When I was a teenager, I was really excited to get my P plates and I had this idea that I was going to get a car and drive from Melbourne to Sydney, naked. I was genuinely surprised and disappointed when I learned that actually my plan was foiled because it is illegal to be naked in public. This rocked my world. I knew that society was culturally conservative about getting naked, but it hadn’t occurred to me that getting naked was illegal. ‘Naked is natural!’, I exclaimed. Somehow, I felt robbed.
Later, I came to realise that my naked utopian ideals were somewhat at odds with some very real social, linguistic, economic and political structures that exist in the world.
Being naked was a definite thing, definitely very different from not being naked. Some nakedness was able to make you feel free and connected with the world around you, while other types of nakedness were able to make you feel disconnected, isolated and powerless. Actually, I learned that being naked wasn’t just a thing; sometimes being naked made you feel like a thingand not so much like a human being.
We live in a world where the body is often made to appear as an object and dehumanised via visual modes of representation. Because of its prevalence in mainstream media it can seem normative and someone, such as myself, may forget what objectification is and how it operates. It works to render the body not as human, but as a thing and what we understand about thingsis that thingsdon’t have feelings. As a result, people generally feel permitted to treat them in any way without any moral conflict or consequence. It is against this backdrop of nudity’s relation to objectification that I would like to continue with the following uncensored (naked, if you will) thoughts.
It is not simply nudity that causes physical or moral concern for the individual or the collective; it is rather what naked bodies are doing, how they are framed, who they are and who constitutes the audience. Inextricably, it is the perception of those elements in relationship to the viewer. It’s subjective, it’s varied, and it’s messy. Any conversation about the naked body and its differences to the clothed body cannot be read and responded to in isolation, nor distilled down to an unchangeable interpretation, due to the converging of elements which make up any moment. Context matters.
Issues around morality are just not that simple…
How the human compass of morality functions in relation to images of the naked body lines up against a backdrop of images; advertising, screen cultures, lived experience and histories, make it very difficult to have a blanket policy of what forms of nudity are or aren’t acceptable. No matter how expertly an artwork challenges or entertains its audience, there is always the possibility of a gap between moral concern and aesthetic possibility. In our widely sexualised culture, being outspoken about the representation of the body in media and advertising as having a negative affect on social and sexual values is nothing new, but speaking out in an art context may prove to be more challenging. The context of art makes the context for reception different. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be different, but we should know what that different context is doing, how it affects our behavior, and how we are moulded by it as a form of conditioning.
For many artists, performing naked is a rite of passage, an act of bravery, a sacrifice of the self for art, even a conquering of the ego. That politic does seem to create an environment of expectation for all performers to be okay with nudity and permission to label any artist who is not, as a prude. This is an assumption that concerns me. I’m not arguing about the performer’s choice to perform naked, rather against the assumption that they would, or should, if asked. From my experience and in speaking with peers, this does seem to be the assumption.
Like many artists, I see myself as being open minded and freethinking and able to make educated evaluations and decisions about nudity in art because I have specialised knowledge and experience in art. But does that translate into having the authority to criticise another person’s moral standards? Artists often see people with more conservative views than themselves as being limited in their thinking and trapped. But how might that in turn trap the artist? What happens if the artist finds himself or herself at one point or another watching a fellow performer making choices, which challenge their sense of morality? I wonder if they might perhaps then, not speak out about their feelings for fear of being, becoming, or being seen as, one of those conservative others? In the art community there can be a crippling desire to not be caught out, to not be seen as a prude, un-cool or weak, and the overriding fear of being perceived as uneducated. Because education is linked to class, and a perception of class divides people. For many artists, it is very important that even if some of us don’t have a lot of money, we at least do have class. The performing arts context is often comprised of small interdependent communities of people who work extremely hard to bring even a sniff of a show to fruition. However, our care and respect for one another does not prescribe that we should be expected to be okay with each other’s performative choices, including those regarding nudity. We will generally be okay and respectful, even caring – but we don’t have to like the performance or pretend that we do, for fear that people will assume that it is because we are uncomfortable with nakedness. Furthermore, if we are uncomfortable with nakedness that ought to be able to be expressed without fear of being persecuted (perhaps sometimes being uncomfortable is the performer’s point and we miss it because we are too caught up in the belief that to be an artist means being okay with nudity). Equally, if we loved seeing nudity as expressed in a performance, felt happily confused or an enhanced intimacy, felt that it was incredibly subversive and brave, profound, clever or brilliantly silly, all and any of those responses are the stuff of great conversation and learning. We are complex human beings; living bodies, watching complex beings and their living bodies onstage. We do not have to accept all that is presented to us and abide images that we think involve poor choices in the name of pushing boundaries.
The split between positioning the artistic community on the open-minded, freedom-willing ‘side’ of any cultural taboo and the right wing conservatives on the other, is common practice in debates around artistic censorship and protectionism, but this liberal/conservative hard line is a falsity, because issues around morality are just not that simple