The Double Standard Against Naked Men in Art

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Lady nudes are all over the art world, but there are few naked men (Michelangelo's "David" being a notable exception) on display in museums and galleries, as Mary M. Lane writes in a Wall Street Journal piece about "Nude Men," an exhibit opening at Vienna's Leopold Museum on Friday. It features 300 works charting the course of male nudity in Western art over the years and stands in opposition to the many years of discrimination (or just lack of support) for the unclad male form in the art world and beyond. Lane writes,

Pity the naked man. Popes throughout history have covered up the private parts of male nude sculptures in Vatican City. Even history's most famous male nude, Michelangelo's "David," was subjected to the constrictions of modesty: London museum officials ordered a fig leaf be placed strategically over a replica in a London museum, after it shocked Queen Victoria.

The museum promises in this "long overdue" exhibit a reflection of the "diverse and changing depictions of naked men from 1800 to the present." Seems high time for such art to make its way to the public's eye, but this exhibit has been controversial, with numerous complaints about the promotional posters. One features, for example, three nude guys with soccer balls (the players were "covered" with a red line, as at left, for decency after the shocked public got involved). And this, even in Europe!

Turns out we're all kind of a bunch of prudes when it comes to the naked male form, even though, as Lane mentions, the female form has gotten this kind of treatment for hundreds of years. Let's admit, of course, that photos of contemporary naked women without strategic placement of arms and such (the famous Demi Moore pose, for example) would likely generate a prudish outcry much like what came after the soccer photos got plastered around Vienna. Remember how we in America reacted to the sight of a woman breast-feeding her child on the cover of Time? But is there something more going on, something gendered, maybe even sexist, with regard to male nudes? 

"We as a society just aren't used to seeing naked men," said museum spokesman Klaus Pokorny about the complaints. "It's a problem with our culture, partially religious based."

He added that such images are "unfortunately ... often still associated with sexual abuse in a way that pictures of naked women aren't." But even when it's art, and not photographs, this has been an issue, for example, Fra Bartolomeo's painting of St. Sebastian, which was removed "after female worshippers dished in confession that they were fantasizing about the saint" or Klimt's naked Theseus, painted in 1898, which he had to cover, despite that century being "one of the heydays for the male nude." (Interesting side note, historically, nude male models were usually cheaper.) The early male nudes were also usually depicted in religious or mythological contexts, as heros, and not in any overtly sexual way. Things shifted in the early 1900s to photographic depictions of nude bodybuilders and athletes, and nude, realistic self-portraits, and then again in the 1970s as "a growing number of female and openly gay or bisexual male artists like Andy Warhol interpret[ed] their sexual fantasies via art."

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The criticism of the show is telling, though. Maybe we haven't expanded our views all that much since the painting of St. Sebastian had to be taken down so that women would stop with their infernal hell-bound fantasizing about it. Is our fear of the male nude really about the male nude's fear of being ogled by women? Is the female nude just more aesthetically pleasing? Can male nudes ever hope to attain that sort of respect? Or is it simply that historically, frequently men were the ones creating the art—and if there's a double standard against nude men in art, there's an equal if slightly dissimilar one for women who were typically cast as the unclothed objects in such works?

One thing is true: Sometimes it's difficult to admit that under our clothes, we're all just people. 

Photos via Reuters.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.