Censoring Michelangelo: Nudity in Art

Should the human body in it’s truest form be subject to censorship? What about representations of the human body created through art? 

By Jaina Kelly, Staff Writer

The work of Renaissance artist Michelangelo has been hotly contested over its depictions of nudity. The debate, which is still ongoing today, is steeped in a landscape of long-held religious ideas about sexuality. Jean Sorabella discusses, in an article written for The Met, the implications of Christianity’s dominance in the time leading up to the Middle Ages. The correlation of nudity to impurity historically aligns with religious beliefs about chastity and celibacy. This onslaught of anti-nude propaganda impacted the way that artists and patrons functioned in the creative world, and hence the Medieval times saw less overall interest in nude art forms. In the mid 1400’s however, The Renaissance had come to fruition, and along with it, emerged famed artist, Michelangelo.

In his infamous sculpture piece David, a man stands completely naked with his penis exposed. The nature of David’s position is not ashamed – he stands with one arm bent, glancing off into the distance, without concern for his exposure. Some gaze appreciatively at a raw depiction of the human body and its natural form. Indeed, it seems a privilege to appreciate such a cornerstone of history, with its erection (no pun intended) tracing back to 1500. The sculpture bears tremendous value to our understanding of art and culture. Yet the specific nature of an exposed penis, however representative it may be, still stirs up an array of disapproval for many.

The ongoing debate about art censorship centers on people’s varying understandings of morality. In the States, it’s not uncommon to find Christian father-daughter dances where young women offer a pledge to remain a virgin until marriage. These ideas of ‘purity’ as it relates to sexual behaviour continue to reverberate and influence our understanding of the naked body.

The broader culture of sexuality in our society shapes our tolerance to the naked body as well. Women can’t walk down the street topless without being shamed, gawked at, or harassed. On the contrary, men can go shirtless without a second look. This type of double standard prescribes women’s bodies to be much more sexualized, and this extends to even platonic, non-sexual circumstances, such as breastfeeding. The act of censoring innately natural depictions of the body can fuel unhealthy emotions, like shame or guilt, for simply being what we are.

In the debate about art censorship, it’s important to respect that everyone is entitled to their opinion. We defend what we know, and we believe what we are taught. If we are able to transcend our beliefs however, and to explore other ideas with an open mind, it becomes possible for us, as a society, to attempt to understand the true (and often non-sexual) natural beauty of a naked body. It can be representative of the ultimate state of human truth – considering we enter this world with all body parts bared in our newborn innocence. Perhaps the public’s hazy fear of the naked body could be relinquished if we began practicing appreciation for our beings in their entireties, instead of remaining entrenched in fears of sexuality which religion has thrust upon us for centuries.