Naked vs. nude: a contrast in definitions

Monday, May 18, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 8:35 p.m. CDT, Monday, May 18, 2009

Clothing etiquette for concerts is more relaxed than that for regular, boring old life. People can wear costumes or hardly anything without members of the crowd batting a liner-laden eye; that is, assuming we are talking about rock shows like the Clutch concert put on at The Blue Note this past weekend and not the latest Philip Glass gala at Carnegie Hall.

A friend of mine who saw the Clutch show told me about one girl in particular who had taken advantage of these relaxed rules and all but gone topless to The Blue Note. Although it is doubtful that this caused any conflict for her fellow rockers — I believe her choice to have been roundly applauded — it did start a conversation between us about whether she had gone to the concert nearly naked or nearly nude. Our conclusion: nearly naked.  

Admittedly, it’s a pedantic distinction, requiring the kind of recondite warbling that my practical father has routinely cursed the liberal arts world for breeding in me. But despite the eye rolling such word-mincing might elicit, I think the line between naked and nude is a legitimate, provocative one to draw. And it certainly is one academia downright loves to draw: the New York Academy of Art, for example, dedicated an entire class to the subject.

The nude-naked conversation has its roots in art history courses (jam-packed as they are with slides of drawn, painted and sculpted human forms), and one of the first rules students are given to differentiate between the two, at least insofar as women in the beaux arts are concerned, is that naked subjects know they’re being watched; nude subjects, outside of goddesses, don’t.

Critic John Berger argued that if a painter depicts, say, a voyeuristic scene of unclothed nymphs frolicking merrily in a lea, they would be nude rather than naked. In “Ways of Seeing,” he said that “to be nude is to be seen naked by others … Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is put on display.”

In the context of his argument, it seems better to be naked than nude; the former implies a choice, whereas the latter implies that a female is being unwittingly, unfairly dominated by a male gaze. Other critics would argue almost the opposite, however. Kenneth Clark, a critic who is often credited as the source of the debate, believed that nude forms are the admirable equivalent of Titian’s Venus; they are ideal forms of art, while naked bodies are just their embarrassing, real-life counterparts.

Admittedly, this is a reductive view of those theorists’ manifestos, but from these basic ideas have sprung roughly a gazillion arguments about whether women are naked or nude in different contexts. Crucially bound up in those debates are assertions about power, about whether women who expose their bodies are exercising a right to be proud of their nakedness or whether they are allowing themselves to be exploited at the expense of the entire gender’s dignity.

Photography and film have complicated the distinction in terms of labels and of power because female subjects are aware they are being watched but are often volunteering under the assumption that they are Venuses rather than objects. For instance, when the nudity-loving Annie Leibovitz photographed Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley in the buff, and Vanity Fair put that photo on the magazine’s cover, the ladies were posed to emulate the goddesses in paintings of yore. Yet they were asked to pose undressed essentially to sell magazines. So were they cheaply naked or artistically nude? Given their autonomy and the reputation of the magazine, perhaps it’s safe to call them nude.  

But this isn’t to say that being a famous actress guarantees nudity over nakedness. Mary-Louise Parker, for example, has just come out regretting the bathtub scene she did for the finale of Showtime drama “Weeds.”  She was quoted as saying, “I didn't think I needed to be naked, and I fought with the director about it, and now I'm bitter.” Given her apparent lack of autonomy and despite the acclaim of her show, I would say her “naked” brand is the right one: There’s little goddess-like in being “goaded,” as she said, into taking off your clothes.  

Similarly, there is little artistic in wearing a napkin-sized shirt to a Clutch concert, which is why I called, and will continue to call, the girl nearly naked. And though I know that most people will never, at the sight of a naked or nude woman, feel primarily inclined to have an academic conversation, I will continue to ponder the nude-naked line. If nothing else, it’s an example of how beautifully nuanced the English language can be.  

Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.

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Charles Dudley Jr May 18, 2009 | 1:59 p.m.

You are not writing this because you are still worried about that 5 lbs you were worried about in one of your last columns you wrote here are you.

(Report Comment)
Katy Steinmetz May 18, 2009 | 2:04 p.m.

That worry was expressed by Tracy Barnes actually.

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley May 18, 2009 | 2:39 p.m.

Nonetheless Mr. Dudley, your response was very funny. Thank you for that lighthearted response. LOL.

I never knew that I had the power to dominate with my male gaze..... Must use that "super power" now that I know that I have it. Is it like a Jedi Mind Trick? Can I get people to bend to my will with my "dominating male gaze"?

Don't you think it is going a little far to imply that we males "dominate with our gazes"?


(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr May 18, 2009 | 4:17 p.m.

Katy Steinmetz May 18, 2009 | 2:04 p.m.
That worry was expressed by Tracy Barnes actually.

Oh well my bad they both have about the same writing style.

(Report Comment)
W. Arthur Mehrhoff May 19, 2009 | 11:26 a.m.

Even though I work at the Museum of Art & Archaeology, I think the issues raised by Katy Steinmetz' thoughtful and well-written article are far more than academic. In classical mythology, the hunter Acteon gazes upon the goddess Diana (not permitted) while she is bathing. Displeased Diana turns the hapless hunter into a stag, and he is then torn apart by his own hounds. It's always been a matter of power and who has the privilege of gazing, and the stakes have always been very high. Many people have gotten torn up over this issue...

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley May 19, 2009 | 4:33 p.m.

Mr. Mehrhoff; that is MYTHology, right?


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Katy Steinmetz May 19, 2009 | 5:10 p.m.

Rick - I think there's just a misunderstanding about what this "male gaze" entails. It's a concept, explored at length by eggheads like Berger, that has to do with how males and females have interacted on grand scale throughout centuries; the use of that phrase does not suggest that you or any other modern, individual male has some optical, basilisk-meets-Don-Juan superpower.

The "dominant" male gaze is often discussed in reference to how women were depicted in paintings, etc., in a time when the painters and patrons were primarily male. And the "male gaze" mentioned above is that kind of general, theoretical one.

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley May 19, 2009 | 6:43 p.m.

Katy, I think that I understand that this term may be used as a type of "artistic terminology", if you will... And I say "I think that I understand" genuinely, since I am not what one would call an "artsy fartsy type". LOL.

In my line of work, I have learned to be a bit more pragmatic, and if you couple that with the fact that I am a "strict textual interpretation type", you get the responses that you have seen from me, thus far.

I am quite sure that your choice of words here has elicited like minded thoughts from others in our current society; which seems to have some underlying tensions between us "male chauvinist pigs", and the feminists that have exposed us all. LOL. And the point I am trying to make here is that your use of such phrases may further inspire such tensions......


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durie o June 10, 2009 | 8:45 p.m.
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