On Beauty, Art, and Pornography

I’ve learned of disagreement between some who feel that any image depicting nudity is pornography and, hence, should not be permitted in a Christian academy while others don’t view the matter that way. I am content that some brethren find any nudity offensive and would equate it, even in art, like pornography. One must certainly respect their conscience and the righteousness with which they want to conduct themselves in God’s sight. While I have no dog in the fight, either way, I will say that the subject as a whole is one of interest to me. I took a fine arts course in which we were exposed to certain pieces of art containing nudity, but since I was an adult in my thirties, I was not embarrassed by such despite being in mixed company. However, were I to have been younger and more immature, I would have behaved rather childishly and boorish. Perhaps with age and maturity (spiritual or mental) comes a capacity to appreciate certain things that one might have made perversions of in another stage of life. I can only answer for myself, but I do detect a difference between art and pornography.

One can easily make a case that nudity of any type is wrong and shouldn’t be endorsed from a Christian perspective. It was only after the primal transgression that Adam and Eve knew they were naked and felt shame (cf. Isaiah 47:3; Nahum 3:5; Habakkuk 2;15) to the point of covering their private parts (Genesis 3:7). Nakedness in itself isn’t shameful, however, because for a husband and wife they are rather to enjoy the other’s nakedness in the holiness of their marriage (cf. Proverbs 5:19; Song of Songs 7:1–13). Moreover, most mentions of nakedness in the Bible depict such as a reproachful state, and we who preach modesty and urge that people cover themselves respectably distinguish in that very display either the urge that would cause one to lust or not.

I feel that there is a need to be consistent by those who would argue that nudity in art is pornography, because if we view nudity in art as harmless then how can we denounce pornography? Perhaps for some people, nudity in art would be a stumbling block, but what may stumble one person may not another. We have likely all seen the erotic books on bookshelves in stores where Fabio is depicted, albeit shirtless, holding some young beauty in his arms who’s draped in a sheer nightgown. Such reading, we might offer, is smut, plain and simple. However, the Bible itself has similar so-called “smut” in the Song of Songs (Solomon). Portions of Proverbs has similar literature that conjures the erotic into the mind. Judah slept with his daughter-in-law while she posed as a prostitute, Dinah was raped, and even David lusted after and acted upon such toward Bathsheba whom he saw naked.

Can we ask ourselves an honest question? If we wouldn’t read such secular literature, what makes such in the Bible acceptable to people of faith who wouldn’t otherwise read such? Aside from the point that the Bible is given to us from heaven and is, therefore, divine literature, we can add that because it is such it isn’t subject to the same treatment as one would regard a smutty novel. Sure, the Bible contains similar literature that invokes the same mental images, but it is acceptable because it is heavenly and depicts the beauty of human nature and divine majesty. Roger Scruton wrote, “The purpose of pornography is to arouse vicarious desire; the purpose of erotic art is to portray the sexual desire of the people pictured within it—and if it also arouses the viewer … then it is an aesthetic defect, a ‘fall’ into another kind of interest than that which has beauty as its target (1).” The aim, either beauty or vicarious desire, is what determines whether art is indeed pornographic or not (2).

Some of our minds aren’t trained to distinguish this. I wouldn’t suggest teaching Judah sleeping with his daughter-in-law, Dinah being raped, or David lusting after Bathsheba to a children’s Bible school class. Their minds and maturity are not yet ready to receive such stories from the Bible and the truths that may go with them. However, we who are adults can better accept such without responding inappropriately. I believe art can be the same. Some of us can see a painting of Titian or Botticelli wherein nudity appears and not be aroused but appreciate the painting for its beauty which is meant to point us to something higher, something heavenly.

  1. Roger Scruton, Beauty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 159.
  2. For further reading on the topic I would suggest, in addition to Scruton’s book, Leo Tolstoy, What is Art?, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Penguin Classics, 1995); Georg Hegel, Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, trans. Bernard Bosanquet (New York: Penguin Books, 1993).

Steven Hunter (PhD, Faulkner University) is the preaching minister for the Glendale Road Church of Christ in Murray, KY. He's also authored several books for Start2Finish, and Classically Christian explores Christianity from a church-historical perspective. Steven enjoys reading books, drinking coffee, and is a practitioner of Goshin Ryu Jujutsu—a traditional Japanese martial art.