Naked Bodies and the 'Art Frame'
In the summer of 2007, American photographer Spencer Tunick made an installation in the centre of Amsterdam that encompassed 2000 naked people. Tunick’s photographic work concerns different spatial arrangements of large groups of unclothed people in public spaces. In Amsterdam, he positioned naked volunteers on canal bridges and in the Europarking garage, an architectural landmark designed by architects Zanstra, Gmelig Meyling & De Clercq Zubli in the late 1960s. In the photos, the naked bodies are arranged as an articulation or extension of the architectural structures of the environment they are presented in. Commenting on the motivations behind this practice, Tunick emphasizes that he is interested in using naked bodies ‘in an almost abstract form’ and that his work ‘has nothing to do with sex or eroticism.’ (Tunick in Dutch Amsterdam 2007: n.p.). This approach to naked bodies as material to realize aesthetic objectives, regardless of their potential cultural signification, is also apparent in his statement that he uses his website to ‘collect[…] men and women with different skin colors’, whom he is planning to use in the creation of ‘a more painting-like photo […] For example by drawing a line of black bodies through a group of only white bodies.’ (2007: n.p.)
In his approach and rhetoric, Tunick seems to do an effort to place his work into what psychologist Beth Eck (2001) describes as the ‘art frame’ in her study of people’s perception of representations of naked bodies. Drawing from outcomes of focus group experiments in which participants were asked to describe images of naked people, Eck suggests that the interpretation of representations of naked bodies is to a considerable extent dependent on the context they are situated in. She initially identifies three contextual frames: art, information, and pornography. If a representation of a naked body is perceived as (part of) an artwork, it is more likely to be experienced as an aesthetic phenomenon, rather than a sexual (pornographic) spectacle. Likewise, the informational frame of medical drawings prevents depictions of naked bodies in this context from being experienced as sexually explicit and ‘indecent’.
Eck’s findings correspond with art theorist Kenneth Clark’s (1956) suggestion that the presentation of naked bodies in a high art context renders these bodies into ‘nudes’. His writing suggests that ‘nude’ is to be understood as equivalent to a certain form of clothing, which one might choose to wear. Thus, ‘being nude’ is different from ‘being naked’; only when naked, a person is truly exposed and in a state where sexual activity would be conceivable. Considering this, do Tunick’s attempts to render his naked models into ‘nudes’ effectively exempt his work from sexualized readings?
Comments by participants in his works seem to confirm Tunick’s point of view and emphasize that their experience of participating in his work was more about spirituality, aesthetics, or tolerance of bodily diversity, rather than sexuality (Robinson 2010; McNulty 2010; Phillips 2010). However, when we look at responses from observers of Internet documentation of Tunick’s work, it becomes clear that Eck’s categories and Clark’s theory do not always apply in such clear-cut manner. The following comments from a thread, accompanying video documentation of Tunick’s work Mardi Gras: The Base around the Sydney Opera House in 2010, show that many observers do not share Tunick’s conviction that the naked bodies in his work have ‘nothing to do with sex or eroticism’:
i always wondered if there was a place where u can just say hi to a women [sic] introduce yourself and shove it in. this setting would be perfect for that (abelucious in insideOutXS 2010)
the brunette on the left holy fuck her tits are huge and her ass is fine (lordwirt338244 in insideOutXS 2010)
I could never do this, I would have a erection around those two hot girls in the front. How can these guys not have a boner? […] These guys might need Viagra (MisterRepoMan in insideOutXS 2010)
This discrepancy between the artists’ and participants’ conceptualization of nakedness as ‘nudity’ in the work, and its sexualized perception by members of a broader audience, particularly in the context of publicly accessible net-based resources, is not confined to Tunick’s practice. A similar pattern can frequently be observed in performance art work. A good example of this is provided by Marina Abramović’s conceptualization of her work Nude with Skeleton (2002 - 2005) and some of the public’s responses to this work. In the performance, Abramović is lying on the floor with a replica skeleton on top of her. In an audio interview accompanying the retrospective exhibition of her work in the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010, she explains the concept of the work as follows:
The work is really about facing your own mortality. It’s about fear of pain, and fear of dying, something that in our life we fear the most. And again, in my own work, I always like to confront with [sic] the fears, so being close to the skeleton, washing it, caring it, breathing through, and looking at, confronting it, it’s the way to deal with that fear. (Abramović in MoMA Multimedia n.d.)
However, quite contrary to Abramović’s own account of the work, many respondents to footage of the performance on YouTube read Abramović’s naked body from a sexual perspective. One respondent succinctly states: ‘this is the worst porn I’ve ever seen’ (10jjoff in benkratschmer 2007), whilst another person claims that ‘if this is art then […] I'm Rembrandt, Picasso, Da Vinci, and Michelangelo all rolled into one! She sure looks nice naked, though. I hope she makes some more “art”’ (imallpissedoff in benkratschmer 2007). A more explicit reading of Abramović’s nakedness as a sexual transgression is offered by a third, who suggests that ‘[i]f you have normal sexual relationships with somebody you just would not pay attention to Marina's deviations a.k.a "modern art"!’ (kalek100 in benkratschmer 2007). The latter two comments also touch on another tendency in the reactions to both this video and the documentation of Tunick’s work: The majority of the commentators don’t seem to acknowledge the work as art at all. If we recall Beth Eck’s suggestion that the way naked bodies are read is affected by the context in which they are perceived, we might then attribute the prominence of sexualized readings of these works to their failure to be perceived in the context of the ‘art frame’.
What could be the reasons for the ineffective containment of these works by this frame? A rather straightforward explanation would be that the sexualized responses come from people who are simply not part of the intended audience of the work. However, in this case the question arises, to what extent such a clear-cut distinction between a category of ‘high art’ (or ‘high performance’) audience and a mainstream culture of the ‘uninitiated’ can still be made. Does a ‘high art audience’, which perceives nakedness in art completely detached from its apparent mainstream sexualization, really exist?
To engage with this question, it is of interest to consider Philip Auslander’s (1989) writing on the relationship between the notions of high art and popular culture. Auslander has argued that, by the late 1980s, performance art could no longer be regarded as a niche art form situated outside mass-culture, which it had predominantly been throughout the 1960s and 70s. Drawing from cultural theorist Craig Owens (1984), he suggested that post-1970s performance art ‘problematizes, but does not reject’ (Auslander 1989: 132) the representational forms of popular culture. Much of the performance work of American artist Paul McCarthy, for example, draws heavily from popular culture and advertising imagery. In Caribbean Pirates (2005), he assimilates the puppet style of a Disneyland attraction and uses this setting to present an orgy of consumerist transgressions involving ketchup and chocolate sauce.
A development from the other side has taken place as well though: since the 1980s, performance art has gradually been getting more attention in popular media and is much discussed outside its traditional niche audience of contemporary art enthusiasts. The success of Laurie Anderson’s work on the main-stream music market, initiated by her hit single ‘O Superman’ in 1981, shows how the blending of popular culture idioms and ‘high art’ performance contributed to this development. However, the media coverage of Lady Gaga’s visit to Abramović’s The Artist is Present (Avalos 2010) and her enthusiasm about the artist’s work, as well as the references to Room with an Ocean View (2002) in an episode of Sex and the City, show that also performance art forms that do not actively engage with popular cultural idioms enjoy increased interest outside the exclusive circles of ‘high art’ audiences. Wondering about the mass media compatibility of transgressive performance art like Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch’s Orgies Mysteries Theatres (1962- ), which involve ritual crucifixions of performers and animal slaughter, Auslander suggests that even when performance art does not fit in with mass entertainment idioms ‘it can still be recuperated as oddity or freak show’ (1989: 122). This is apparent in the association of Abramović with Lady Gaga, who cultivates an image of self-proclaimed freak herself and famously declared to her fans that ‘it’s OK to be a freak’ (Vena 2009). Abramović’s work might not be suitable for mass consumption as such, but by presenting it in conjunction with the ‘freak brand’ Lady Gaga it is conveniently framed as an oddity, suitable for mass-media representation.
Returning to Eck’s research on the contextual perception of nakedness, this blurring of the boundaries between ‘high art’ and popular culture, as well as the increasing representation of different forms of performance art in mainstream media, can be read in the context a fourth category, which Eck added to her initial three frames: the ‘commodified frame’. She describes how the interpretation of naked bodies becomes increasingly ambiguous, in terms of the perception of their adherence to one of the three previously mentioned frames, if the context of representation is less bounded. This is often the case in representations of naked and partially naked bodies in commodity culture; whereas the depiction of a pregnant woman in a medical textbook is generally clearly perceived as informational, a similar image on the cover of a popular magazine is likely to raise debates on whether the representation is either informational, artistic or pornographic.
In this context, cultural theorist Rob Cover argues that the increased sexualization of nakedness in contemporary culture is a result of what he calls the ‘“postmodern” destabilization of contexts’ (2003: 55). Focusing on the presentation and representation of nakedness in everyday situations, Cover points out that practices and sites that were formerly identified as non-sexual, tend to increasingly afford a sexualized reading as a result of the collapse of clear contextual demarcations. Same-sex showers, for example, were much easier to perceive as strictly non-sexual when homosexuality was not commonly acknowledged. With the public acknowledgement of homosexuality, the gaze in the public shower room has become sexualized; openly looking at other naked bodies in this context is likely to be experienced as sexual intimidation. Similarly, in the context of the availability of child pornography on the Internet, photographs taken by parents of their naked children have in recent years frequently been read as pornographic material, resulting in a number of legal prosecutions of parents who had photographed innocent scenarios of their kids enjoying a bath.
I suggest that Cover’s argument that frames and contexts of the representation of nakedness, which might have been considered “non-sexual” in the past, are currently frequently sexualized or eroticized, should also be considered in the analysis of contemporary performance art practices involving naked bodies. The sexualized readings of Tunick’s and Abramović’ work may not only be attributable to the fact that certain observers do not acknowledge its ‘art frame’. Rather, I suggest that, under the influence of the increased integration of performance art into mass-culture, the art frame itself has become instable and no longer precludes the sexualization of naked bodies. Thus, naked subjects also afford sexualized readings by members of a ‘conventional’ high-art audience, which do acknowledge the work’s artistic frame.
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