At art schools, large and small, a respect almost verging on reverence surrounds the simple exercise of observing and recording the naked human form. Models are arranged in angular but emphatically unsexy poses. Artists stand awkwardly behind rows of easels and try to reproduce what they see as accurately as possible. It's a purely technical task, devoid of any intellectual or emotional engagement. The figure before them might just as well be a vase of flowers or a bowl of fruit.
Much has been made by feminists about the importance of drawing the face: their argument is that this identifies every human body and discourages us from any inclination to depersonalise it. And yet the enduring tenet of every life study is just this depersonalisation: the body, male or female, is reduced to a malleable sack of meat and bone, mere anatomy to be subjected to the same sort of detached forensic examination that corpses receive from student doctors.
It's a bloodless ritual meant only to enhance technique. Any connection to the persona of the model is discouraged. Nothing is revealed other than the body. The closed, silent rooms in which models pose suppress any stimuli that might provoke a an unwanted physical response from them.
Recently, I read an article online titled The Nude Figure And Christianity. The emphasis of the piece is on drawing the nude in a clinical context, and only as a way to master observation and technique. Curiously, this puritan reasoning is almost the same as in the most experimental art school, or drawing class: "If you can accurately and expressively draw or paint or sculpt the human form you can draw anything."
In talking about the supposed problems and flaws associated with drawing the nude, the piece actually locates the real issues that should be explored within the drawing: ".. we are required, to a degree, to suffer through overly-sexualized, unrealistically-modified advertising on a ludicrous and unhealthy scale — a fact which distorts our perception of reality and can subsequently wreak havoc in almost all areas of our lives."
Drawing the nude in a sterile setting is not really an attempt to dehumanise the body, to strip it of physical and personal identity. It's an experiment in denial, a conditioning exercise that forces the artist to disregard their own aesthetic, sexual predilection, social prejudice and preconceptions – most of which are forged, these days, by exposure to the codified, largely fictive, popular narrative that unites multiple tiers of media-driven, consumer-oriented culture.
Which leaves us with this to think about: The remote, almost clinical way in which a persona-less body is offered up during a life study not only strips it of humanity but negates students' inclinations to use the real stuff of a contemporary imagination. They might learn to draw beautifully but they'll still be a long way being artists.