Playboy is to abolish the nude. Many people will celebrate this, even if the magazine once seen as the bible of sexual liberation is getting out of the business of soft porn because it has been outdone by the internet, and not for any idealistic feminist reason.
But don’t open any champagne until you have visited a few art museums. If you look at enough art, you may feel more like putting on a black armband. For this could be the end of civilisation as we know it.
All great civilisations have celebrated the naked beauty of women. All barbaric ages have feared it. In the measly middle ages, nudity was loathed and dreaded; the bare flesh of women was an object of hatred, as were witches. A stained glass window in Canterbury Cathedral reveals the intensity of medieval contempt for the human body. It shows people worshipping a nude statue – but the pagan idol has horns and is literally demonic.
That association of female nakedness with the demonic survived for a long time in the Christian west. The 16th-century German artist Hans Baldung Grien lavished a brilliant talent on creating lurid images of lewd witches. His 1510 woodcut The Witches’ Sabbath firmly identifies nudity with evil. Naked women are servants of Satan – and should burn for their sins.
Still more dispiriting is the same artist’s painting The Ages and Death, which hangs in the Prado. A beautiful young woman stands beside her older self: she is doomed to decay. After old age will come death. This brutal painting is a horrific expression of the medieval Christian world view. The flesh is as grass: the body is vile. Only the spirit lives.
This hatred for the body, enunciated by key Christian thinkers including St Paul, expresses itself in art as a contempt for women, a portrayal of the supposed poisonous truth behind the lie of beauty.
When you realise this is what they were rebelling against, it is impossible to keep up the unhistorical, hackneyed view that sees artists like Titian and Rubens as old sexist masters slavering voyeuristically over naked women. Not only do medieval images exclude or demonise the nude, but late medieval portraits in northern Europe cover as much of women’s flesh as they can with tightly fitting headresses. The bodies of women are dangerous, they can bewitch you.
By contrast the loving, luscious nudes of the Italian Renaissance can be properly understood not as 500-year-old icons of the patriarchal gaze but liberating, even empowering images of women set free from religious hatred.
Titian’s Venus of Urbino is at ease and in control. No one who stands in front of this painting feels a sense of mastery or dominance. On the contrary, she makes you feel like a supplicant. Titian’s nudes are goddesses. He worships them and the tenderness of his paintbrush seduces every onlooker into worshipping them too.
The Venus of Urbino is gently touching herself, showing an easy confidence about her own sexuality. This is where we start to see the truly subversive nature of the Renaissance nude.
I had always broadly believed the critique of the nude in art that has been advanced by critics like John Berger since the 1970s – that it objectifies women – until I started to look more closely at paintings likes this.
While researching a book on the sexualities of Renaissance art, I started to see that women are the subjects, not objects, of many 16th-century nude paintings. Male sexual gratification is rarely depicted in these paintings. Instead, it is women who are given pleasure by slavish men.
I think this reflects the endurance of another, more civilised medieval tradition, that of courtly love. In this world, knights pay homage to their “mistresses”, who are depicted holding them on chains as well as watching them fight with long phallic lances.
Renaissance art translates this tradition into a rich erotic pageant. Men and women picnic in the countryside and the men try to turn the women on. Such paintings look more like lovers’ guides for mutual use than images to gratify the male gaze alone. It goes on.
The nude in art down the ages since the Renaissance is a theme of adventure, play and freedom – not oppression. Manet’s Olympia looks boldly back at you, challenging you to enter the arena of her bedroom. Picasso’s lovers can’t find enough orifices to satisfy them.
Historically, one of the golden ages of the female nude in art – the age of Picasso and Matisse – coincided with women demanding the vote. Academic books might see art’s lavish depiction of nakedness and sex in this era as male anxiety about women becoming strong social actors, but is that really plausible? In the bigger picture, the nudes of Matisse and Picasso look like the banners of modernity’s great liberation.
Which brings me to Playboy. It is not that it has been overtaken by more cynical sleaze – it’s much more complicated than that.
Playboy’s hackneyed idea of what a nude is, and who it’s for, seems increasingly narrow in the selfie age. When Kim Kardashian is celebrating her own body in superabundant selfies and many less famous people are doing the same, the nude is neither oppressive nor commodified – it’s a part of how human beings communicate with one another.
We are finally catching up with the Renaissance and ancient Greece, where the naked body was glorified and admired without shame.
Rubens portrayed his wife naked and depicted her as a nude goddess in his roly-poly paeans to flesh and life. Rubens does not impose a boring ideal form on women: he loves abundant thighs and bottoms. He would have wanted to paint Kim Kardashian.
That same adoration of curvy women shines in gilt bronze in medieval Indian art. While Europe skulked through its millennium of Christian repression, Indian art was civilised and joyous. The same sensuality surfaces in early modern Japan, where Shunga art reflects an expansive andexperimental urban civilisation.
Surveying art history, it just does not seem that nude images have ever been the best way to oppress anyone. Societies that praise naked beauty tend to be democratic – the nude was invented in ancient Athens and revived by Italian republics – and forward looking.
Cultures that fear and suppress naked art are more likely to be religiously hidebound and to control and fear women. Playboy’s suppression of the nude is a defeat for the human spirit and human freedom.
Luckily, it does not make much difference. People are looking at more and more nudes, in more and more ways. The selfie era is a golden age of the civilised nude. Humanity marches forward, proud and naked.