On Sensuality and Simple Nudes
"Dont you see that, for my work on modeling, I have not only to possess a complete knowledge of the human form, but also a deep feeling for every aspect of it? I have, as it were, to incorporate the lines of the human body, and they must become part of myself, deeply seated in my instincts. I must feel them at the end of my fingers
My object is to test to what extent my hands already feel what my eyes see."
Quite justifiably, we believe that theres a fine line between sensuality and sexuality. We also believe that theres a difference between pornography and art. In fact, these two distinctions often blend into one another. We regard art as sensual and pornography as more overtly sexual. Warding off the charge of pornography, photography, sculpture and painting often veil the human body, especially the more eroticized female nude, by representing it in aesthetic poses and allegorical situations that evoke thoughts, emotions and dreams, not only carnal desire.
If the boundary between pornography and art is so heatedly debated, however, its partly because its drawn by our own subjective reactions. Who is to say that an aesthetic pose elevates the mind and not just the senses? DOMAI photography confronts this problem not by transforming the nude into a work of art, but by illustrating so palpably the distinction beween sensuality and sexuality. DOMAIs nudes are undeniably sensual and beautiful. Emotion, thought, and sensation can hardly be separated when we gaze at these pictures. I invoke the broad concept of beauty (in the abstract) only to limit it to a category that is easier to define and more relevant to understanding the simple nudes: the beauty of sensuality. Heres why.
Philosophers, from Plato and Plotinus to Shaftesbury, Diderot and Winkelmann, despite their significant differences, have described beauty as an underlying harmony that has a pleasing sensory effect. In so doing, aesthetic philosophers confront several problems already anticipated by Socrates in The Symposium and The Phaedrus two of Platos dialogues that deal most explicitly with the concept of beauty. How can we account for changing standards of beauty? Is there an underlying notion of beauty that can apply equally well to the magic of a sunset, a pretty woman and a beautiful painting? And if there is, then how can such a general definition serve to explain specific categories of the beautiful, such as the beauty of human beings, of emotions, of architecture or of romantic art?
Moreover, is it really helpful to define the concept of beauty in terms of other difficult concepts, such as harmony, order or agreability? Doesnt this process lead to an infinite regress of definitions, each unknown defined in terms of yet another unknown, as Socrates had cautioned? Not having found satisfactory answers to these questions, Im daunted by the difficulties inherent in defining beauty in the abstract. The beauty of sensual images, imagery and objects seems to me a more broachable subject as well as one thats more useful to understanding the appeal of simple nudes. So let us ask: what is sensuality? And why does it have the power to move us?
As is customary, I will begin with a provisional definition. Sensuality is that which titillates the senses without making any specific promises or, much less, delivering. Sensuality leaves our desires, wishes, expectations, emotions, thoughts and impulses in a state of confusion and ambiguity. It creates what the philosopher Descartes has called a sense of admiration or wonder that is inseparable from pleasure yet far removed from instant satisfaction.
Sensuality has little to do with degrees of unveiling, with explicitness. Like sexualityits foil and companionits more of a psychological than a physical state. Just imagine the following images placed side by side: one featuring a woman who is fully dressed, with bright red lips puckered in a kiss, and a come-hither gaze. Her body is clothed, but her (supposed, staged) intent is crystal-clear. The effect is sexual. Next to it imagine a picture of a woman who is completely nude. Her looks are understated; her demeanor and glance ambiguous. The viewer is not sure what she desires, thinks or feels. Physically she is revealed. Psychologically, however, she remains a mystery and an enticement. The effect is sensual.
This hypothetical example leads me to supplement my initial description of sensuality. I will now say that sensuality hints at human subjectivityat implicit desires, needs, dreams and thoughtsin both the viewer and the viewed. Sexually explicit images and imagery--even when the women or men represented are clothedtend to strip the image of its psychological content, reducing it to a few body parts in the viewed and a few analogous needs in the viewers. By way of contrast, sensuality, even when the women or men represented are nude, veils the body in a psychological richness and depth that touches upon the artistic.
To probe a little further the nature of sensuality, let us consider another illustration. Ill borrow my second example from Pedro Almadovar's Talk to Her (Hable con Ella), one of my favorite movies. The story focuses upon the obsessive love and desire of Benigno, a male nurse, for a young and beautiful ballerina named Alicia. Upon meeting her, Benigno is entirely captivated by the young woman. Yet he doesnt get the opportunity to know Alicia and neither do we, the viewers. Because almost as soon as they meet, shes hit by a car when crossing the street and lapses into a coma. All we see of Alicia after the accident is her body; her purely physical beauty. Conversely, as Benigno takes care of his beloved, talks to her and treats her as a human being capable of understanding and responding to him, we become intimately familiar with his personality. We come to understand his loneliness, his obsessive love, his uncontrollable sensuality, his devotion.
In coming to multidimensional life for Benigno, however, Alicia also comes to life before our eyes. Almadovar has the immense talent of bringing out psychological richness and intensity in sensual depictions of physical beauty. Through Benignos loving gaze, care and compassion, we see more in Alicia than a beautiful body even though thats exactly what shes become as a result of the accident. Sensual art and photography perform the same magical operation. They give birth to a soul, to a living personality, in representing sometimes nothing more than the body, its movements and expressions. Which is why our own responses to these images tend to be more complex than physical desire. Sensual photography, literature and art call for the viewers or readers participation in imagining another person, another life. Theyre not just stimulating; theyre creative.
Philosophers have long been fascinated by the way in which sensuality rivets the attention and stimulates the mind. Although René Descartes is best known for being the father of rationalism, hes also one of the most sensitive readers of sensuality and emotion. His reflections on the subject were prompted by his discussions with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia and Queen Christina of Sweden, both of whom were cultivated, sensitive and emotional women who found that Cartesian rationalism could not explain the better part of human behavior. Why do we fall in love? Why do we desire? Why do we feel? Why do we respond to beauty? To address these important questions, Descartes wrote The Passions of the Soul (1649).
That which touches senses, emotions and thoughts, the philosopher explains, ignites the response of admiration or marvel. Admiration is not a coup de foudre, or the feeling of falling in love on the spot. It is, in Descartes own words, "a sudden surprise of the soul which manifests itself in considering with special attention objects which seem rare and extraordinary" (The Passions of the Soul, 116). To catch our attention, these objects or subjects have to either be or appear to be rare and special. Alicia may have been an ordinary girl, but in Aldamovars movie, despite being deprived of the power to think, feel and speak, she appeared tragically unique in her predicament, sympathetic, moving.
Sensual images or scenariosespecially when artistic--have the power to transform what may be ordinary into somethingor someonequite extraordinary. In turn, as Descartes elaborates, our appreciation of sensual beauty has calmer, more thoughtful manifestations than stimulating our drives and visceral emotions: "And this passion has something special about it since we dont notice that its accompanied by any transformation of the heart or the blood as we do with the other passions" (116). Which is not to say that this more psychological form of passion is less forceful. On the contrary, as Descartes explains: "Which doesnt prevent it from having a lot of force, caused by surprise or marvel, which is to say, the sudden and unforseen reception of an impression which changes the movements of the soul" (117).
So how do sensual representations motivate, to use Descartes expression, the movements of the soul? By triggering complex forms of identification in us, the readers or viewers. By taking a two-dimensional image or series of words on a page or a screen and creating the contours of other human beings with rare powers to captivate the attention and inspire the imagination. Sensual photography, creative writing, cinema and art reflect back into our eyes not so much another person as our own human complexity.
The philosopher and mystic Simone Weil has said that when a pretty woman looks in the mirror she doesnt know theres more to her than her external beauty. Whereas when an unattractive woman looks in the mirror, she knows theres more to her than meets the eye. Although it certainly features pretty women, so does the sensual photography and art of DOMAI.