I have spent a lot of time defending the use of nudes in art. The school at which I received my undergraduate degree was strictly against it, and my parents were less than enthusiastic about the idea. Still, I went off campus during those early years to learn how to draw. Not just to learn how to draw a nude person, but to learn how to draw everything through the use of the nude. Back at school I was scolded by the faculty.
To begin my defense of the nude I would like to make a distinction between studying the nude as an educational experience, and using the nude in artwork. As an educational aspect the nude is an appropriate source of study for anyone learning how to draw. The intention of all work done in a classroom setting is for learning purposes. John Ruskin says in his book Elements of Drawing that he would tell his students that they were not there to draw trees, but to learn to draw trees. A few drawings or paintings may stand above the rest causing the artist to want to exhibit that work, but that is not for everyone. While it's a good idea for anyone learning to draw to use the nude, it is not at all necessary for all artists to exhibit nude work. The intention is different. So I am primarily going to give reasons why studying the nude figure is helpful, and I'll leave use of nudes as an expressive subject and the exhibiting of nude art to everyone's own personal taste. With a completely opposite perspective, my undergraduate program was against the study of the nude, yet they adored the art of Renaissance masters.
1 - Difficulty: It is true that if you can learn to draw the human figure sensitively and accurately then you can draw anything. The reason for this is our familiarity with the human form. As humans, we develop visual symbols for things that we are familiar with. Consider the common triangle symbol for trees or the gingerbread shaped house. I still find myself using these symbols as well as stick figures when drawing with my children. There is a comfort to it. The thing that we are most familiar with in this world is our own bodies yet few have really observed the human body with a discerning eye. If we can break the symbols of that with which we are most familiar then we can break the symbols for anything. There is a quote by psychologist Rudolf Anheim taken from the book The Undressed Art by Peter Steinhart which says "The human body is a particularly complex pattern, not easily reduced to the simplicity of shape and motion. The body transmits compelling expressions. Also, it is overloaded with non-visual associations. The human figure is the most difficult vehicle of artistic expression." So in drawing the human form we are not only having to get past the hurdles of symbols for the exterior, but also are challenged to record the non-visual emotions of a human being.
2 - Tradition: Take a look through art history. Our fascination with the human form is apparent in the statue called Venus of Willendorf which is estimated to be around 24,000 years old.
3 - Beauty: The human body is an absolutely beautiful creation in all of its complexity and diversity. This is a beauty way beyond the idealized and hyper-sexualized beauty in mass media. Take the time to draw another person and you will witness beauty that has nothing to do with accepted norms of attractiveness. Creating a beautiful drawing or painting from this gift given to you by the model is the difficult part.
In Steinhart's book he describes what someone would experience for the first time in a figure drawing class. He says "...you'd forget that these people are naked and go on gazing, at first fascinated with the variety and immense range of difference in bodies and then struck with how expressive they are. You would quickly feel a human connection, a kind of compassion with them. You might also begin to feel that there is immense dignity, energy, even beauty in them. And somewhere along the line you might realize that you are more or less abandoned to your gaze, that there is something fundamentally human in your curiosity."
As I said earlier, to study is one thing and to exhibit is something else. There is an incredible group show called "Nude and Figurative Works" at Fischer Galleries in Fondren up through March. If you are uncomfortable or offended by the human figure then it is probably not the show for you, but if not then I would highly encourage you to check it out. Witness some fantastic work by artists who chose to be inspired by and not intimidated by our humanity. Here is a sampling of the work...
Aron - Leaning