For the first week or so of the semester, everyone wants to know how your break went. And this being Hillsdale, people aren’t usually sat­isfied with a bland answer. They want to know where you were, what you did.
When people asked me this year, I told them I came back to campus a week early to take a figure-drawing class. People are usually con­cerned when they learn that, in addition to a guest instructor, we had a pro­fes­sional model.
–– Clothed, right?
–– Well, no.
–– Oh. Awkward.
When it comes to nude art, opinions vary rather widely, espe­cially in a place like Hillsdale. Some shy away from it. Some embrace it. Still others allow that there are prac­tical ben­efits for artists, but still see the whole thing as, well, awkward at best.
But is it, really?
First thing you learn as an artist: the human form is tricky. Really tricky. If you draft some­thing incor­rectly, everyone knows. Even if they can’t artic­ulate why it looks wrong, they know it’s wrong. To do our job well as artists, to be true to what we see, we have to know what the body is up to; how it works; what it looks like.
Of course, that raises the question of modesty, a question we at Hillsdale are pretty fond of. In this very paper, some time back, we’ve had heated dis­cus­sions about whether leg­gings are acceptable as trouser sub­sti­tutes. And if one con­siders that immodest, nude models … well.
At heart, modesty in dress is clothing oneself in a way that does not bring attention to fea­tures that are inap­pro­priate in context. But at the same time, modesty’s par­tic­ulars depend upon your culture and your purpose.
A woman in Mexico keeps her legs covered. In India, she shows her midriff. In America, most of us are okay with swim­suits at the beach but cer­tainly not in the classroom. Within the right context, dif­ferent manners of dress are appro­priate, either because of the way clothing has evolved there because of the under­standings in dif­ferent sit­u­a­tions of what is licen­tious and what is not. In the culture of the artist’s studio, a new under­standing of modesty applies: the model is not there for any ques­tionable reason. She is there as the subject of a com­po­sition. In order to have such an under­standing, of course, a pro­fes­sional atmos­phere is nec­essary, with all pos­sible respect toward the model.
I use the word ‘pro­fes­sional’ inten­tionally. Though I do think there is a place for nude models, at a school as small as this one, for prac­tical reasons, I’m cer­tainly not in favor of stu­dents here taking nude mod­eling jobs. Also, a pro­fes­sional model has been trained to be as tasteful as pos­sible in the way she poses and moves, further main­taining an appro­priate atmos­phere. The respect goes two ways.
Also, as another caveat, no blanket statement can be made about viewing artwork con­taining nudes. As an artist, I can appre­ciate a fellow artist’s han­dling of such a com­pli­cated form, but there are cer­tainly others who may have trouble seeing the art in such terms. No shame in that. It comes down to indi­vidual conscience.
In my own expe­rience, though, when I’m in front of my easel and drawing my model, I’m thinking about how the angle of her arm relates to the rest of the figure. I’m making sure her head is pro­por­tional. I’m cre­ating a com­po­sition. I’m not thinking about her state of dress; that matters less.
At day’s end, it’s really only as awkward as you make it.

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