Indecency: In the eye of the beholder?

My extended family is half Catholic, half Protestant. When the Catholics get together, there are numerous children and babies. As a consequence, there’s a lot of breastfeeding going on. A couple of the women have mastered the art of breastfeeding with one arm while walking around the kitchen preparing food. Others prefer to sit around talking, often with the men, while nursing a child. We’re discrete about it–not exposing more than necessary to get the job done, but most of us have lost patience with trying to drape nursing blankets over our breasts during a feed, or with spending thirty minutes separated from the action in another room. There’s too much to do.

My Protestant family members prefer to take their babies out of the room to nurse, into a quiet bedroom, alone–which may stem from modesty, or maybe from a desire to get a baby that is accustomed to quiet nap times to sleep. In any case, on one occasion when both sides of the family were together, I overheard a couple of my Protestant family members remark that they’d “never seen so many boobs! They just whip it out!” It was the first time I’d noticed the difference in attitudes, and over the years, I’ve tried to piece together the roots of the difference. Is it just cultural, or is it theological?

I’ve certainly known a handful of other Catholic families who aren’t as comfortable with breastfeeding as mine is. But by and large, the families I know who embrace Catholic teaching on sexuality, who use either NFP or ecological breastfeeding to space babies, are terribly, terribly comfortable in their skin. Too comfortable, some might argue, if they’ve ever stumbled upon a group of women discussing their signs of fertility in the same way they might discuss a recipe for chicken and noodles.

Over the course of my married life, I’ve been pregnant eight times. Six of those pregnancies, current one still pending, have gone to full term. Five times I’ve been obliged to perform the terribly unladylike and immodest behavior of disrobing in front of a room full of doctors, nurses and occasionally, a student or two, in order to push babies, and their byproducts, out of my nether-regions, which is one of the reasons I find it self-defeating when Catholics zero-in on the subjects of veiling and modesty, as though there are objective guidelines regarding the appropriate exposure of Christian women. It’s very possible to elevate our concept of the body too high above the earth on which it is supposed to dwell.

The gift of self that the Church requires of its members is not possible without at some point letting bodies–and all the fraught feelings in which we cloak them–go. God became man. He gave his flesh and blood (not just his soul or his essence) for consumption, and then he allowed his body to be destroyed. Our bodies become dust. Catholics aren’t precious. It’s one of the things I most appreciate about our faith, and without this understanding, it would not be desirable nor practical to live out its teachings on sexuality and openness to life. It’s through the gift of our bodies that we transcend them–which is not to say that our bodies are there for the taking by anyone who would have them, but that they are offered for the glorification of the Body of Christ.

Several weeks ago, I watched with interest an exchange between several of my fellow bloggers here at Patheos concerning the artist, Andy Warhol. For reference, Marc Barnes at Bad Catholic pointed out that Andy Warhol may have been gay, and a pornographer, but he was also Catholic, for better or worse, and attempted to live as a celibate.

Dawn Eden responded that just because Warhol was celibate, did not mean he was chaste, and that his production of pornography was in conflict with any chaste inclinations he might have had.

They’re both right.

Then Eden introduced “Theology of the Body” to the discussion, suggesting that a misunderstanding of TOB leads people to make apology for nudity in photographic art, and that Pope John Paul II, rather, warned that photographic artists are at risk of treating the subject of their work as an “anonymous object.”

She writes:

“Another very important point of John Paul’s catechesis that is often missed by those doing apologetics on behalf of images of nudity is that the pope’s entire teaching on the theology of the body is about how the body enables communion of persons–and that “Communion of persons” for John Paul, whether human-with-human or human-with-God is never defined as being “body to body.” Rather, the late Holy Father always describes communion of persons as “face to face.””

Eden has not provided an example source for the Holy Father’s intentional exclusion of a “body to body” communion, but from a human, artistic, and theological standpoint–if Pope John Paul II’s catechesis omits the possibility of communion of persons occurring body to body, it omits quite a bit. The very suggestion of a division between body-to-body and a face-to-face communion implicates the catechesis in a sort of dualism where the face (or the soul) is separate and elevated above the body as the only means of communion.

Did Christ offer just his face for the redemption of our sin, or the blood coursing through every extremity of his body? Do husband and wife offer only their faces to each other in the marriage act, or do they close their eyes and know each other in a more tangible way? Can a mother not bond with her child, body to body in the womb, long before they see each other’s faces?

The objectification of the body in any artistic representation certainly exists, as the Holy Father’s asserts when he calls the human body “a perennial object of culture” (The Human Body, Subject of Works of Art), but this artistic objectification does not negate the potential for communion of persons to take place.

Many years ago, before I had kids, I posed for an artist I respected, and whose work I admired. One of the things she taught me, is that communion of persons can take place through art and nude depictions therein, long after the model herself (or himself) has left the scene–especially when we’re talking about the communion one feels with the Body of Christ in recognition of our fallen (or redeemed) humanity as represented in paint or photography. This communion can occur even when observing a photographed torso, or a decapitated and disarmed body of Venus.

I don’t believe it was Warhol’s intention in his films, but there is a mindset where the nude model makes a sort of holy offering of oneself, and where the artist, in attempting to capture the wholeness of that person, body and soul, in a new medium, makes a holy offering in kind.

As my artist friend, Karly Whitaker, noted, “I have to believe that artistic expression can aim for the communication or representation of soul, although it must speak in the language of shape and form–or, in the case of writing, these clumsy words. In fact, that was the subject of my master’s thesis, on Thomas Eakins’ portraits—he wanted his students, after being well-trained in the matter of anatomy, to learn to capture the figure’s “centre line”–a unique, determining meridian, from which all else flowed.” (emphasis mine)

It is necessary for the artist to study the body for its object value when the body is the subject of any artistic medium. An artist might do hundreds of sketches of a disembodied breast in order to master the representation of its flesh consistency, poundage, and the wear of life and gravity on its appearance–and this must happen long before any symbolism can be ascribed to it, or said breast makes it into a completed composition. In this way, the “fine arts” (as opposed to photographic arts in Eden’s piece) are perhaps more oriented toward the treatment of the body as an “anonymous object” than the photographic arts.

But is this sexual objectification? Hardly. The body is, like all living things, a noun, an object, and one with a vast variety of significances.

Sexual objectification requires a certain tunnel vision, where an object is only one thing and nothing else–a means of sexual gratification. Hence, those who proclaim the indecency of breastfeeding in public and the modesty police who point out the errors in other people’s dress, calling people “whores” due to inches of flesh revealed–have fallen into the same sin, of sexually objectifying others, as the pornographer.

Some people may feel titillated by the flash of a breastfeeding mother’s nipple, while others fail to feel arousal even with exposure to hardcore pornography–because the disposition of the soul is conducive or not conducive to this tunnel vision.

Does this mean that Catholics should dress to incite lust, or that pornography is ok? Not at all. While I’m not prepared to make judgement on Warhol’s immortal soul, I agree with Eden that Warhol’s production of pornography suggests a failure of chastity in spite of his celibacy.

We practice chastity to prevent seeing ourselves and others through the purely sexual lens. The Catholic faith asks us to look further, to use the material around us, words, paint, film, and yes, even bodies, to see the image of God.

Thomas L McDonald says it better than I do, and takes issue with Eden’s assertion that Pope John Paul II has drawn a “Bright Line” between using images of the naked body in fine arts and photographic media.

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About Elizabeth Duffy
  • Charles Curtis

    For me, the naked and the nude
    (By lexicographers construed
    As synonyms that should express
    The same deficiency of dress
    Or shelter) stand as wide apart
    As love from lies, or truth from art.

    Lovers without reproach will gaze
    On bodies naked and ablaze;
    The Hippocratic eye will see
    In nakedness, anatomy;
    And naked shines the Goddess when
    She mounts her lion among men.

    The nude are bold, the nude are sly
    To hold each treasonable eye.
    While draping by a showman’s trick
    Their dishabille in rhetoric,
    They grin a mock-religious grin
    Of scorn at those of naked skin.

    The naked, therefore, who compete
    Against the nude may know defeat;
    Yet when they both together tread
    The briary pastures of the dead,
    By Gorgons with long whips pursued,
    How naked go the sometime nude!

    - Robert Gates

  • Cordelia

    Thanks, Elizabeth – for both the well-thought-out article and the headline which sums up so much of the never-ending “modesty” debate. The error you describe as the dualism or complete division between the body and the person is something I find myself constantly running up against in conversations with other Christians (usually Protestants).

  • Susan Peterson

    I generally agree with what you have written here.

    But I would like to suggest that if the births of your five other children have gone well, there is really no reason for you to have to push out your baby in a room full of strangers. It is so much nicer to have just your family, and one or two midwives whom you know well, at a birth in your own bedroom. (I had nine; numbers 4 through 9 were born at home.) I really winced at your description of birth. This is just a friendly suggestion, and perhaps you might give it careful consideration and consider implementing it for baby number seven.

    I nursed my babies pretty much wherever I was, and my family, of whatever religious and non religious (mostly the latter) stripe got used to it. I haven’t seen Mr. Warhol’s pictures, but if he was attending mass and going to confession, I am willing to believe he was a fellow traveler on the road.

    Susan Peterson

    • Elizabeth Duffy

      Wish I could deliver at home Susan–it sounds wonderful–but I have a number of risk factors that require hospital deliveries. The good news (?) is that I’m usually so out of it, I have no idea who’s in the room.

  • Corita

    The *lack* of modesty so obvious when discussing other people’s lack of modesty has bothered me a lot the last few years. For men to talk about the women at Church and eve the possibility of TALKING to them about their clothing!…Women who obsessively document the jiggles of their neighbors and angrily, publicly, describe their hubands’ potential arousal at said jiggles…I can’t believe it. The conversations themselves are, for me, a perpetuation of objectifying behavior and allow a kind of perseverating on the bodies of other people.

    Embodiment is such a glorious, mysterious and perverse thing. I appreciated the conversation about Andy Warhol. Marc B. might perhaps be trying too enthusiastically to rehabilitate old Andy, but in the end Warhol might be a good example of the impossibility of judging another person’s totality of being (soul). And how our living out our convictions, when done so apart from the guidance of the Church, can be simultaneously earnest and messy, with consequences both good and bad.

    • Elizabeth Duffy

      “And how our living out our convictions, when done so apart from the guidance of the Church, can be simultaneously earnest and messy, with consequences both good and bad.”

      –excellent insight!

  • Sus

    I don’t know where this stuff is coming from about Andy Warhol. I studied him in detail for a college paper on modern art. Andy Warhol was NOT celibate. He had several long term relationships with men. He details his love affairs in “The Andy Warhol Diaries” which was published after his death by his long time secretary. Andy was Catholic and did attend mass frequently.

    I regret feeling uncomfortable about breastfeeding in front of others besides my immediate family. I missed out from feeling that way.

    • Elizabeth Duffy

      Marc Barnes referenced a book, The Religious Art of Andy Warhol, by Jane Daggett Dillenberger–which asserted his celibacy. Of course, lives are long. It’s possible to be celibate for years of them, and not for others, so… who knows really.

  • TSO

    Fascinating post Elizabeth. I’ve always been impressed with how it is Bouguereau painted all those nudes so wholesomely. Perhaps simply that he had eyes beyond a sexual tunnel vision. Be nice if this post had more pictures though. :-)

    • Elizabeth Duffy

      You know, I half expected someone to invite themselves to our next family gathering.

  • Robert

    I have been enjoying Betty Duffy posts for years; this one too. I can’t help but think, however, that divorcing Eden’s central argument from her aesthetic point (about photographic representation) can only warp it. Earlier in her piece, Eden wrote:

    “John Paul’s catechesis, which is often cited by those wishing to defend nudity in photographic media as a form of “art,” in fact draws a bright line between the depiction of the naked body in fine arts and in photographic media.”

    I don’t pretend to know much about aesthetics but I remember reading Roger Scruton on ‘representation’ and photographic depiction. I also remember it being rather too complicated for me, at the time (I was a political science major, aesthetics is something I’ve always been meaning to get to).

    Several years ago, in Australia, a controversy flared-up around the photographer Bill Henson and his use of minors (male and female, but mostly female), posing nude and in sexually suggestive positions, in his photographs.

    Trying to think it through, I imagine that a painting of a nude 14-year-old girl, even if based on a model, does not raise as many ethical questions as a photograph of an actual, nude 14-year-old girl. I wish I had the language here, but I can only guess that a representation in a painting, even of an actual, nude 14-year-old, is at a greater remove than a photographic depiction of a nude 14-year-old girl, and that that ‘greater remove’ is significant.

    It seems to me that the latter cannot get away with focusing on the angles, contours, proportions etc. of her body without acknowledging her totality; not just of her body but of her being an actual, 14-year-old girl, in the nude, and the moral status of her depiction in relation to the viewer.

    I wonder if this indicates the nature of the distinction Eden and/or JPII is/are making between ‘bodies’ and ‘faces’.

    Duffy wrote: “The body is, like all living things, a noun, an object, and one with a vast variety of significances.” That is true, but in light of the example above, and speaking particularly here about photographic depiction, can one ever divorce the “thingness” of the depicted body from the “someone-ness” of it.

    I would gleefully welcome anyone chiming in and enlightening me on this.

    • Elizabeth Duffy

      Well, to begin, I can’t think of a situation when it would ever be ok to make use of a fourteen year old, or any other nubile subject who has not reached the age of consent, male or female, as nude model in sexually suggestive poses or any other poses, in photography or any other artistic medium. What you’re describing is exploitation, which is never ok.

      But to your question: “can one ever divorce the “thingness” of the depicted body from the “someone-ness” of it”–the answer is yes, which is why the Holy Father has made the warnings that Eden noted. I don’t negate the concern the Holy Father expresses, as the risk of treating someone as an anonymous object, in life, and in art is real. It can also happen on an operating table, it can happen in nursing homes, in bars, and even, occasionally, in marriages, etc.

      I do question the assertion of a “bright line” between the use of nudes in photographic media and other artistic mediums. In “The Human Body, Subject of Works of Art” what I see is an acknowledgment of the above mentioned risk, and a discussion of its repercussions, especially of the repercussions of “propagation” of an image, taking place at a time in history when the ability to reproduce all different kinds of art, not just photographic art, is set to take off at rapid speed.

      There is always risk involved when someone sets out to create something beautiful, and one of the most important factors to weigh before embarking on this sort of an artistic endeavor, is does the model him or herself have an accurate understanding of those risks, and have they measured the moral value of the proposed composition, and its likelihood of being able to elevate its viewers.

      • Robert

        Many thanks for your reply. Of course, I agree with you that the use of a nude, 14-year-old girl is abhorrent. I used the example, specifically, because it ought to raise moral qualms.

        The thing about how the Bill Henson thing played out in Australia, from memory, is that the golden elixir of secular ethics, consent, was marshalled as the work’s justification. The girl consented and so did both of her parents.

        Problem vaulted, it could then be suggested that the only ones inappropriately sexualising the model were the people who had suggested she was being inappropriately sexualised in the first place; a function, no doubt, of their repressed conservative hang-ups. No surprises there.

        Having said that, I’m not for dowdy wowserism (I am, however, against the use of nude children in almost all art, particularly photography).

        I’d agree that modesty shouldn’t have to mean looking like you’ve just escaped the cult compound, although I think the desire to be desired can sometimes be the disordered cousin of lust and gets far less attention than it perhaps ought to.

        • Elizabeth Duffy

          I agree on all points.

  • TSO

    I searched my blog for quotes on the subject that might be of interest on this topic:

    “I just heard Cardinal Arinze’s latest podcast on modesty. One point that the rather irritating interviewer kept going back to was on the morality of artists drawing from the nude. The cardinal was taking the position that it is at the very least dangerous to the soul for an artist to draw nude models. The objections that the interviewer kept throwing up were primarily straw men: arguments of art for the sake of art, that there is so much of this in culture that it can’t possibly be wrong, etc. Insofar as the ordinary person’s understanding of looking at the nude goes, the Cardinal quite properly pointed out that morality trumps art and that morality trumps culture. Fine. What both the interviewer and the Cardinal miss, however, is that a serious artist drawing from life tends to distance himself from the prurience that is assumed in spending hours with a nude model. I have spent many hours drawing and painting nude models, and based on my own experience and from talking to many other artists on the matter, one tends to take a fairly clinical and anatomical view of the body…Now, certainly there are artists who will find the sort of detached view difficult, and simply cannot get beyond the fact that a purty nekkid girl is in front of them. There are probably med students with similar problems, and it behooves them, as it behooves the aforementioned theoretical artist, to avoid this sort of thing, even if it means abandoning the profession. – blogger at ‘Erik’s Rants & Recipes’

    A St. Petersburg Times columnist takes up the issue:

    “The naked/nude question is a subcategory of — and inevitably leads to — the Big Question: What Is Art?

    Bruni’s photograph has made it a more potent question not based on the photograph’s merits or even who she was in 1993. Its value now seems based on who she has become, a personage rather than a person, someone with the potential to exert influence, even power, on an international, political level.

    Lord Clark, in discussing naked and nude, did not take very seriously the ascension of photography as an art form in the latter part of the 20th century and the role it would play in the genre of nude portraiture. As we all know, a photograph today can be manipulated every bit as much as a painting. But it has the illusion of unadulterated reality which affects our sensibilities about it, especially in this instance, with an immediacy and intimate directness. A photograph can convey a feeling of voyeurism far more often than a painting or sculpture. That and its potential to be endlessly reproduced often distinguish it in people’s minds from paintings and sculpture. Nor did Clark reckon with the pervasive influence of popular contemporary culture.”


    “Although physical immodesty cannot be identified in a simple way with nakedness as such, it none the less requires a real internal effort to refrain from reacting to the naked body in an immodest way.” – Pope JPII

    • Elizabeth Duffy

      Lots to ponder here–but that last quote of JPII has it right, I think.