Prudes and Nudes Not Really News

Arts - March 25th, 2010
Prudes and nudes not really news. Photo: Owen Schaefer

Some time back, I naively subscribed to two Canadian “arts” newsfeeds — one from the CBC and one from the Globe and Mail — thinking they would keep me abreast of what contemporary artists were up to in my home country. Two years of daily reading later, I have been kept well abreast of which film openings were attended by Brad Pitt, the latest news about Michael Jackson’s doctor, and how the contestants performed on last night’s American Idol. I kid you not.

Amid the tales of celebrity shock-and-awe, there are occasional glimmerings of art. But I suppose it should have come as no surprise when the Globe and Mail arrived at this kicker of a headline:

“Are live nudes art?”

Believing myself in for a really special kind of story — the kind that happens when you ask your sports reporter to hop down to the art gallery and cover a Joseph Bueys retrospective — I clicked through, only to discover that the story itself was a video from the Associated Press, covering visitor reactions to Marina Abramović’s Imponderabilia — a work at her current MoMA show in New York. The piece involves two naked women facing one another in a narrow doorway. The public can choose to pass between them in order to see the rest of the show, or go around them by another route.

The AP video itself is vaguely cloying, and makes no mention of Abramović whatsoever until about halfway through — as though the work had been conceived by some aspiring art student (Abramović is 63, and Imponderabilia was first performed in 1977). And while a part of me wants to argue that the name of the artist shouldn’t matter, the other part of me knows that by withholding this information, the so-called journalists can keep their audience giggling that much longer, before finally acknowledging the fact that the artist is a well established figure, and widely respected. All of this notwithstanding, the video itself never casts any doubt whatsoever on the actual art-ness of Abramović’s work.

It’s not exactly clear whether the snappy “Are live nudes art?” comes from AP or straight from the Globe (although my suspicions lean toward the latter), but it seems a sad attempt to create controversy where there is none — perhaps penned by a no-nonsense type who is also fond of the phrase “My six-year-old could’ve done that.”

Let’s examine the controversy for a moment, shall we: Are live nudes art? Well, let’s see… are they taking off their clothes in an adult entertainment establishment? Then, no. Probably not. Are they part of an exhibition at an art gallery? Then, yes. Yes they are.

There. Wasn’t that easy?

There are a great many debates as to what exactly it is that art comprises. But this isn’t one of them. The argument is disingenuous at best — no one is actually claiming that the “live nudes” are art in themselves. The insinuation is an irritating leftover from the all-too-common mindset that art is something meant to be placed in a room and looked at. Imponderabilia is not a sculpture. It is a performance in which the performers are nude and interacting, albeit passively, with the audience. The art happens in their engagement with the audience’s personal comfort levels.

There are blurry edges between decoration and art, design and art, entertainment and art, and even product and art. The general rule of thumb is that if it’s claiming to be art, it is. Whether or not it is good, whether or not it’s accepted, and whether or not you personally like it are entirely separate issues.

Let’s face it, Abramović’s piece is humorous, challenging and controversial all on its own. It hardly needs a sensationalist attempt at creating a stir where there isn’t one. A question such as “Should live nudes be allowed in public galleries?” would at least have been a question someone could debate, and probably something closer to what the prudish copywriter was aiming at. Interestingly, Imponderabilia is far from being the most disturbing work in the show, and yet a recent New York Times piece reveals that gallery patrons are almost entirely unconcerned about it.

In the end, I was left with a question-style headline of my own: Are these people journalists? I mean, after this, I think it’s only fair to ask.

Art All-Nighter

Louise Bourgeois - "Maman" Photo: Owen Schaefer

On a local note, this Saturday is Roppongi Art Night — an all-night art festival taking place throughout the Roppongi area, but largely focused on Roppongi Hills. You only get one shot at this, and the main program times (amusingly) run from precicely 5:58 p.m. Saturday night to 5:34 a.m. Sunday morning. What happens if things kick off two minutes too late? Your guess is as good as mine.

But come out at the very least to see Compaignie des Quidams’s eerie street performances, and Chris O’Shea’s interactive big-screen video work Hand from Above. And stay out all night if you’re bold. Or slightly insane. Or both.

Many of the area’s galleries will have extended hours, and much of the night is free. All artworks are guaranteed to be 100-percent genuine art. Promise.

-Owen Schaefer