mass media and the human body

It is certainly time for an examination of conscience on the way mass media reproduces the human body — often for objectification by global audiences. One of the challenges of television is that it reproduces an actual human form in a context that is divorced from the subject. On TV, we are experiencing an actual human body only virtually, and completely out-of-context. The problem is not simply that the intimate parts of the human body are being viewed by a person other than one’s spouse – outside the context of marital love – and that suddenly the whole world becomes a party to this revelation… this is problematic enough. But even if there were only one person viewing the screen, and one person being viewed, the fact remains that there is no actual communication between these two people. When two people are present to each other in the same room, it doesn’t even make sense to refer to one party as the “viewer.” We are talking in this case about a reciprocal experience of one another, something that magazines, television, film, and (to a large extent) the Internet cannot provide.

The Pope does discuss this issue in his audiences, and here I will merely reprint Christopher West’s helpful gloss on the audiences from April and May of 1981:

A real danger exists of objectifying the naked body through artistic portrayal. John Paul describes this as the danger of anonymity, which is a way of “veiling” or “hiding” the identity of the person reproduced. Through photography in particular, the Pope observes that the body very often becomes an “anonymous” object, especially when the images of a person’s body are diffused on the screens of the whole world. Despite their similarities, John Paul notes an important difference between photographing the naked body and portraying it in the plastic arts. In painting or sculpture, the body undergoes a specific elaboration on the part of the artist, whereas in photography an image of an actual, living person is reproduced. Thus photography has even greater need of ensuring the visibility of the interior person. When this fails to happen, “the human body loses that deeply subjective meaning of the gift and becomes an object destined for the knowledge of many”. Hence, both the artist who portrays the body and those who view the artist’s work must be aware of their obligation to uphold the dignity of the body as a sign of the gift of persons. From this perspective, John Paul speaks not only of the “ethos of the image,” but also the “ethos of the viewing.”

Creating an atmosphere favorable to chastity in the media and the arts, then, involves recognizing “a reciprocal circuit” which takes place between the image and the seeing. This can be explained by the reciprocity found in actual interpersonal relationships. In genuine relationships, John Paul says that the human body in its nakedness becomes the source of a particular interpersonal “communication.” It is “understood as a manifestation of the person and his gift” – as a “sign of trust and donation to the other person.” Thus, we can conclude with the Holy Father that nakedness does not offend nor elicit shame when man and woman are “conscious of the gift” given and have “resolved to respond to it in an equally personal way.”

A further problem arises, however. Even when an artist portrays the human body intending to illuminate its true nuptial meaning, he cannot always know how the recipient of his work will respond. “In fact, that ‘element of the gift’ is, so to speak, suspended in the dimension of an unknown reception and an unforeseen response.” In this way it is threatened in the sense that it may become an anonymous object of appropriation and abuse. “It cannot be forgotten,” as John Paul reminds us, “that the fundamental interior situation of ‘historical’ man is the state of threefold lust.” Through the ethos of redemption this lust can be gradually overcome. Unfortunately, however, not everyone embraces the ethos of redemption. In our fallen world, that “original shame, known already from the first chapters of the Bible, is a permanent element of culture and morals.” Furthermore, even if the negative sense of shame can, with fervent effort, be gradually overcome, we must not forget the positive function of shame which always maintains a certain veil of respect for the dignity and mystery of others as persons.

– Christopher West, from Theology of the Body Explained, “Portraying the Naked Body in Art”

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