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Arts & Culture

Looking At Nudity In American Art

"Twinka at Age 45," 1985. By Arthur Tress.  Courtesy Arthur Tress.
"Twinka at Age 45," 1985. By Arthur Tress. Courtesy Arthur Tress.
Looking At Nudity In American Art
UCSD professor emeritus Bram Dijkstra has been spending most of his time looking at nudes. The end result is the most comprehensive survey of nudity in American art and visual culture. The large coffee table book is called "Naked: The Nude in America."

UCSD professor emeritus Bram Dijkstra has been spending most of his time looking at nudes. The end result is the most comprehensive survey of nudity in American art and visual culture. The large coffee table book is called "Naked: The Nude in America."


Bram Dijkstra is a professor emeritus of comparative literature and cultural history at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of numerous books the most recent being "Naked: The Nude in America."


Bram Dijkstra will give a public lecture on the nude in visual culture and sign copies of his book "Naked" on Thursday, November 11th at 7pm at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's La Jolla location.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Since ancient times, artists have been fascinated with the naked human body, the greatest artists of the western world have celebrated the nude in both religious and secular painting, but in America, we have had a love hate relationship with naked people in pictures. There's still a fig leaf mentality in many American public institutions when it comes to nudity in art. My guest this morning is out with a gorgeously illustrated book called Naked which explores the traditional, the beautiful, and the shocking in the portrayal of the nude in America. Bram Dijkstra is a professor emeritus of comparative literature and history at the university of California San Diego, and good morning, professor Dijkstra, thank you for coming in.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, why do you think just in general, that artists, western artists, are drawn to depicting the nude in art?

BRAM DIJKSTRA: Well, there's a very simple answer. And that is that the nude is one of the most beautiful things around. If it is well treated by the inhibition of the body. I think that what happens a lot is that there is a kind of a hostility towards that notion of the beauty of the self, because often psychologically, we tend to -- well, accuse ourselves of, you know, terrible things. That goes to the body as well. And so the body becomes a would be boy or girl.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And do you think maybe that has something to do with why Americans have this as I describe it, a sort of love hate relationship with the nude in art?

BRAM DIJKSTRA: Yeah, I think that that is such an important aspect. Don't forget that the United States was originally a place where puritans, and various other groups that essentially had very strong ideas about what was right and what was wrong about the body, came to escape other opinions, you might say. And ironically they then started to conflict their own opinions on everybody else. And the result is that there has been a strain of Puritanism that has come and gone over the years, and you can sort of pinpoint it, and I try to show this in naked, that, for example, at the turn of the 18th into the nineteenth century, nudity was still perfectly acceptable, and up until perhaps the 18 '40s, and then after that, more and more the puritan elements come in. And the effect of that is that there's a censorship on the representation of the body, the -- a lot of the artists, American artists, weren't even allowed to use nude models. They had to use classical sculpt ours, that kind of thing.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In the text that accompanies the wonderful illustrations in your book, naked, you say that some of the best artists, some of their finest work is still in the basements of museums, and I think that's shocking to see in this day and age, that people would still be uncomfortable with these depictions. Will.

BRAM DIJKSTRA: Yeah, it is an odd thing. There are essentially toward worlds. There's the contemporary art world, which is out to shock as much as possible. And that kind of shocking is limited to a very small group of people. Then there are the larger museums, and those museums are generally supported by wealthy, but older, people. And unfortunately, as I mentioned in naked, what happens very frequently is that daring young curator will come across an absolutely gorgeous representation of I nude in art and he'll buy it and hang it on the walls, and then the major donor for the museum comes in, looks at it, and says not on my walls! And the beautiful nude goes into the basement, never to be seen again.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with professor Bram Dijkstra, he is professor of comparative literature from the University here in San Diego. And he's just written and presented us with a new book, a tremendously beautiful coffee table book called naked, the nude in America. And I'm wondering, this is a defense in the way we perceive the nude male body, and the nude female body in art. Is one more acceptable than the other?

BRAM DIJKSTRA: Well, at an early stage, up till the nineteenth century, nude males and nude females were equally acceptable in art. In fact, the -- you know, one of the odd things about the human body is that religious people tend to shy away from nudity, yet presumably God created us in his own image. So the idea that the naked human body is something sinful is a very odd move away from what used to be seen as the purity of the human body. In religious terms too, up to the 17th, eighteenth century, in the eighteenth century, things started to change. But a nude figure was seen as representing the ideal, something that was close to God. But since then, things have changed 678 so what first happened is that fig leaves had to go, you know, over the male body to hide the genitals. And it was a little more difficult, you couldn't use three fig leaves as easily as one. So that remained a little more difficult to do. And so there's more female nudity, but also there were more male artists.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Exactly right. Yes, indeed. How did you go about selecting the works to include in this book?

DIJKSTRA: Well, I've always been interested in art in general, and certainly the fluid in particular, as well. And so over the years I've sort of in my head made a whole catalog of various images.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Because that's a tremendous range, as you say, you start from early American depictions of the nude in art to pop culture. Up to today.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So that's really sort of a vast area to take your selections from.

BRAM DIJKSTRA: Yeah. And, well, one of the important things about pop culture today is that pop culture today goes back to the nineteenth century, not on the 20th century. Because modernism, starting particularly around 1940, 50, decided that the human body was vulgar, abstraction was a much more intellectual form of artistic expression. And so the human body was essentially banned from modernism in the later 20th century. And so the artists who were dealing with pop culture and who were still dealing with representation went back to the nineteenth century, and so a lot of the late nineteenth century salon nudes, the nudes that were hung at the yearly exhibitions of the museums have become sort of models for contemporary comic book artists, and you see a lot of that working. And a fascinating example of that is the way Matt baker who was an African American, one of the few African American artists working in the comic book field in the '40s, created various figures, female figures mostly, who were very glamorous and beautiful. And who had an influence on the figure of Betty page.

DIJKSTRA: Yes, the model from the 1950s and 60s. 92 well, 1950s, essentially. She quit modeling in 1957.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see. Yes. And they did a movie about her.

BRAM DIJKSTRA: That's right.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Some thinking her paragraphs were porno photographic, others thinking not.

BRAM DIJKSTRA: Well, she did some modeling that was close to pornography, but there was a lot of beautiful work that she did. And it's fed right into the sort of enthusiasms of the '50s. And part of that was due to the fact that the '50s was a very puritanical period. And it seems as if the most puritanical periods always create the -- the most under ground reaction to those periods.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Some of the later works in your book are really quite graphic. And I'm wondering if you have a clear distinction in your mind between art and pornography.

BRAM DIJKSTRA: Well, the only difference between art and pornography is that art is something tries to reach a level of experience within ourselves that doesn't go simply to desire, and to arousal. It links desire and arousal to the rest of our experience, and tries to making a continuity between it all, whereas pornography has one simple motive, and that is to try and fulfill desire. You know, on the imagination level.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And where do you think we are today in terms of prudishness about nudity in art? You included in your description of -- in the beginning of this book, in the previous administration there was an artwork in the justice department that aroused the displeasure of a number of attorneys general. Tell us about that.

BRAM DIJKSTRA: Right. Well, what happened is that the -- during the Bush administration, the sculpture of justice, which was nude, had to be covered over. And it was covered over in order to not distract the reporters in interviews and so on. So that process of not distracting the reporters represented a kind of a sense of the puritan, certainly. But again, the thing is that if things are hidden, our minds start to create, and what they create is often a lot more vicious or you might say daring than what the artist might have created. You know, and so there is a kind of odd link between the puritan and censorship, and on the other hand the production of things like pornography. For example, the way in which pornography became an issue in the later nineteenth century, in the 1950s it was an issue. You know, and magazines like playboy were the product of the 50s. And I would say in an odd way, we are in another very puritan environment today, and the consequence is the widespread use of pornography on the Internet and so on. It is simply that if we familiarize ourselves with the beauty of the human body, we are less likely to try and maltreat the human body, in its more, well, repressed forms, you might say.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I think you've just given a perfect ending to this conversation, and a perfect ration 58 for this lovely book you've created. I want to thank you so much for speaking with us today.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with professor Bram Dijkstra, and his book is called naked, the nude in America. And Bram Dijkstra will give a public lecture and sign copies of his new book, that's Thursday, November 11th at the Museum of contemporary art of San Diego's La Jolla location. If you'd like to comment, you can do so at Thank you for listening to thesedays on KPBS.