The Naked Art of Excess

In John Berger’s groundbreaking 1972 book on art and culture, Ways of Seeing, he tackles the always-controversial subject of the female nude. Yet not every nude is ‘nude,’ so to speak, as some of them seem quite comfortable in their own skin, while others seem on display, as if their very nakedness is a form of dress. As Berger explains, “to be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in other to become a nude...Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display. To be naked is to be without disguise” (54). 

Quite clearly, there is nothing pornographic about the human body or the act of sex. Both are natural, no more strange or upsetting than eating is, or playing sports, or anything else we do that can be observed by others. However, it is the act of observation—or staged observation—that makes something strange or objectionable. Nakedness becomes ‘nude’ when enacted for spectators, as a theatrical performance; in this case, a person can be said to ‘wear’ his or her nakedness as a dress, so as to become visible to a specific audience. This audience cannot see the person as a person; he or she is merely the dress, or in a painting, the nude, an object of sexual fantasy. The viewer imagines what can be done to him or her rather than who the person is, or was, or will be once the moment ends.

It doesn’t take a monumental leap to connect this to literature and film. Explicit scenes, particularly of sex, but also of violence, have always been a staple of literature; the battles scenes in The Iliad are often quite gory, and even Shakespeare indulges in gratuitous violence in Titus Andronicus, which includes (albeit off-stage) a woman raped and her tongue and arms lopped off. As far as pornography, literature has always flirted with it, notably in the infamous 1749 novel by John Cleland, Fanny Hill, which features one racey scene after another, such as:

“He is now in bed with me the first time, and in broad day; but when thrusting up his own shirt and my shift, he laid his naked glowing body to mine—oh! insupportable delight! oh! superhumane rapture!...I felt no more the smarts of my wounds below; but, curling around him like the tendril of a vine, as if I feared any part of him should be untouched or unpressed by me, I returned his strenuous embraces and kisses with a fervour and gust only known to true love, and which mere lust could never rise to” (Penguin 79).

Though Fanny Hill was clearly written to shock, the sex only tells part of the story. Cleland wrote the book as a response to Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel, Pamela, which depicted a servant’s rise to upper-class respectability when her master, after repeated attempts to seduce her, acknowledges her superior morals and marries her. The story is gloriously absurd (despite its fine writing), and Cleland realized that most servants in London had a much-less glorious rise to power. Fanny, his heroine, becomes a prostitute and gradually sleeps her way to the top, ending up in Pamela’s shoes by the end of the novel. As Fanny admits, “if I had painted vice all in its gayest colours, if I have decked it with flowers, it has been solely in order to make the worthier, the solemner, sacrifice of it to virtue” (Penguin 224).

Whether or not we agree that the point of the sex was to contrast the more fittingly with virtue (which is never painted at all), is does underline Cleland’s moral that many a good woman has to make uncomfortable sacrifices in her career. The sex scenes are meant to expose society’s moral hypocrisy, as men undoubtedly bought the book to leer over, yet would condemn many a Fanny Hill in public for “low virtues.” I would argue that in any work of art, the sex or violence is painted “naked” rather than “nude”. It might be disturbing or even alluring, but it’s not propaganda for the pornographer’s trade. It all serves a greater purpose, as sometimes we need to see vice “painted all its gayest colours” to realize where it comes from, and even to recognize it in ourselves.

And yet in much modern fiction, the ante for sex and violence has been continually one-upped by author after author seeking to make a splash in the world. How can we tell if these works are naked or nude in their attempt to deal with serious and shocking issues in the interest of telling a story? Do readers still want stories with characters and ideas, or simply a nice thrill ride? With the explosion of porn sites and our society’s subsequent addition to them (Denmark, among other countries, has declared it a national crisis), how much of modern commercial fiction is simply repackaged pornography? Or does it serve a larger purpose as with Fanny Hill or a work like Lady Chatterley’s Lover?

The issue came up recently in the adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels: in the finale to Season One, “To Ransom a Man’s Soul,” the Scottish hero and love interest sacrifices himself to his enemy’s sexual torture to save his wife and to die with honor (sort of). In the series, we see the brutal rape and torture of Jamie by Jack Randall blow by blow. Sonia Saraiya, covering this episode in an article on, confronts this episode head-on by asking,

“Why? Why depict such horror? Why depict it like this, with this particular sort of grisly detail? One of the most alarming threads of “To Ransom A Man’s Soul” is how the torture, for Randall, takes on the aspect of romance. At some point in the night, captive and captor sleep — Jamie likely passes out from pain and blood loss — and their resulting pose, of two naked men sharing a pallet, purposefully recalls a romantic relationship. This is a comparison made in the book, as well. Claire, as she’s being led out of the cell, hears Randall tell Jamie he will return shortly, and as she describes it: “It was the voice of a man taking reluctant leave of his lover, and my stomach heaved.””

There are troubling issues here: for one, homosexual love is portrayed as inherently violent as opposed to the more ‘sensitive’ love of the hero and heroine (which becomes positively nude in the series—and I hear, in the book as well). But that aside, we still have the question of taste: why do we need to linger over the sadistic torture of a man and his subsequent humiliation? While this is an interesting twist on the dominant narrative—throughout the history of television, this would have been the rape of a woman—it still remains excessive, lurid, and fetishistic. This seems like a conscious attempt to allow the world of fetish pornography to bleed into commercial television. And why? Simply to be subversive? Or to market to an even larger target audience, those who squirrel off to their laptops to watch cheap pornography? Is this really in the interest of the story? Was Shakespeare a prude because he had his rape occur off-stage...or did he realize that every good author should cast the Imagination in a prominent supporting role?

The verdict will always be out on what is and isn’t pornography. What is purposeful to some will be anathema to others. And yet, if we have to reach for definitions, perhaps Berger offers us the most revealing way of describing the artistic use of excess. If a sex scene reveals something of the characters, perhaps revealing through their tentative, awkward embraces how damaged they are, then we see them both ‘naked’—physically and emotionally. But rape for rape’s sake, simply to shock us and to tell us “rape is humiliating” is nude, a lurid performance that says even more about the audience (or what the filmmakers assume about their audience) than the story itself. The boundaries of taste can be crossed and even blurred out of existence, but nothing ages faster than an act of rebellion. The books we come back to offer us more than outrage, they offer us art—an experience that changes each time we read the book, while changing ourselves in the process.