, but why? What has the artist done? He’s conformed it to the Fibonacci Sequence, and the Golden Ratio, first of all. The ratio 1.61803399 that we humans love so dearly.

We love it here:

And here:

And here:

And, wonder of wonders, we love it here:

 

This is my ridiculously rough graph of Venus’ beautiful face – I pray she doesn’t smite me. The length divided by the width gets us close to that fantastic ratio that humans find so beautiful: 1.61…I imagine it would only get closer if I took the time to be more accurate. But do you see? Do you see how finding the objective beauty in the female face makes us appreciate it more deeply? It is not something we simply find good-looking. It is good-looking.

Right away we see the artist portraying a beauty, perfection of form. And the exact same is true of the body of Venus. I hold that it is a knife to the heart of lust, to realize the same beauty that strikes our hearts by way of flowers, galaxies, stained-glass windows, seashells and sunsets, is personified and condensed into the female form. The artist is not portraying nudity as being pornographic, he is portraying it as utterly beautiful. As a waterfall is beautiful, and as conch shell is too, so is woman, but infinitely more so. Again we find the Golden Ratio:

Isn’t that incredible? The length of her torso, from hip to head, divided by the length from her breast and her head, gives us 1.6301. Again, were I only more accurate, I wonder how close Botticelli came to achieving the replication of what God wrought in the oak-leaf and the pineapple. Does is become more difficult to corrupt the female breast into a mindless stimulus for lust when you realize it is in perfect proportion woman in her wholeness, in a striking example of integritas, that pre-requisite of beauty that declares all parts must add to the whole? That is for you to decide.

Speaking of integritas, we mentioned before that it’s not just about the woman herself being displayed with glorifying proportionality, it’s about her proportion to what’s going on around her. (Which is why it is entirely difficult for me to conceive of any situation in which the artistic display of the marital union would be acceptable.) One way the artist puts Venus in proportion to the entire painting, as a beauty to be honored, is by strictly following the rule of thirds and the use of the triangle.

The triangle is apparent; the arms and bodies of those surrounding Venus form it. Again, how does this glorify the beauty of Venus’ naked form while avoiding lust? The triangle in art is a symbol for completeness, developed as such by Christianity in light of the Triune God. Wholeness of form. Perfection. Here I found two main triangles one surrounding Venus – declaring her as the perfection of beauty – and another created by the pose of Venus herself, by the lovely angle of her arms. The latter triangle nestles within the first – not only does she incorporate beauty, she gives it.

You’ll also notice that the very center of the painting is obviously directly below the womb of the nude Venus, the place of birth. Do I need point out that this is in harmony with the whole painting, The Birth of Venus?

So what’s my point? This: Perhaps with an appreciation for the glory the artist gives to the nude form, the porn-addicted man may be aided in avoiding the temptation towards lust when viewing nude art. What does pornography do but degrade women? It says she is nothing more than a stimulus to a watching organism. Through the conveyance of beauty – whether in triangles, the golden ratio, color harmony, the rule of thirds, etc. – the artist is specifically glorifying women. Pornography and beautiful art cannot co-exist, because their messages are inherently different and radically opposed. (Obviously, this applies to the male form as well.)

I do not hold this to be some magic cure. For those suffering from pornography addictions, I beg that you would look into The King’s Men, or New Life Habits, that you would read this, and that you would frequent the sacrament of confession, and that you would do all these first. But I also beg that we, as a culture, as a religion and as individuals would not approach the nude form with a suppressive mindset; with fear. Rather that we might see the human person as God intended us to, through the incredible skill he gave to the artist, who glorifies the naked form in his art.

  • http://twitter.com/marychapman marychapman

    Brilliant!! It’s so true, too, that the artist’s intent means a lot when it comes to defining the purpose of images. A lustful photographer seeking to make money from exploitation is far different from an artist seeking to bring beauty and glory to the attention of the world!

    • Thomas Beyer

      Hmm. I would argue that the starting place in determining the truth and beauty in a work of art can’t be the artist’s intent, but rather the work of art itself. It doesn’t matter what the artist was attempting to create, only what was created.

      For example, when Albert Camus set out to write The Stranger, he fully intended it to be the perfect atheist manifesto–proof that the universe is just a bunch of atoms bouncing around in a vacuum. What he actually produced is one of the most amazingly Theistic works of art there has ever been. Where Camus sought to tell the sad, sad tale of a man who’s atheistic to the point of sociopathy, and to glorify such an outlook, the work itself, considered objectively, actually condemns it.

      In other words, it doesn’t matter if Botticelli was trying to make pornography or not. All that matters is what the work itself actually does: glorify and celebrate the beauty in the female form a thing to be wondered at, rather than subdue it to masculine desire and, in so doing, debase it into an object of utility.

      Stop by my blog, PopSophia.

      • Brownie in Motion

        I read “utility” “as “futility” for a second. Ha.

  • Carolynyvette

    I did my AP art portfolio as an analysis of beauty using the golden ratio, which included some nude forms, along with forms from nature. Very well done, sir!!!!

  • Mark Duggan

    Not to change the subject, but man-0-man, Fibonacci–it even applies to the pacing of great films. Lawrence of Arabia finds its intermission at just that point: the first “half” is more than half, less than two thirds. When we organize things in this way, all is well with the universe.

    • Marc Barnes

      Really? Dang my film teacher in high school was always ranting about how it was “perfectly timed!” I wonder if she knew about that.

  • Randy Gritter

    But some beauty is not for you. That is the part that seems to be missing. A man seeing a woman nude creates a spiritual connection that is often not appropriate. Just like engaging in premarital sex does. The physical interaction cannot get ahead of the love relationship. So can you get around that by calling it art? Seems wrong. Like there is a whole angle you have missed.

    • Lily

      But I think of it like this:
      Sex is specifically for marriage. In an unfallen world, would extramarital sex still be wrong? Of course! Would unwed men and women seeing each other completely nude be wrong? Absolutely not! A man can look at woman and see that she is beautiful without desiring to have sex with her (even wanting to be around her. There are many gorgeous women in the world who are also pretty unpleasant people!) For some men (and women), seeing a nude woman (or man) only creates the spiritual connection of appreciating God’s work, not a spiritual desire to make love. Sex is specifically for marriage, but the human body is not specifically for sex. I think seeing the nude human form as only a sexual thing is as bad as objectifying it through pornography. A human body reflects a human soul, and both have a beauty that can be viewed by all.

      • Randy Gritter

        This reminds me of the Adamites. They tried in the context of a single-sex religious community to go naked. They felt that as monks and without women they didn’t need clothes. Their minds and hearts were sufficiently free from lust that they could be nude. The problem is that failed. We don’t have any Adamites anymore. Even monks and nuns wear clothes because even they are still too fallen to be able to avoid the perverse use of the body without them. So starting with the assumption of an unfallen world seems dangerous to me.

        The human body is not just for sex but we can’t ignore the sexual nature of it. When we are swimming we can’t just stop worrying about modesty because our focus is on swimming. Same when we are doing art. We can’t just ignore modesty issues. Even if you grant that the Birth of Venus is fine art I would still have an issue with a woman who plans to pose for such a work of art. The purpose of the work is one issue. The integrity of your body is another. I think we need to worry about both.

  • mary.kyart

    I love this. As an artist, I am always wrestling with these kinds of things- especially now that I am starting to study anatomy, and it is drawing attention to this particular issue with some family members and friends. I have fought and read and fought and read. And I drew some of the same conclusions as the above article. I discover more and more how sneaky and dangerous puritanism is. And once it’s there, it can be darn hard to uproot. But you have to do it! Because it doesn’t stop at any reasonable conclusion it seems. It doesn’t just tell me I can’t draw the nude form, but that I shouldn’t even study it or look at it. Shoot, it tells me I can’t even put a flattering dress or hair style on my female form if I let it. I found that I couldn’t let it win. And, yes, I had to fight to see the beauty of the nude form. I had to fight hard. And the moment I know i won and I was wounded by the beauty of it was when I was, in person, as in, actually there, as in, I mean to say, IN FRONT of The Birth of Venus that you have here in Florence, Italy. I have never seen anything so lovely in MY LIFE! She positively glowed! There are actually gold strands in her hair that seem to be a kind of halo around her lovely figure. I was breathless! And thank God! I need that to conquer my suspicions of the nude form, which is one of the most beautiful things of creation.
    So I believe that yes, there may be some who will have to fight to see the beauty of the nude form, especially pornography addicts. But, as in all things, what is lovely and lovable is worth fighting for! And many times, to love IS to fight. You can’t let pornography win. Think of all the breathtaking artwork that would not exist if we let it win. Yes, nude artwork may pose a struggle to the porn addict, or to others, but I think that that is a GOOD thing in a way. I still struggle with the idea that I may someday tempt some one to lust so to speak with my art, but I think that the presence of that struggle indicates that there is something good present to fight for. Nudity makes you uncomfortable- but in someways, that is what beauty in general does. Especially when it is shamelessly presenting itself- in the nude form, in the Gothic Cathedral, in the Cliffs of Moher. When it has the audacity to be seen and admired and fought for.
    Heh, I am inspired to maybe write my own little reflection and bring in the Catechism… er, I mean, Chesteron and O’Connor. Eh, maybe I will just use my time to study anatomy, and learn to portray the human form beautifully. Hopefully. Someday.

    God bless you Mr. Barnes.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks again for risking being called a perv by focusing on nudity again. Another thing to bring up is the nakedness of babies. If all nudity is wrong then why do we find streaking toddlers so irritably adorable?

    I’d like your take on the breastfeeding comments you received as well. I find more uber-Catholic men are calling for women to nurse privately or with a cover. As a mom who nurses I roll my eyes, but I also have no ability to understand how breastfeeding can be made sexy.

    • Jamesh, London

      As a father of 2 little girls, I have to agree with the adorability of babies. Becoming a father changed my perception: where toddlers in the nude were just toddlers before, now they’re ‘Aawww!’

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_7UMPUHZXUJF27J5C562G5ZGRLU Antonio

    Glorification of material things is not all that much better than lusting after them. But I have found Catholics to be very materialistic overall.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_PGUT2BMTXC4VY3YHE6WYMX4CGM Lewinna

      Sorry, posted with someone else’s profile.

    • Marc

      Sacramentalistic may be the word you’re looking for.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RS2NGO5O4VTWXTXB2H2Q6Z6TDM Sky

      “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them…God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed–the sixth day.” Genesis 1: 27&31

      “The LORD God then built up into a woman the rib that he had taken from the man. When he brought her to the man, the man said: “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; This one shall be called ‘woman,’ for out of ‘her man’ this one has been taken.” That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body. The man and his wife were both naked, yet they felt no shame.”

      What God has created, the material world is glorious and good, God said so himself. How can it be wrong to glorify what God has created glorious?

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RS2NGO5O4VTWXTXB2H2Q6Z6TDM Sky

        Genesis 2:22-25 :)

    • Lily

      Well, humans are made of both body and spirit. If you admit that the soul ia a beautiful creation, you must also admit that the body is beautiful. We can’t have one without the other and be fully human. And since when in the material world bad?

  • Nate

    I absolutely love the Fibonacci sequence and the golden section, but Botticelli was probably not using it because it wasn’t one of the proportions used in the Renaissance. It was an 18th or 19th century invention.

    However, that does not negate the fact that the painting does indeed use these proportions. It is easy to find proportions almost everywhere, you just have to find the right starting and stopping place.

    • Lily

      (I think the Fibbonaci Sequence was discovered for the West in the 12oos? Not sure, but…) I actually think it’s even cooler if he didn’t intentionally use the golden ration, since (A) that shows the universality and truth of mathematics (which I could geek out about until the cows come home) and (B) shows the inherent beauty and proportionality of the female form. This goes back to Marc’s previous posts about Beauty and Truth being a reality :)

  • Oregon Catholic

    Let me see if I understand one of your points throughout this porn vs art series, i.e., a porn addict can minimize or control his/her lust and objectification of the body and sexual behavior by looking at objectively beautiful nude art.

    I guess that’s kind of like saying an alcoholic can minimize or control his disease by becoming a wine connoisseur, right?

    I suppose it’s possible but you won’t find any reputable addiction treatment providers recommending it.

    • AMR

      Yes, but the human body and sexuality is a constitutive element of the person, while alcohol is not. One cannot avoid the body or remove the fact that the body is sexual, without distorting what it means to be human. One can avoid alcohol completely, because it is completely irrelevant to one’s personhood.

  • Nancy

    I think your thoughts on pornography need to go a little further. More than the discussion of corrupting beauty, attention needs to be paid to the fact that porn and its consumers deliberately ignore the soul and humanity of the person being videotaped or photographed. Watchers of porn do not care if a model/actor is a mother trying to pay the rent, a drug addict trying to earn money for her next fix, if she’s a survivor of sexual abuse doing this job because she’s convinced it’s all she’s worth, or if she’s a victim of human trafficking being forced to participate in these acts.

    Pornography, by definition, robs people of their identity and their story — and the fact that they are an eternal soul created by God. And no person was ever designed to be consumed by voyeurs. That is the sin at the heart of pornography, and what helps us distinguish when we are being rightfully modest vs. being a puritan.

    • Lily

      I absolutely agree, Nancy! Although I think Marc is focusing more on “curing” society in general of it’s addiction to porn, there is a certain disregard for other people’s humanity that individual porn addicts have.

      What’s really creepy and sad is that the problems you’ve talked about— ignoring other’s souls, identity, and God-given dignity— are becoming more common place in non-porn situations. I see it all the time with my students; they treat their peers little better than animals, and at times actually talk about the mental torture they’ve put other students through with an unabashed pleasure. It’s a very frightening trend that I’m seeing more and more.

    • Umergul

      i just loved every bit of ur comment

  • Brendan

    Pope John Paul II defined nudity as “the capacity of the human person to love.” after the fall, the beauty and intimacy of nudity became perverted, thus concealed. Thought I’d point that out, as the author seems to make a case that all forms of nudity expressed are beautiful; they are, it is just that nudity out to be shared between spouses, as the capacity to love

  • http://www.theracerx.wordpress.com/ Racer X

    Nice discussion of the balance and harmony within this work. To us it is clearly art (although I think one of your commentators questions this still). Botticelli was controversial though in his own day, and even burned a number of his works under the influence the Dominican friar Savonarola. To Savonarola and others at the time, this was decadent, pagan porn.

    There is an inherent sexuality and eroticism to this work, which goes beyond it simply being a beautiful depiction of the female body, which it is. A lot of people might find this eroticism uncomfortable. I enjoy it.

  • Sink74

    Math teacher here. Love the post, but 1.61803399 is an approximation of the true value of the Golden Ratio. The true value is the positive root of x^2-x-1=0, which is (1+sqrt(5))/2.

  • http://ideasaboutgodandtheworld.wordpress.com/ Alejandro

    I agree with you completley. In fact, in Hindu society, you see naked depictions of men and women and even of sexual intercourse, but they regarded chastity as a great virtue, I really think when nakedness becomes normal to you, lust doesn’t exist.

  • Brendan

    HI Mark,
    As a man trying to be a good Catholic, I’d like to say your posts are inspiring.
    In this post, however, while I appreciate your efforts against pornography (God only knows how much we need people to stand against it), I would like to fraternally correct you. If you have an e-mail address I could have, that would be excellent, but if you do not wish to share it, I understand entirely.
    Anyway, you are not quite correct in saying that nude art and pornography are nearly the same. There is, in fact, a significant difference in the intent of the work (I’ll admit, some art is pornographic by nature, but David cannot simply be labeled as porn). A difference between the two also exists from their uses (one is beautiful because it exemplifies human beauty, the other is selfish by nature) and several other major differences.
    If you would like, I can reference the Catechism as well as John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.
    Keep up the good work!
    Peace