Part 3: The Nude vs Naked in Pole Dancing

I am pleased to be resuming my academic post series, which has had a brief hiatus due to the fact that a couple of my blogs were a little controversial and blew up slightly. I needed to take a short break from these ‘heavier’ subjects and just write some lighter pieces for you guys. BUT, I am BACK and I cannot wait to get down into these meatier topics again for you.

If you haven’t read the start of this series, now is you chance to catch up. Previously I have written…

Part 1: The Aesthetics of Acceptable Sexy

Part 2: Cults of Superiority 

This discussion will be focusing on ‘the nude’ versus ‘the naked’, which will pick up on theories and ideas that I introduced in Part 1 of the series. I find this argument particularly interesting because it can explain why a painting with very similar content to an adult magazine can be seen as Art, when the other is seen as low culture, as mentioned in Part 2. It also explains why one pole dancing performance can be considered tasteful and artistic, whereas another is considered lewd and crass, despite similar sizes in costumes, and amount of skin on show.

Nude vs Naked: What’s the difference?

Really, technically speaking, there is no difference between being nude and being naked… They both refer to the body in a state of undress. However, these terms are very loaded, particularly when it comes to moral and artistic judgments, i.e. it is totally fine to pose nude, but awfully vulgar to pose naked.

Nude is a term used in fine art to describe depictions of individuals, often women but not exclusively, in various stages of undress. These can be paintings, photographs, sculptures and any other medium of creative outlet available to you. Of course, there is the implicit proviso that these depictions of nudity will be classy, elegant or beautiful, in order to distinguish them from the same depictions of the bare body that you would find in other, more accessible and ‘tacky’ media outlets.

Naked is used to describe the bare body in representations that are not considered classy or artistic. Sometimes this can relate to the perceived ‘function’ of the image, i.e. adult materials, and may also refer to more immediate forms of representation such as photography and film, rather than painting and sculpture. Of course, this is not to say there isn’t much crossover within film and photography, as there are plenty of examples of ‘nudes’ within these categories also, but photography crosses many boundaries between the artistic and commercial world that other mediums simply do not.

Kenneth Clark’s description of these boundaries is likely the most famous theorisation of the differences between naked and nude. He described naked to be ‘deprived’ of clothes, to be associated with shame, whereas the nude is the body transformed through art, therefore transgressing the shame of the naked form. To Clark, the nude communicates power, whereas naked implies helplessness. Which actually, is very interesting, because power dynamics are such a sticky and complicated issue when it comes to female empowerment and sensuality, especially when it comes to pole. But, this will be a discussion for another day though. 

Left: Melinda Messenger, Page 3 model Right: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Large Bathers, 1884-1887

How this relates to Part 1 and Part 2?

Aesthetic principles are often called upon in order to distinguish between the naked and the nude. In particular formal qualities, i.e. the materials used to make the piece, and how the image is constructed through colour, technique or style, are all used in order to distinguish an unclothed figure as nude rather than naked.

The nude is considered morally neutral and artistic by virtue of the transformation of the figure through whichever artistic medium, paint, clay etc. This communicates to the viewer ‘my purpose is to be looked at and appreciated as art work’. These works have a clear purpose, and that is to represent something more than just a sexy lady in very little clothing.

Works depicting a ‘naked’ figure however will have a more utilitarian function, i.e. they are to goggle and drool over. If you saw someone getting aroused in an art museum you would probably be a little worried, but many paintings depict the undressed body far more graphically and sexually than many of the adverts or popular culture we now consider ‘lewd’. The naked body is not ‘transformed’ via its medium, but rather simply captured, this is why the naked will usually be photographic or film.

Because one (the nude) is associated with fine art, it is therefore elevated to a higher cultural product, as a result it is considered a culturally valuable output. The other, the naked body, is associated with low culture, and therefore seen to be for the uneducated. No refinement or ‘transcendent Kantian aesthetics’ come in to play here, the reaction to the works is both emotional and physical, which Kant asserts a work of art cannot be.

Naked vs Nude on the pole dancing stage

Our understanding of cultural output (i.e. all of the images, works, and stuff that we create and ‘put out there’) is shaped by these concepts of what is acceptable and what is not, what is high culture and what is low, what is transcendent and what is utilitarian. The attitudes towards pole dancing are not removed from this.

The truth is that sexy pole dancers, artistic pole dancers, and all other styles of pole, broadly wear a similar amount of clothing. Yes there may be an inch here, a concealed gluteal fold there, or a high neckline and floaty skirt, but at the end of the day, we all get onto that stage wearing far less than what many of the general public would deem acceptable.

You’ve seen the memes that compare pole dancer’s outfits and moves to those of Olympic athletes (and don’t get me started, just head on over to Toni the Poleitical Pole Dancer’s blog to read more on THAT issue), but the reason that pole is subject to a ‘stigma’ is because it has been culturally categorised as ‘naked’ rather than ‘nude’, and that is considered a bad thing guys!!! *shock horror* Naked is shame, nude is enlightening.

Many in the pole world have clocked on to this and have therefore sought to ‘elevate’ pole, to make it more artistic and therefore acceptable. They have taken the skimpy costumes (which they do still need to wear due to the necessity for grip) and tried to off set the bare skin by making stylistic decisions that align their performance with something closer to ‘high culture’ and Kantian aesthetics of disinterestedness. They strip (pun NOT intended but I’ll take it) the sexy out of pole, and say ‘look, you ain’t getting aroused by this, you are simply in awe of my grace and beauty’, therefore ‘transcending’ corporeal reactions and removing pole from it’s very functional roots (as an arousing form of dance within the sex industry), transforming it into a ‘classy’ or ‘intellectual’ pursuit that is ‘worthy’ of artistic status. Their dance choices are their brush strokes as it were, transforming the naked body into something more palletable. 

Now, this is all fine. Do whatever you want. Have pole as functionally arousing, or have it as this poetic thing. But as I touched upon in Cults of Superiority, the issues arise when we begin thinking that one is better than the other, or one is more noble and more respectful. The issues arise when we say one can be ‘Art’ and the another cannot, and then assert judgement calls based upon these categories.

Origin of the World: Gustave Courbet

The categorisation of the naked vs the nude is completely subjective and arbitrary. Some dramatic black and white lighting, or a paint brush, and  a porn star can become a refined work of art. After all, most of the women who posed for these great ‘masterpieces’ that now hang in our galleries were actually sex workers, because no ‘respectable’ women would pose for the painters.

Likewise, many art works were considered crude and morally wrong when originally produced, Egon Schiele for example was arrested for the works that he produced, because they were considered pornographic, now he is a prized collectors item and found in galleries all over the world.  Others were commissioned by pervy male art collectors probably looking for some titillation and sexual excitement, such is one theory pertaining to the Origin of the World by Gustave Courbet. Context is everything, and we cannot let it dictate what we do and don’t accept from our pole world, but I will discuss that in more depth in a later blog post.


I had already mapped out the full series, but I do think I want to add in a discussion about the ‘male gaze’. Yes, this is a discussion that had been done to death, but this is MY blog series dammit and I’ll write whatever I want!!! I’m also excited to look more in depth into the issue of context and shifting attitudes towards nudity and sexuality. Ahhh, it is safe to say that I’m glad to be back guys.

If you have any questions pop them into the comments below…

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