15 The Body in Art

Ashley Houser


The body, for centuries, has been seen as delicate and pure. From the time of Adam and Eve, we see aspects of purity and sacredness being shown. This identification of the body continues into early art such as Michelangelo’s David. I believe that this sense of purity has been ingrained into our brains, but bodies have been sexualized from the beginning.

If the body was meant to be conveyed as being pure, why are they posing naked and feeding into stereotypes that we continue to battle off today? These stereotypes have been fueling art right into present day. Robert Mapplethorpe’s almost pornographic photographs have truly spectacular meanings behind them; portraying stereotypes of individuals of different races and sexual orientation. I wonder if by presenting these stereotypes obscenely is to bring more awareness into the public eye as these photographs get quite the attention of any viewer. Imagine; walking into an exhibition and seeing a photo of a phallus from a body, no face. This sparks questions of not only obscenity, but what this image is conveying. The use of the body can bring various interpretations. I am not saying the body is not pure or delicate, but the way artists have portrayed the body does not give the sense that they are, but rather a sexual object.

The body has such an impact on the viewer because it has been instilled that it should be private and virgin. The use of the body does not have to just be a naked body, as we see in Gonzalez-Torres’s work, a metaphorical use as he uses candy to represent his lover that passed from aid’s. Even the metaphorical uses of the body bring questions as the viewer is interacting directly with the installation. They want to know more about the meaning and interpretations behind the work because it is not obvious when viewing or interacting. These same questions are being brought to attention when viewing a naked body. The viewer wants to know why they are naked and the interpretations behind it. Through the political and social issues around the aid’s crisis, we see the body being used to bring awareness to the subject.

The body being used in art is not the result of the sexuality of our society but influences that it is a norm. From decades past, the sexual side of individuals has come through especially in the Contemporary Era. It is difficult to gage whether the societal changes influenced the art being made or if the art influenced society on this change. A once delicate, pure body is now being used to bring awareness to societal and political issues, and bring attention to viewers. The body is such a common object that has extreme historical connotations that are now being broken down in order for artists to grab the viewers attention by defeating these stereotypes.


Additional Resources

Reid-Pharr, Robert. 2016. “Putting Mapplethorpe in His Place.” Art in America 104 (3): 100–109. http://search.ebscohost.com.libproxy.plymouth.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=113452271&site=ehost-live.

Smolak, Linda, Sarah K. Murnen, and Taryn A. Myers. 2014. “Sexualizing the Self: What College Women and Men Think About and Do to Be ‘Sexy.’” Psychology of Women Quarterly 38 (3): 379–97. doi:10.1177/0361684314524168.


Opening Contemporary Art Copyright © by Sarah Parrish. All Rights Reserved.

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