Nudity & Pornography

It is somewhat ironic that, in a society where sex appeal is used to sell everything from perfume to cars to shampoo, and where the consumption of porn involves some 40 million Americans (hardly a minority), artistic representations of nudes are regularly banned from being shown in public places.

This is not a new development: Notwithstanding the fact that, historically, the nude has been one of the central subjects of art, it has been subjected to regular censorship attempts.

On its unveiling in Florence in 1501, onlookers stoned Michelangelo’s “David,” breaking off an arm. At Forest Lawn Memorial Park in California, the penis on a reproduction of “David” was masked with a fig leaf from 1939-69; its removal caused complaints. In Lake Alfred, FL in 2001 a replica of David was dressed with a loincloth after community complaints.

Today, classical nudes like Michelangelo’s David, which are modeled on the ideal bodies of Greek sculpture and exude an aura of art, age, and “purity” are rarely challenged, but their contemporary counterparts are not as lucky – even when they are abstract or stylized. And “real” nudes, that is nudes realistically portraying imperfect, sensuous, non-idealized bodies are censored with relentless regularity.

Because of their religious beliefs or upbringing some people are uncomfortable with the human body. The reasons they give when attempting to ban its representations are that children could see them or that they constitute "sexual harassment."

Some people equate all representations of nudes with pornography and associate all nudity with sex. As there is no established legal definition of pornography (In the famous words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s “You know it when you see it”), and as contemporary art frequently toys with the conventions of porn, it is very hard to draw a line between the two. A working definition could be that the sole purpose of pornography is to create sexual arousal and that art (even as it might arouse some viewers – to each his own!) has multiple layers of meaning and creates multiple effects.

Nudes in both art and porn enjoy constitutional protection, although art is protected to a higher degree. The only sexual expression that is not protected by the First Amendment is obscenity. Needless to say, nudes, even if they appeal to someone’s sexual imagination, are not obscene. To be obscene, material should, among other criteria, lack serious social, political or artistic value.

Sometimes, even if a work is not considered obscene for adults, it might be deemed too sexually explicit for the eyes of minors. So-called “harmful to minors” standards (link) are applied to shield children from material such as commercial porn. Sometimes, however, it is wrongfully used to justify the removal of representations of nudes. There is no evidence whatsoever that minors would be harmed by seeing sexually explicit expression, let alone by the sight of a nude sculpture.