Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Good Nipple, Bad Nipple, Part Two

Via TERA comes this video of a woman posing topfree atop a public pedestal in London as part of Antony Gormley's art project "One & Other".

While Dr. Rapoport featured this story on the TERA website, he did so with reservations, and made the following comment on the video:
Ms. McDonald's performance, a mild version of what she probably does professionally, reinforced the automatic association of women's breasts with sexual display, which we have to get rid of.

Women should have the right to be without tops as much as men are, possibly more. But actions such as this undermine that goal, whatever their merit or demerit as performance.
While I agree with the essence of what Dr. Rapoport has to say, I feel that there are contradictions which need to be discussed. Yes, Naomi McDonald shakes her breasts and slaps her own behind in suggestive ways, taking her "performance" into something beyond traditional art, and into the realm of sleaze; however, if this were a man up there flexing his biceps and making his pecs dance, there would be no controversy. After all, men have been doing this sort of posing for many years, from ancient Greek statues through today's muscle magazines and pageants. Yet the moment a woman flaunts her body, people get upset and condemn her as an "exhibitionist", and accuse her of undermining women's equality.

Yes, because of society's double standard, a woman expressing her sexuality in public is not good for the topfree movement because our male-dominated legal system tends to pass more laws controlling female nudity whenever a nipple makes an appearance.

I certainly don't have an answer for this issue, and how it will eventually play out is beyond anyone's guess.

What I do know is that women's bodies have been used in fine art for as long as humans have been able to scratch images onto the walls of caves, and some of the greatest examples of the female form, such as Manet's "Olympia", Renoir's and Cezanne's bathers, Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon", and so many other works freely celebrate the eroticism and sexuality of females, and the male infatuation with prostitution.

These works are mounted on museum walls without censorship for people of all ages to see and admire.

So when Ms. McDonald freely displays her body and sexuality, it's a time-honored tradition in fine art, merely taken from inside the art museum to the light of day. In addition, eroticism has been a component of ballet and other classic dance, completely acceptable on a stage illuminated with footlights, but somehow unacceptable in burlesque or strip clubs, or in the street. Society struggles with this issue, constantly defining and redefining what is or what is not pornographic.

It is probably a mistake to equate Naomi McDonald's public performance with topfreedom at all - it's more of a statement on art vs. pornography, and society's exploitation of the female body. Art should always push the envelope and get people stimulated emotionally and intellectually. In that respect, Ms. McDonald succeeded.


thomas said...

i have to partially, disagree with you. Yes, a male model would generate very little controversy. But a Chippendale dancer would create as much or more. After all, Cezanne's models weren't dancing on a pole. This woman was not posing, she was dancing, shouting, waving and doing everything to draw attention, very suggestively. I'm fairly sure this is nowhere near what you or TERA had in mind.
I'm sure that part of the difference in acceptance is that Art doesn't move or rub itsself. At least not in most peoples' minds

Nudiarist said...

Thomas, please read what I wrote. I agreed with Dr. Rapoport that this was bad for topfreedom, if you look at this from a woman's equality point of view. This is in light of societal attitudes. What I'm saying is that sexual celebration (or exploitation) of women is prevalent throughout the arts, from museums to the ballet stage. It's a double standard when people complain about a woman expressing her sexuality in public, versus doing so by posing for an erotic painting, or dancing erotically for the ballet.

I disagree about the Chippendale dancer. A man could get up there in skimpy briefs, thrust he pelvis, flex his pecs, and people would mostly laugh. Sure, someone might complain, but it would all be perfectly legal. But once the female breast and nipple is introduced in to the performance, it becomes unacceptable.

Dr. Paul Rapoport said...

This issue is treated to a fine analysis by nudiarist. If all commentary were of this calibre, problems such as he details nearly daily might disappear.

As he states, the questions posed by this performance go beyond topfree equality and nudism. The answers depend on how the questions are framed, especially with regard to sexual expression in public, what that is, what sort is allowed or not, and where.

IF one believes that sexual activity in public is a problem, then we are stuck at present realizing that women's breasts may be part of it. Over-simply put, like a musical perfect fourth in classical harmony being dissonant or not, women's breasts may be part of a sexual display or not. Perhaps in the longest of runs, that does not matter. Today's topfree and nudist movements try to say that mere exposure or visibility does not constitute harmful sexual display or activity.

That this is all pitched from the perspective of middle-aged heterosexual males is undeniable. What does McDonald "say" about images of women, if anything?

TERA merely posted a photo that could represent topfree equality interests and then pointed out that this was not part of what the dancer intended. Principles of topfree equality, even if agreed on as desirable, do not solve all problems related to it.

I wouldn't call what McDonald did "sleaze," and I prefer, unsuccessfully, to avoid the term "pornographic" entirely. I suggest, nonetheless, that there's a difference psychologically and legally between works of art and other things, however difficult that line is to draw; a difference between still images and video and between video and live acts; and a difference between something expectable and unexpectable. (I wouldn't claim, however, that something going on on the fourth plinth is a surprise.)

Note, by the way, the children in the picture on TERA, who formed part of the potential audience at one point.

Whether McDonald's activity on the plinth was good or bad in many senses is not what TERA was after, of course. Let the discussion continue.

Dr. Paul Rapoport
TERA Co-ordinator