The meaning of a work of art – that is, the meaning intended by the artist, not the meaning assigned to it by the audience – is often a matter of context. Not just art, but human expression in general. It all boils down to context.
Look back at that famous Freudian saying: “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Objectively, that sentence is meaningless on its own. A cigar is always a cigar. Contextually, however, it refers to dreams about dongs, but with the caveat that not all things shaped like dongs in a dream actually represent dongs. Sometimes a dong-shaped object is simply a dong-shaped object, and not a dong. See? Context.
Another example, and one that is perhaps more controversial: Louis C.K. using the word “nigger” in his stand-up comedy. Louis C.K. is a white man, and white people should never, ever use that word… right? Except he’s using it to call out bullshit subtle racism in the media, which, to me, seems like a good thing. If it is bad to say a thing out loud, isn’t it just as bad to let everyone know you are thinking that thing with a wink and a nod? I think that some people who are very sensitive about that particular word will hear him say it and be shocked and outraged, but only because they are hearing only the word and not the context in which it is used.(1)
Representations of the human body are often taken out of context. Any images of women’s nipples, pubic areas, genitals or buttocks is pretty much automatically filed as “Erotica” or “Porn.” This is, of course, patently ridiculous. It’s as though people don’t realize that the human body can be nude without a contextual “wrapper” of sexuality. Here are a few examples of times when a human female can be nude, wholly or partially, without a sexual context:
- while changing into an outfit for a funeral.
- in the bath – a regular bath to get clean, not the kind with sensual bubbles and water-jets and heart-shaped tubs.
- during a routine check for breast cancer.
- in a chemical shower after being splashed with hazardous materials.
Basically, just because you see a breast with a nipple, it doesn’t make it “porn” or “erotica” or whatever bullshit label people apply to things to make it seem somehow more classy than porn. Take a look at Dr. Manhattan in The Watchmen (movie or comic, your choice) – he walks around with his wang hanging out. It’s not “erotica.” It’s a guy who no longer cares about human morality or social conventions because he has a vastly-wider view of the universe. It’s symbolic of his disconnection with humanity, precisely because it’s a feature that superficially identifies him as “human.” Sometimes a naked body is just a naked body.
I’ve seen perfume, liquor and makeup advertisements that are more sexually charged than a whole sea of naked titties. The model is more or less fully-clothed – or at least has her nipples, genitals and most of her pubic area and/or buttocks covered with artfully-draped fabric – but she has moist, glistening lips parted oh so slightly, a faint flush on her cheeks and neck, and pupils dilated by digital artists to make her look sexually aroused. Maybe she’s licking a sweating bottle suggestively. Or running a dripping ice cube over her forward-thrust chest. But this is acceptable for the general public because three or four tiny spots are masked from view. You can even let your kids see it. (2)
I’ve been combing through the deviantART community for a while now, and it appears that a lot of its members don’t seem to understand this idea of context. That’s not exclusive to dA, either. It’s pretty much everywhere on this here wide, wide world of Internets. While I will never attempt to tell people how they should look at art, I feel I must at least attempt to offer some guidance that I hope will allow my faithful readers to better appreciate and understand what they are looking at, and how they can make meaningful contributions to the art world by offering constructive feedback on what they see.
One thing I have noticed that is particular to depictions of the human body is the tendency of viewers to comment on the model’s attractiveness. We know our models are attractive – that’s why we use the models we use. Of course they have beautiful bodies, that’s why we want to paint them. The models know they are attractive – that’s why they become models. Telling an artist that his model has a beautiful body is not constructive or helpful. It just means that you haven’t been paying attention to anything else about the work, and if that’s what you are looking for, you may be better off viewing pornography where beautiful bodies artfully displayed is the entire point. Be honest with yourself.
A last note about context: the comment that inspired all of this came from a photographer who has an outstanding sense of colour and composition. Check out his photographs at http://wnattawan.wordpress.com/