Kathleen Davis: Kim Kardashian and the art of the nude

By Kathleen Davis, Community & Culture Columnist
Published November 30, 2014

2014 has truly been a fascinating year for conversations about the naked female body.

We’ve seen the digital #FreeTheNipple movement, which protests the restrictions social media platforms like Instagram put on photos that expose breasts, while leaving topless male photos untouched. We’ve seen the massive hackingof female celebrity nude photos and the angry backlash that followed their release online. We’ve also seen the nude Kim Kardashian Paper Magazine photoshoot, which threatened to #BreakTheInternet, and almost succeeded, given the debate between supporters and detractors of the photos that exploded from every corner of the web. While bloggers, fans and journalists all tried to decipher the meaning and intention behind the photographs shot by Jean-Paul Goude, one question brought up by multiple sources grabbed my attention: Are the naked Kim Kardashian photos art? And if so — or if not — where is the line between nudity as art and nudity as tasteless?

We’ve had a few weeks to digest how Kim broke the Internet, and life has carried on normally for the most part. For those who have not yet seen the NSFW photos, they’re a cheeky recreation of the same photographer’s controversial and semi-iconic “Champagne Incident.” The 1982 photograph featured a young Black model pouring an exploding bottle of champagne perfectly over her head and into the a glass she has balanced on her ass. While Kim K is clothed in her recreation of the photo, the other three photos in the spread show her in various stages of undress, culminating in a full-frontal shot and the photo that launched a thousand memes: Kim looking over her shoulder and completely exposing her famous derrière. As Paper Magazine intended, the Internet exploded. It’s also important to mention that Paper Mag is not a pornographic magazine, but one focused on art, fashion and alternative music.

The history of naked bodies in art is a fascinating subject. Walk into any seasoned art museum and you’re bound to see a collection of genitals that, in any other context, would shock any man, woman or child. Yet I’ve never seen a “18+” sign in front of a Rodin or a Botticelli. Artists of nudes of any medium are considered some of the most highly regarded in history, and there’s absolutely no question that they should be. The amount of work and sheer genius that goes into a piece of art at the scale of a Donatello sculpture or “The Birth of Venus” is mind bending. We see Michelangelo’s David and don’t think he was a pervy guy; we think of him as an incredibly talented sculptor who still influences sculpture to this day. (I, on the other hand, saw David in the Art Institute of Chicago at the ripe age of five or six, and was left with years of questions about male anatomy and potential topics for adult therapy.)

Modern and contemporary art have also taken advantage of the beauty of the human body, but most often the results don’t have the same impact as classical nudes. Why? Perhaps the idea of timelessness in the marble and canvases add to the argument that Renaissance artists were the peak of nudes in art. However, that argument hasn’t stopped contemporary artists from creating some beautiful pieces of art featuring butts that wouldn’t necessarily offend your grandma.

Nudity in photography is an entirely different can of worms, but one that is crucial to conversations about what is considered modern art. The line between whether a photo of a naked woman is artistic or pornographic is dependent on a myriad of factors, like artistic credibility, lighting and poses, which oftentimes are so subjective to the viewer that the conversation becomes defunct. It’s totally plausible to look at a nude photograph and appreciate it for its artistic credibility. It’s also possible that the photo was meant for pornographic purposes. If a photo can be both, is it possible that there’s no distinction?

Do we feel scandalized by Kim Kardashian’s bare butt because we feel like we know her after years of “Keeping up with the Kardashians” and countless tabloid covers? Possibly. I like the Paper Magazine photoshoot. I like how Kim looks directly at the camera as to assert her dominance over the situation instead of seeming passive. And the article that accompanies the pictures portrays Kim as smart and savvy, master of her self-created digital world. Paper Mag. wants you to know that Kim Kardashian knows what you think of her. In fact, she’s very aware. Now she wants to break your Internet. I’m not sure if there will ever be a consensus about the artistic credibility of the Paper Magazine photos, but I can confirm one thing: Whether she meant to or not, Kim opened up an interesting conversation about nudity in art, and now she has my attention.