“[T]he culture of the United States has always been one of massive internal contradictions,” Bram Dijkstra writes in his monumental Naked: The Nude in America, “in which surface harmonies breed countercultures that merely represent the dualistic opposite of the previously dominant cultural pieties.” Dijkstra targets the most “massive internal contradiction” of American society—a puritanically sexually repressed country that produces and consumes behind closed doors more pornography than any other spot on the globe. In Naked, Dijkstra lays bare the counterculture of art celebrating the human body through nude art while simultaneously reflecting the neuroses of the repressive mainstream. To borrow a phrase from Billy Idol, Dijkstra presents “flesh for fantasy” first as the nightmare of Puritanism and, more hopefully, as the perhaps impossible dream of a mature, open society.

“Passion scares people. Naked passion terrifies,” Dijkstra explains. “As a result, the occasional nude displayed on our museum walls is virtually never of the ‘catch your breath’ variety.” Throughout Naked you’ll find “catch your breath” nudes one after another, ably matched by Dijkstra’s breathtaking prose. Professor emeritus of comparative literature and cultural history at the University of California, San Diego, Dijkstra brings those interests as well as an encyclopedic knowledge of the nude in American art to bear. One of the reasons these nudes startle is their sheer obscurity—a lockdown Dijkstra condemns as a continuation of societal repression by curators, sometimes due to outside pressures, but often stemming from internal censorship. In Dijkstra’s eyes, the nude represents all the forces of American society rumbling beneath the placid surface. In this book, that force literally explodes on the page and reveals a vibrant current of near-forgotten art and social history. These “sociocritical” nudes straddle the worlds of art and society effortlessly like colossi once unchained by Dijkstra’s analysis.

Like the perfect mate, Naked is smart, sexy, and subversively funny. The brains behind the beauty of the images appears on every page. Dijkstra climbs the ladder of lowbrow to highbrow culture continually and spans the gap of every rung. One common thread running throughout is the dueling nature of the female and male nude in American art and culture. While male nudes run from Hercules to Superman, female nudes morph from mythological dream girls to vampiric temptresses to tomboy pin-up queens to Playboy centerfolds. In such an analysis, Bettie Page becomes “that tomboy pinup with a grown-up woman’s body toward which the pop culture of the entire first half of the century had been building.” Even cheesecake Bettie becomes a sociocritical figure of sorts in Dijkstra’s hands. That alchemy makes works such as Martha Rosler’s Body Beautiful, or Beauty Knows No Pain: Hot House, or Harem, a landscape of centerfold nudes posed in a relentless landscape of horizontal poses, even more striking in their judgment of American society’s approach to the human, usually female, body. The choice of Rosler’s work for the endpapers of the book announces before you even read the first word that this isn’t your grandfather or grandmother’s coffee table book.

The sexiness of Naked seems obvious from the imagery, but comes across most powerfully in Dijkstra’s wish for a healthier brand of sex for America. In a chapter titled “Art, Prurience, Pop, or Porn?,” Dijkstra asks that “if imagery that feeds our fantasies by obliterating otherness (the source of creative diversity) is pornographic, that also means that much of contemporary advertising… is nothing but a form of socially acceptable pornography.” Blatant sex sells everything in our society except the idea that human sexuality is perfectly normal and beautiful. The works Dijkstra pulls from the cultural dungeon, banished there by charges of pornography, better serve society than the perfume and clothing ads featuring models presumably caught just after the act. Reading Naked reminded me of just how un-sexy Kenneth Clark’s outdated but still-classic The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form was, as if in sheer defiance of the subject at hand. Rather than deal in bloodless ideals, Dijkstra works in flesh and blood, with his ideals rising from flesh and not classical fantasy.

The subversiveness comes from Dijkstra’s playful approach to the subject. Pulp fiction covers and pin-ups line up next to classic American artists such as Thomas Eakins, Edward Hopper, Alice Neel, and others. Chapter titles such as “Discovery of the Pubes,” “Invasion of the Pinup Queens,” and (my favorite) “The Inexorable Rise of the Breast” keep the discussion light and fun while dealing with serious issues.

Dijkstra ends on a hopeful note by pointing out contemporary artists depicting the nude in a refreshingly open and sociocritical way. Wade Reynolds, Eric Fischl, Jock Sturges, Damian Loeb, Natalie Frank, and Nan Goldin are just some of the names Dijkstra nominates for wider recognition. Goldin’s Kate Moss on a White Horse (shown above) places the supermodel on a startling white horse to invite comparisons of “parallel beauty,” Dijkstra writes, in “an image whose meaning for the viewer is ultimately controlled by the woman’s penetrating gaze.” Such images reconstitute the human figure disfigured and destroyed by Willem de Kooning and other modernists whose ideas still hold sway in contemporary art circles.

Dijkstra laments today’s “art world run by dealers who seem to have decided that honest passion, direct statement, and humane values don’t sell.” “To counteract this calcification of the concept of art,” Dijkstra suggests as a solution a combining of “some of the more populist, traditional methods of expression that have come to be disparaged over the last sixty years with a new, contemporary sense of the sociocritical motive in art.” Whether Dijkstra’s solution is an attainable goal or pure fantasy remains to be seen, but Naked: The Nude in America certainly shows a new side of the potential of the nude to examine the past and present and point to a new future.

[Image: Nan Goldin. Kate Moss on a White Horse. High-Gate Cemetery, London. 2001. Photograph © Copyright Nan Goldin.]

[Many thanks to Rizzoli for providing me with the image above from and a review copy of Naked: The Nude in America by Bram Dijkstra.]