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In our lives there is a colour like that on a painter’s palette, which gives meaning to both life and art. It is the colour of love. Marc Chagall

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On Nudity - H.R. Rookmaaker

Nudity

by H.R. Rookmaaker
 
These questions and answers were a part of the Westminster Discussions
on Faith, Culture and Lifestyle, recorded at Westminster Theological Seminary
in January 1976 and edited by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker.
 
Question: If art has an ethical side, that implies certain limitations. What
are the limitations we need to consider and how far does our freedom go?
For instance, in depicting nudity?
As a rule, as a kind of yardstick, we can say that we should always be
careful to judge art by what it wants to say and not by what it portrays. Is
it a sinful thing to portray the breast of a woman? I would say that’s a silly
question. Because an obscenity or something wrong in this respect are
not defined by square inches of flesh but are defined by what the
portrayal wants to express. Many years ago I had a long discussion about
this and I came up with the following thought: why are Christians always
talking about nudity, because what is really unhealthy, what is really
wrong, the thing we should really be fighting is precisely all the clothed
women. I had in mind the cover images of the magazines around us
which mostly use women as a kind of attraction feature. Of course these
women are nicely clothed – this was twenty years ago and they were all
nicely clothed then because one could not show more at that time, but
of course they were all very tempting and seductive, in a way they were
adulterous persons. So what matters is not the clothing or the absence
of clothing but the intention.
 
There is a great difference, and that’s where the confusion begins,
between something that’s social and something that’s in art. When you
make a painting of a nude woman, that has nothing to do with nudity in
the social reality. Even if there is a relationship it is not a direct one.
Winckelmann, the great classicistic theoretician from the middle of the
eighteenth century, said: ‘Why is Greek art so beautiful? That is because
the artists were able to see nude figures around them in daily life. And
these people were all doing sports and that’s why they were so beautiful.’
I would say that this is a naturalistic fallacy, because that was never true.
The classical world was not such a fantastically ideal world where
everybody walked around as if in a nudist camp. No, the [Greek] artists
were painting and sculpting their ideas about humanity. Art is a
metaphor, a symbol. I wish I could show you Jan van Eyck’s Eve [from the
Ghent altarpiece] at this moment, one of the most beautiful nudes ever
painted and one of the most chaste pictures in the world. Even though
it is more precisely painted than most nudes are, in that it shows pubic
hair and so on, nevertheless it is so pure. If people viewing such a picture
have bad sexual thoughts, the source of such thoughts is inside them
and not in the painting. But pictures with completely clothed figures can
be very obscene and negative and bad. So we should judge on the basis
of the meaning of things and of what is communicated, and not on the
basis of a set of rules because that is legalistic.
 
Nudity is used as a metaphor and in the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries people did not have the prudishness that came later. And of
course they did look back to the Greeks. But why did I use nudes as
examples in my lectures? Because they communicate easily, directly,
strongly. To explain the same things without the nudes would have
meant lectures three times as long – and probably less clear.
 
Question: But was it not because of their own nakedness that Adam
was unable to look at Eve without shame, so that God had to make
clothes for them?
I don’t think that shame in this case should be understood in the
sense of never showing any nudity. If in our culture it were a social
custom that we bathe in the nude on the beaches, then there would be
a difference on the beach between some women and others. Some
women would be very sexy and would go beyond the limits of shame,
and other would not. Just as at this moment some women with bathing
suits are very unchaste, and very seductive, and sexually very provocative,
and some are not. That has nothing to do with their clothes. It all
depends on how a person uses one’s body. Let me tell you a little story.
A very, very sexy woman came to L’Abri. This happened about fifteen
years ago. She was a filmstar. She became a Christian after three weeks.
And Dr Schaeffer said to me later: ‘I wish I had some photographs: three
weeks before and three weeks after.’ Because three weeks afterwards she
was not sexy anymore. What had happened? What happened was that
her attitude to life and values had changed. But she had certainly not
gone out and bought new clothes. She was wearing the same dresses. It
is not the dressing or the undressing that makes people chaste but the
way we wear our clothes, the way we move, the way we express our
corporality.
 
In art there are two types of nudity. Kenneth Clark, who wrote a
book on this, says that there is nudity in the sense of shame, as in
medieval art, and heroic nudes, as you find for instance with
Michelangelo. I would say that we find the least shame of all in
Michelangelo’s David. It’s a shameless sculpture. I say that not because
he happens to be nude but because of his attitude. He stands there and
radiates: ‘Here I am. I’m not afraid. Look how beautiful I am!’ But Adam
[from the Ghent altarpiece] of Jan van Eyck stands in shame before the
Lord. He says: ‘I am weak.’ Just like the Bible says that every person will
stand naked before the Lord – that means with nothing to cover oneself.
One’s weakness will be exposed; one will stand before the Lord knowing
that one has failed. That is what shame means in Genesis 3.
 
There’s another, related point to be made about shame. When God
does something in the Bible, it always has a double edge to it. I mean
this: when God comes with the curse he also brings grace. To be more
precise, when God said: ‘From this moment on death will be a reality’ no
one said ‘Hurrah, now we are going to die.’ Nevertheless there is one
reason for saying ‘Hurrah, people die.’ Just imagine for one moment
that after the Fall people were not to die. That would mean having all
the worst tyrants and criminals of all of history around us. Happily these
people have finished their lives. In that there’s grace. People are also
afraid of dying and that puts a check on their wickedness, but the
gangster who can live without fear of death will quickly become a really
nasty menace.
 
Now the same is true of shame. If God had not given shame to people
(and I think it is a gift) then there wouldn’t be boundaries. Now when
men and women approach each other there are always barriers to
overcome, little thresholds to cross, little doors to open. A man never just
jumps on a woman unless he rapes her and then we call it rape and that
is wrong. But if a man comes to a woman, he starts by touching her softly,
and she accepts or answers his touch. And so they go on meeting each
other, and every time a little barrier has to be overcome. When there are
strong barriers we talk about shame. So there is a difference between
bathing together in the nude, as is done in some places in the world (and
I don’t think there is anything wrong in that), and jumping into bed with
one of the women. There are boundaries because there is shame.
Shame is very much tied up with our most intimate parts. If you look
at paintings, you will find that there is a limit. The most intimate parts
of a woman are never shown. A woman can stand without clothes
without her intimate parts being visible. They are hidden. That’s maybe
why it is easy to portray a woman in the nude, because one can depict
her completely in all her beauty and she can become a symbol for
humanity in its manifold aspects while evading the real tough point. And
you may see many pictures of nude men, but rarely will you see an
erection. If you do, it is usually very strong in a wrong sense. You will
normally not see that, because that’s the moment of shame. It’s a gift of
God that he put restraints on our sexual relationships. So we don’t have
free love, thanks to the Lord, because God gave us shame. But we
shouldn’t say one has to be ashamed whenever one sees a person in the
nude. That’s a little bit over the top and not how it was meant to be.
That’s a nineteenth-century interpretation that comes out of Victorian
sensibilitities. I think we should strive for the right barriers and the right
forms, and of course our own feelings are also involved here. We should
strive for more freedom, more openness at this point, even though that
is very difficult. If parents are not able to deal with their children on this
level, they should try to get their children to go further; maybe in two or
three generations’ time we will have more openness. We shouldn’t be
idealistic, though, for never in history was the man-woman relationship
completely right. We live in an imperfect world as sinful beings.
 
Question: But how can you be positive about a painting like Rubens’s
‘Rape of the daughters of King Leucippus’, which in my opinion depicts sin?
I put Rubens’s painting [see Plate 5] on the screen next to a horrible
picture by Corinth that shows rape in a very cheap way. We need to
understand what exactly Rubens is doing here. His painting deals with a
subject that is not just rare in art but totally unique. He uses a classical
story that talks about rape. The interesting thing is that Rubens depicts
these men, who were guards, as good guards with nothing rough about
them. And the story goes on, for it says that afterwards they immediately
married these women, which means it was not rape for rape’s sake in the
bad sense of misusing a woman and then leaving her in the road while
getting away. You might say yes, it’s not the worst kind of rape but
nevertheless it is not according to the laws that God gave for the
man-woman relationship. I agree, but I don’t think that’s the point. Because
Rubens was searching for a very strong visual image and he used the
story to provide him with a motif: the motif of woman being the
inspiration for man. The real content of that picture is woman inspiring
man to great deeds. There is nothing against the Scriptures in that. The
beauty of Rubens’s picture is exactly in its not telling about sex in the
sense that twentieth-century people talk about sex, but that it tells about
the erotic in a very fully human sense. This to me is very beautiful and
something we have little understanding of today because sex has been
brought down to the animal level. It is precisely the man-woman
relationship, a love relationship, which is exalted by this picture. So,
don’t look at the little story in too narrow, too myopic, a way because
Rubens was only using the story as a metaphor for something great he
wanted to say, namely that woman, including her bodily presence, yet
not only by the sexual impulse but through the fullness of her
womanhood, inspires man in the fullness of his manhood to great deeds.
 
Question: How do we determine what is beautiful, not only as to form but
also as to content?
You ask for something that one knows. You ask for definitions, and
definitions are so difficult. There is a relationship between truth and
beauty, a very narrow relationship. The one painting of the nude woman
is ugly, not because the painter was a bad painter in the technical sense,
or was below standard, because in his own class he was a very good one.
But it is ugly because alienation was built into the work. It lacks in its
grasp of reality. Because of that, because of this ‘objectivity’ the woman
becomes pornographic. Pornography always implies alienation. It’s
something that is presented to us in a cold way, devoid of meaning, and
we can then add our thoughts to it. We cannot add our thoughts to the
Rubens painting because the picture gives us our thoughts. And there is
true knowledge, an opening of our eyes so that we begin to see and know
women in a new way. We wouldn’t know women unless they were drawn
for us. That’s why the pin-up is an eternal thing. But to have portraits of
women around us is important for us in order that we may grasp more
and more of reality and humanity. These portraits work as metaphors.
The truth of a painting is certainly not divorced from its beauty.
 
I have a record at home. Suppose that you do not understand the
language in which the song is being sung and you would say to me:
‘That’s a beautiful song.’ And suppose I was a magician who could snap
my fingers and say: ‘Now you can understand the language.’ And then I
play the record again and you can hear that from beginning to end it’s
one big curse. Then, when the record finishes, you will no longer say it’s
a beautiful song. For when you grasp the meaning of the song you will
say: ‘Well, it’s very strange but in a way I now understand that that
melody, which I perhaps found intriguing, just makes the curse more
powerful.’ Because there is a unity in every good work of art, just as in
every good human thing there is unity. All the parts work together.
A work of art gives us more than just beauty. It is a trite remark to
make when standing in front of a painting to say that it is beautiful.
Rather, one tries to assess more of it, to determine what it means, what
it expresses, what its relationship is to reality. That is very complex. I
cannot give a simple definition and, to be honest, if I knew it I wouldn’t
give it to you. I’m always asked: ‘Can’t you give us a nice way to
understand what beauty is and how you judge art?’ I always tend to say:
‘I know it exactly. It’s written on a little piece of paper and I have it in
my pocket but I won’t tell you. Because if I tell you, the danger is that
you might believe me. And if you believe me, I would become the pope
in art. And I don’t want to be the pope in art.’ There are no easy
definitions. Just as there are no easy definitions of faith and love. But
that doesn’t mean judging art is random. No, it’s very precise. However,
the difficulty is that you ask me a question that is universal, while I’m
convinced that the universal can only come to us in the specific. If at this
moment we were standing in front of a specific painting, I could have
told you what is beautiful and what is ugly. With that there is always a
measure of reality and truth implied. If a lie is presented in a beautiful
form, the lie becomes more ugly and that makes the lie more of a lie. It
is very interesting how that works in fairy tales: the bad woman, the
stepmother, is usually ugly because her form is in relation to her content.
But sometimes there is a very beautiful evil woman, the enchanting
witch. Then she becomes even more ugly, just because she is so
beautiful. Her beauty enhances her ugliness. If a person is tortured in a
beautiful palace, in a beautiful room with a lovely shape, the torture
becomes more horrible. That’s why tortures normally take place in
dungeons, ugly places, more in conformity with the ugliness of the deed.
 
Question: Can we depict the negative?
Yes, we can portray corruption, murder and all the bad things in the
world around us. We can protest in our art and show how ugly and bad
these things are. But we must be very careful because the artists around
us, the modern artists, also depict these things, though in a very
different way. In the way of gnosticism they say that this whole world is
bad. But if one paints rape as rape in order to say it’s rape and therefore
it’s bad, one has made a beautiful picture. At least, possibly so. In
literature, in theatre or film it is possible to have very strong moments
that talk about things that are very ugly. If they are shown in their
ugliness, they are true. A film that I found wanting, just to give an
example, is Barbara Streisand’s The Way We Were. It begins: leftwing girl,
rightwing boy, meet each other, fall in love, but things are difficult, they
have such different understandings and lifestyles. He’s a writer, she
becomes his conscience, as it were, and they marry. Well, people who
marry leftwing-rightwing, they find it difficult. And the film shows us the
difficulties. And it works, and it’s fine, it’s fantastic! They go to
Hollywood and he becomes a very famous filmmaker and so on. Up until
that point the film is fine and beautiful. But at a certain moment the
man compromises. And that can happen – that’s wrong, that’s ugly, he
shouldn’t have compromised but he did, that’s human. But then, how
do they solve it?
 
Well, in the film they could find only this trite solution
that the marriage has to break up, and so there is a divorce. On the very
day the baby is born, the man leaves. In the next shot you see the woman
ten years later, still a leftwing girl walking around with a ‘Ban the Bomb’
protest march, and you see the man going into the Hilton with a
beautiful woman for a fantastic dinner: a leftwing versus a rightwing
attitude to life. I would say that at the moment of the divorce that film
became a total lie! And it’s bad propaganda, because it makes people
think that they can have a divorce that easily. But I know from
experience with people who come to L’Abri that it doesn’t work that way.
The man would never have written another book in his life and the
woman would have come, let’s say, to L’Abri and we would have had a
long and hard time just to help her live a normal human life again. It
doesn’t work like that, it’s a lie. It’s a lie because it goes against reality,
and the wrongness of the film is that it doesn’t show that. It has a very
sweet, sentimental ending where it could have had a strong and real one.
We always have to do two things, namely to show ugliness as ugly and
to hold up beauty as beautiful. If we don’t do both at the same time the
result will always be found wanting. Because then beauty becomes
sentimental or we become gnostic in saying the world is bad. There is
always a tension between accepting that we live in a sinful and broken
world and at the same time not accepting it. Both acceptance and
nonacceptance need to be shown, and they need to be shown together in
their inner tension.
 
Question: But isn’t Rubens’s painting a lie as well? Does it not suggest rape?
No, it doesn’t suggest rape. The picture talks about strong
marriage relationships. It uses rape as a metaphor but it’s not a story
about rape. The other picture shows rape in the bad sense, but this one
is not about a real rape – Rubens never said: ‘If you rape a woman it’s
beautiful.’ He would have said: ‘That’s ugly. But the married situation is
fantastic, because then woman becomes an inspiration to the man.’ And
if anyone in the world could say that, it was Rubens himself. He was
married twice and both times very happily. He has depicted his wives,
also in the nude, because they were his inspiration, in a physical way but
in a much deeper way as well.
 
So you misunderstand the word ‘rape’ in the title of the painting,
because the work brings us into deep realities. Seventeenth-century
pictures always stress the strong relationship between man and woman.
Rape in the sense of real rape you find in the etching by Rubens of the
wife of Potiphar. There you have sheer sex in all its ugliness. Rubens and
Rembrandt always show a very high regard for women – not as sex
objects (that is twentieth-century) but in the fullness of their humanity.
The woman is shown as an inspiration to the man, and not only in
relation to her body, because then we get into the Playboy kind of thing.
It is not the playgirl that inspires the playboy to be horny! But it is the
woman in the fullness of her womanhood that inspires the man to be a
real man and to do great deeds in the world. And it can only be done if
they live together in a very close relationship, because the strongest unit
in the world is a marriage in which the partners are fully man and fully
woman. And that’s what Rubens is telling us about. This is clear in all of
his other pictures and it’s so clear when you read seventeenth-century
literature. They had a much better and healthier view of marriage than
many people around us today, even in Christian circles. Their ideals
were much better than ours, and much less sentimental.
 
Question: Do we then need to have knowledge of all that is implicit in these
artworks in order to be able to understand what they are saying?
No. I did start off by saying that you see what you know, and of course
your knowledge is implied. But it’s not true that one can only
understand a painting when one has a lot of art-historical knowledge.
That is drawing a wrong conclusion out of a right definition. What we
chance upon here is exactly the greatness of seventeenth-century art.
I’m not saying that there is no criticism to be made of Rubens, but I
think we should begin with giving honour where honour is due. Rubens
is one of the greatest artists in the world. He was a man who at least at
this point had a very deep understanding, which he was able to express
very beautifully. So, let’s not begin with criticism but end with it, very
softly in the case of this painting. Rubens’s art, as well as Dutch and other
seventeenth-century art, works in layers. So, if you’re walking in a palace
with Rubens’s Rape of the daughters of King Leucippus hanging on the
wall, what you see is a very beautiful ornament. Fantastic colours. You
can pass it by like that. But when you stop and you look at it, what you
see is this: movement, magnificently painted women and men. That is
the next layer. Then you begin to ask about the story. What does it tell
me? Next you reflect on the implications of the story. Why was it used?
 
I tried to clarify the meaning of subject matter in seventeenth-century art
with my scheme of motifs and themes. The painting is not just telling a
little story but the story is used to depict a motif. Once you have
understood the motif, you can go deeper and deeper until you end with
the universal: that love is so important. And then you begin to see that
this is one of the greatest works of art. Now when you come to Munich
for the first time and you stand in front of that painting, you are not able
to talk about it like I am doing now. That’s obvious, because I am a
professor in the history of art and you are not. But that does not mean
that I see things that you do not see. Because the moment I start seeing
things that you do not see there is something wrong.
 
Maybe there is something wrong here. Maybe you were raised in the
wrong framework. Let me try to clarify this with a story. I gave this same
lecture with the Rubens painting half a year ago in Calgary. During the
lecture some people left the room. And the next day many people came
up to me and said: ‘Are these nudes not obscene? Is that not
pornography?’ Well, when one person comes to you like that, you think
to yourself: ‘Maybe I overrated my audience, maybe I made a mistake,
maybe I didn’t make myself clear, of course these people are not
accustomed to this type of thing, after all they live in Calgary.’ But when
people kept on asking me the same thing, I became very worried. Two
evenings ago I gave a lecture about God’s salvation and our calling.
When I had finished, someone said to me: ‘I have a question: if a
Christian is an artist and he goes to an art school, is that a good thing,
for he has to paint nudes and so on?’ What is happening here? Are you
not living people? You can compare it with this: say you are going to start
a new bank. You need to have money, a building, personnel, and to have
an understanding of banking and money problems. But if you would
then come to me and tell me that you are worrying all the time about
where you are going to buy the paper for your office, I would say that
maybe you shouldn’t start a bank, because your mind is too fixed on
insignificant things. Well, if you talk about art, you don’t talk about
nudity. It’s such a little thing in relation to the big things!
 
Of course nudity is a loaded thing. Why? Not because the nude is so
loaded, but because humanity is so loaded and reality is so loaded. And
it’s good to think about it, but we shouldn’t make it too strong. I get
really worried when people in America always talk about it. I think it’s
completely out of context. It’s a little thing, not a big thing. It’s so
beautiful. And if anybody wants to drag the Rubens down and say that it
is pornography, I really get angry because they don’t know what they are
talking about and they are debasing the world. They say that something
that is beautiful is ugly. That’s rape, rape of the beauty of that woman in
that painting. I’m worried about America, I’m worried about
Christianity. Why are we talking about it? Is it small legalism? Is it
sentimentality? Is reality in which men are men and women are women
too strong for us? Having bodies? I’m worried that we may end up as
people who don’t have bodies, who don’t live, who are dead people! This
reminds me of the question of a hippie, and I think it is one of the most
forceful questions we have to answer. And we as Christians have the
answer, and we have to live the answer. The question is: Is there life
before death?
 
So maybe you were raised in a wrong framework and I’m
challenging that framework, the legalistic fundamentalism. The answer
to fundamentalism is not to jump into the world and become worldly,
but the right response is to get back to the Scriptures because the
Scriptures do embrace life in all its fullness. People in the past said it is
impossible that the Song of Songs could be about the relationship
between men and women, it has to be a kind of metaphor for Christ and
the church. Well, of course, the Bible is full of this: the relationship
between Christ and the Christian community is that of the bride and the
groom. Therefore the Song of Songs is also talking about Christ and the
church. But in the first place it’s talking about the relationship between
a man and a woman. We barely dare to read it at table to our children
because it’s so strong, strong with all the beauties of life. God says in
Ezekiel: ‘I found you lying naked in the wilderness. And you were
bathing in your blood, you were a newborn baby. And I bathed you and
I raised you, and then you became beautiful and your breasts were like
towers . . .’ And so on. That’s the way God speaks about it in the Bible,
not as a shameful thing but as something beautiful. Why do we try to
rape the Bible and take these things out of it?
 
Question: Why are evangelical or fundamentalistic people in America
so very tight about nudity in art?
Somebody gave me a very interesting answer recently: ‘It is because
they have always used that little tag to avoid talking about art.’ As a
result, when anyone begins to talk about art, the very first thing they
respond with is: ‘O yes, but then you have to go to college and draw
nudes and that’s no good.’ Then they don’t need to think about it any
further. So they cling to this little question to avoid the big questions.
Even so the interest in art is growing and there are many young Christian
artists, which is a very new situation and one I’m very happy about. It’s
so important that artists are there, for there will never be a real
reformation without the arts, because the arts bring it to us.
Nevertheless there are questions, and I am not denying that. We
need to look at these things from a historical perspective, with an
understanding of history and culture, but twentieth-century people tend
to be weak in this respect. I remember some years ago saying to an
audience of nice American girls from some university: ‘You must
understand as you’re all sitting here very nicely dressed that if we
happened to be in Bali, of course, you would all be considered very
immoral. For in Bali women walk around with the upper part of their
body uncovered but for a woman to show her ankles is considered
obscene.’ Cultural customs do play a big role. And we should be very
careful to judge other cultures. When people, let’s say in Japan, bathe
together in the nude that doesn’t mean that they are immoral people; it
only means that they have a different way of doing things.
 
In Europe since the beginning of Christianity the attitude to nudity
has always been ambiguous. Sometimes people said yes, sometimes they
said no. Some of the things they did we may find strange, but it’s our own
time that I find very strange indeed. When I go on an excursion with my
students it’s impossible for boys to sleep in the same room as girls. And
everybody would think it very strange if that should happen. But at the
same time these same boys and girls read things and look at things that
everyone in a previous age (and that is perhaps just ten years ago) would
have considered wrong. There’s a strange tension in our world in that
things which are not acceptable are considered acceptable while
acceptable things are considered unacceptable.
 
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there was on the whole a
much more healthy approach to these things than there is today. People
were not prudish. There is a very interesting story I want to mention:
during the time of Cromwell there was an Englishman who travelled in
Holland and kept a diary. He tells us about his experiences when he
visited Delft. What he talks about was not anything extraordinary but
something very normal. He went to stay at an inn. As he came in he
asked: ‘Do you have a bed for me?’ And they said: ‘Yes.’ He ate and
drank something and then the guests were ushered to the sleeping hall.
There were no small rooms, just one or two big rooms with many beds.
And in these beds women, men or couples would sleep. And as they all
slept naked in those days (they didn’t have any pyjamas) everybody
would undress, because that is how one would go to bed. And nobody
thought anything about it; it was the most natural thing. So this
Englishman describes how he woke up in the morning and saw a lovely
lady wake up and rise. He says: ‘And I looked as she dressed, because
this Dutch fashion is such an interesting thing. It’s so different and
wonderful.’ Later on he mentions how he didn’t dare to kiss the hand of
that lady because that was something one just did not touch. So they
were not prudish, but at the same time they had strong morals.
 
In the homes of those days the beds were in the living-room. In
Holland they were built into the walls, and one found that in many
European countries. So, let’s say you were having a gathering in the
evening and the daughter of the house said: ‘It’s time for me to go to
bed, for tomorrow I have to wake up early. You gentlemen, you just talk
on.’ Then she would go to bed, and that would happen in the room. All
this changed in the middle of the eighteenth century, one of those very
difficult passages in history. Somewhere around 1730 or 1740 there was
a medical doctor in Lausanne who published a little book about
masturbation saying that masturbation causes sicknesses. He had made
it all up, but everyone believed him. And people started to consider lust
as something sinful or bad or ugly. Someone in Holland recently made
a very extensive study of this. And this man, who is not a Christian, came
to the conclusion that the change occurred first of all in humanistic
circles. Humanism brought in the change and about ten to fifteen years
later the Christians followed suit – which to me is a tragic moment in
history. Why did the humanists have such a negative attitude towards lust
and the body? Well, just imagine a duke reading in his library. He’s
reading the latest thing: Diderot and the Encyclopaedia from France. He’s
very well educated and he reads French. And so he reads: ‘What is a
man?’ The answer is basically this: ‘There is no difference between
people and animals and plants and things.’ There is no difference,
people are just like the animals. Who said that people were so different?
 
Of course this was meant to be a very violent antichristian statement. It
was also something completely unproven. Suppose the duke who was
reading that book then says: ‘Wonderful what this man is saying, it’s
great, fantastic, convincing.’ An hour later his wife, the duchess, comes
in. As he has just been reading that there is no difference between
people and animals, when the duchess comes in, basically, she is
equivalent to a female rabbit. And he is a rabbit, and they produce
children. But it’s a little bit difficult to look at the duchess, who is a very
cultured person, as a kind of rabbit. So, what should one do? Well, in
order to accept Diderot and the Encyclopaedia and all that went with it,
one had to save one’s humanity. And in order to save one’s humanity
one had to push human carnality right out of the picture, which people
certainly did. That’s my explanation of why people became so prudish.
 
In the nineteenth century people even went so far that little girls
could have an operation to take away a little piece of their body in order
that they would never enjoy sex, because sex was so lustful and sinful. It
went that far, I’m not inventing this. But as a Christian I would say that
if God gave women that little part, even if it is there only for sexual
arousal and enjoyment, then we’re not going to say it’s wrong. We have
to accept it from God’s hand and say thank you. It was really wrong that
the Christians followed the humanists. It’s very interesting that nowadays
the humanists violently reject the repression of sex and have turned
around to an overindulgence in sex. But Christians, being afraid of the
overindulgence – and it’s good not to go along with it – cling to the
repression instead of raising their own voice and saying clearly what is
good. I am not saying that it is easy to have a right balance, but we do
need to rethink these things.
 
Even if we do gain a new perspective on sex and nudity and our
bodies, this doesn’t mean that we can change everything . . . by
tomorrow. There’s too much emotion involved, because these things are
so very deep and important. Also, the way we were raised and the things
that have been brought to us from our own background go very deep
and it’s very difficult to just jump out of them. So, when a young artist
comes to me and he says: ‘I’m in the academy, but I have difficulties in
going to the life-drawing class’ my first reaction would be: ‘Why don’t
you try it, because you will find out in five minutes that it’s not as you
think. It has nothing to do with sex. But if you continue to have
difficulties, you know there’s Christian freedom and there’s no one
who’s going to force you.’ Just as Paul said: if you cannot eat meat
because for you the meat is contaminated, then don’t eat it because you
cannot go against your conscience. Though there is a very interesting
passage in the Bible, in one of the letters of John, where it’s written: if
your conscience goes against you, but God says you can do it, God knows
better, so don’t be afraid. However, if someone comes to me and says: ‘I
really can’t do that, it’s against my conscience,’ I would say: ‘Never force
yourself.’ Because whatever we do we must do to the honour of God.
Even if there’s freedom to draw nude figures, this should never be
forced upon anyone. But I would also like to stress that we should think
these issues through carefully. If personally we cannot do certain things,
we should not do them. But that does not mean others who can do those
things are sinful and wrong.
 
Published inM. Hengelaar-Rookmaaker (ed.): H.R. Rookmaaker:
The Complete Works 3, Piquant – Carlisle, 2003. Also obtainable
as a CD-Rom.