Before face-touching became potentially lethal, my friend Dave had a lot of lovers. Now he makes do with nude selfies. He doesn’t even request them, he says. They appear as if by magic. “I wake up and they are just there.”
“I keep getting explicit photos from people I thought were just my friends,” says Matthew, an artist in Providence, R.I. He adds, “It’s nice to know they’re thinking of me.”
Since the pandemic began, sex has changed: It’s imagined, monogamous, Zoomed or Skyped. And nude selfies have become one symbol of resilience, a refusal to let social distancing render us sexless. Nude selfies are no longer foreplay, a whetting of a lover’s appetite, but the whole meal.
Though the debate about art versus pornography has never been settled, a case can be made that quarantine nude selfies are art. Some of us finally have time to make art, and this is the art we are making: carefully posed, cast in shadows, expertly filtered. These aren’t garish below-the-belt shots under fluorescent lighting, a half-used roll of toilet paper in the background. They are solicited or spontaneous. They are gifts to partners in separate quarantines, friends who aren’t exactly friends, unmet Hinge matches and exes. (Exes are popping up like Wack-a-Moles these days.)
“Before the quarantine, I navigated under a ‘nudes are for boyfriends’ rule,” says Zoe, a marketing assistant in Los Angeles. “Something special for someone I trust. But in times of loneliness I turn to serial dating and now that plays out via virtual connections.”
Kat, an artist in Arizona who just lost her uncle to Covid-19, has been enjoying the creative process of making and sending sexy selfies over a secure app called Wire to a bartender she met overseas just before the coronavirus ended nonessential travel. “Not to distract from feeling my feelings,” she clarifies. “This is just the human experience, isn’t it? Love. Death. Sex.”
If historically the nude form in art suggested power in men (think sculptures of Greek athletes) and sexuality in women (think Francisco de Goya’s “La Maja Desnuda” and every other painting of a woman by a man), nude selfies, especially now, imbue the subject with both. The sexuality component is obvious, the power component contextual: the power to seduce without touch, to connect when physical contact is life-threatening, to impress while we’re home and unemployed (and sweat-suited) and to stir up a strong reaction miles away.
“There has always been a subterranean culture of salacious communication, from love letters to fiction to erotic imagery added to manuscripts, as a way of escaping the constraints of reality,” says Constant Mews, the director of the Center for Religious Studies at Monash University in Australia. He sends me to a Pinterest page called Medieval Erotics. He refers me to “The Decameron,” the Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century literary response to the Black Plague, a collection of 100 short stories in which characters, desperate for distraction from all that illness and death, entertain one another with often bawdy tales. In modern life, has reality ever been so constraining? Has technology ever provided such escapism?
Beyond our Wi-Fi, we don’t have much in the way of connection. Many of us are alone and live in small spaces. We lack the distractions we’re accustomed to and the routines we rely on. But some of the most famous self-portraiture resulted from a dearth of resources. Rembrandt was his own subject in large part because he couldn’t afford a model. Frida Kahlo began painting herself when she was unwell and bedridden and all she could see was a mirror. When Vincent Van Gogh found himself without models, he looked to himself: “ … if I can manage to paint the coloring of my own head,” he wrote to his brother, “which is not to be done without some difficulty, I shall likewise be able to paint the heads of other good souls, men and women.”
The nude human form as a subject of art dates back tens of thousands of years to explicit cave carvings and a woolly mammoth tusk-ivory sculpture: Though headless and small enough to wear as a pendant, the “Venus of Hohle Fels” has huge, gravity-defying breasts and some semblance of a vagina. She might be 40,000 years old. But nude self-portraiture, especially of women by women wresting free from the male gaze to play both artist and muse, didn’t become popular until the beginning of the 20th century.
“Albrecht Durer did do one fully nude self-portrait around 1503,” Abigail Susik, associate professor of art history at Willamette University, tells me, “but this was probably because he lacked a model.” We all know some of the iconic 20th-century images of the scantily clad, including Frida Kahlo’s tragic painting “The Broken Column” and the photograph of 22-year-old Diane Arbus in her underwear, head cocked as she watches her own reflection.
Dr. Susik also mentions the photographer Hannah Wilke, who made a career of (often nude) self-portraiture straight through to her final harrowing exhibition “Intra-Venus,” photographs of her face and body ravaged by the lymphoma that would kill her. Drawn with crayons, “Self-Portrait Facing Death” is Picasso’s analogous end-of-life work. “Six Self Portraits” is Andy Warhol’s. Many artists, not just painters and photographers, leave a final selfie as a sort of last will and testament: Sylvia Plath published her autobiographical novel “The Bell Jar” shortly before ending her own life. While the poet Agha Shahid Ali was dying, he wrote these haunting lines: “And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee / God sobs in my arms.” David Bowie’s last song, “Lazarus,” begins, “Look up here, I’m in Heaven.” In “Riding With Death,” one of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s last paintings before his fatal drug overdose, a naked brown-skinned man rides a skeleton like a horse.
Though it might require a bit of squinting to see pandemic-era nude selfie-snapping on a par with Basquiat, geniuses hold no monopoly on the instinct to self-preserve. Or on the yearning to be witnessed.
Sending a nude selfie is a request to be witnessed — not objectively, but through rose-tinted (or smooth-filtered) lenses. “When I choose to be seen in this way,” Kat says, “I’m taking an empowered action to receive what we all desire, and what we desire even more now in Covid times: a witness to our own vulnerability, our most private truth.” In “The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form,” Kenneth Clark distinguishes “nude” from “naked,” the latter implying an unwanted lack of clothing: “The word ‘nude,’ on the other hand,” he writes, “carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body re-formed.”
In these disorienting times, we are psychologically naked, but our nudes are aspirational: We are breasts propped on pillows and Facetuned. We are headless, proof that we’re not overthinking or panicking. We are free, cast in a single ray of sunlight, not stuck inside with a vitamin D deficiency. We are taking a risk at a time when we are not allowed to take risks, bearing our bodies with no guaranteed reaction. We hit send and hold our breaths, silently asking until we receive the reply, am I safe am I safe am I safe?
Cover Illustration by Michael Houtz, Animation by Aaron Byrd.