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Photographer Spencer Tunick celebrates the joyful, frivolous and liberating experience of public nudity. Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Friday essay: the naked truth on nudity

A major exhibition opens at the Art Gallery of New South Wales this weekend – a collection of nudes from the Tate Gallery in London. I’ve been quietly intrigued by the complexities of nudity as a cultural phenomenon for many years now, so this exhibition provides an opportune moment for me to revisit this seemingly quirky research interest. Has anything changed in the decade since I wrote a book about nudity? What bigger issues does the seemingly frivolous topic of nudity point to today?

My scholarly interest in nudity began with a paradox: sometimes it’s less embarrassing to be naked in front of a stranger than to be covered. There was a precise moment when I realised this. I was having an acupuncture treatment with a practitioner I didn’t know, who asked me to strip right down. He offered me a tiny towel that only just covered the essentials.

Lying there, humiliated and furious but strangely passive, I thought, “I’d rather be naked than only barely covered.” “That’s interesting,” I thought. “I’ll write a book about that.”

At the time, I saw nakedness as paradoxical – mundane yet controversial, simultaneously natural and unnatural. For there is a fundamental ambiguity in the nature of human existence: humans are originally naked (for however brief a moment!) and yet clothing and/or body ornamentation is a social inevitability.

Humans may be naturally naked, but we have used clothing to define our species, and to differentiate ourselves from each other. Nudity and clothing are part of how dominant groups decide who’s fit to be considered fully human – who’s to be taken seriously and who’s to be demeaned; who is “under”-dressed (primitives, savages, sluts) and who is “over”-dressed (those with too many veils hiding too many secrets).

Barkley L Hendricks, ‘Family Jules: NNN (No Naked Niggahs)’, 1974. Tate Gallery, courtesy of the North American Acquisitions Committee 2015, © Barkley Hendricks, courtesy of the artist

Nakedness is also conceptually interesting. Once you think about it, it’s not even clear what counts as nakedness. Can a face be naked? An elbow? A finger? And maybe what counts as clothing isn’t straightforward either. To the European explorers and colonists, Aboriginal people were naked; their cloaks, ceremonial adornments and headgear didn’t count as clothes. This, in their view, disqualified Aboriginal people from full humanness.

And yet, the Europeans’ own ambivalence about clothing and civilisation was also clearly on display. After all, Christianity’s own seminal myth about the origin of the world is a story in which clothing functions as a sign of sin and distance from the Godhead. Adam and Eve’s fig leaf is double-edged, signalling both the end of an idyllic human existence and the birth of a distinctly human culture.

According to philosopher Mario Perniola, this duality – nakedness as a sign of sin and degradation versus nakedness as a sign of innocence, authenticity and truth – permeates the Western tradition. Many of the nudes in the Tate exhibition can be understood through one or other of these cultural frames.

Auguste Rodin, ‘The kiss’, 1901–04. © Tate, London 2016

But lots of things – migration, globalisation, consumerism, sexual liberalisation, the Internet, social media, changes in gender roles – have transformed Australian society over the last few decades. All of them have had a substantial impact on individual and collective values and mores. So surely things are different now?

Well, yes and no. Our relation with nudity in Australia today is more a story of the intensification of earlier struggles than one of stark change. The sheer quantity, ubiquity, durability and global reach of images means that perennial cultural trouble spots – the nakedness of indigenous people, women, children and teens for example – are still sites of struggle. In this supercharged media environment, divisions within and between communities are more visible and more actively called into play. And everyone – prime ministers, popes, performers and police – can be dragged into them without notice.

Nudity and children

The first site of intensified struggle in recent years concerns images of children. The 2008 controversy over Bill Henson’s images of naked teenagers at the Rosyln Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney indicated the increasingly inflammatory potential of putting images, nakedness and childhood in proximity.

Was the nakedness of Henson’s models to be interpreted as an aesthetic symbol of vulnerability, transition or aloneness, or were its meanings unequivocally and inevitably sexual or erotic? And was the production of such images an instance of exploitation – even criminal exploitation?

Such questions, with their stark legal as well as psychological ramifications, were dangerous and complex. Mainstream political discourse, into which this controversy was rapidly plunged, was not a vehicle for ambiguity. The potential for nudity to mean different things could not be acknowledged and complex questions (Is nudity always or only sexual? At what age does one cease to be a child?) could not be admitted. Clear-cut judgements were called for: “I find them absolutely revolting,” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told the Nine Network.

The unstable, fraught and debated nature of the dividing line between childhood and adulthood continues to be pushed to the forefront of public conversation by another major change – the fact that almost everyone now has a camera attached to an international distribution network in their hand or pocket most of the time.

Sexting is now common. nito/Shutterstock

The legal and psychological ramifications of the by now common teenage practice of sexting, for example, understandably surface frequently in the media. Thankfully, a number of scholars of media and gender, such as Kath Albury, Catharine Lumby, Alan McKee and Kate Crawford, have been working hard to try to undergird this public conversation – which matters so much to parents, educators and teens themselves – with some empirical understandings of what nakedness means to those who participate in these practices, and what some of its social consequences and ethical parameters are within teenage lives.

While the active negotiation of sexuality by young people points to new forms of sexual ethics and new experiences of gender, some elements of gendered experiences of nudity remain depressingly familiar. Recent events – such as the revelation in August this year that a network of teenage boys and young adults had posted over 2000 images of Australian schoolgirls without their consent – point to a technological upscaling of age-old sexual and social dynamics.

This cowardly trade in naked images of teen girls and young women can be understood through the lens of “homosociality,” a concept coined in 1985 by literature professor Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. This term alludes to the strange and potent blend of camaraderie and hierarchy that often characterises relations between men.

The teenage trade in naked images of girls has as much to do with young men trying to prove themselves to each other as it does with the direct exploitation of women. It points to the ongoing role played by male-male relations in shaping female experiences.

Young women are increasingly taking control of and pleasure in their own sexualised images, but the social and psychological consequences of the circulation of such images remain strongly gendered.

So-called revenge porn isn’t new, but the arrival of digital media has allowed it to take new forms (e.g. “morph porn,” where an image of a woman’s head is cut and pasted onto another woman’s body). The reach and potential durability of such images is unprecedented. Sex might be more liberated, but nakedness is not yet democratic.

Covering up

Covering up can also prompt discomfort. Tim Wimborne/Reuters

And nor is being covered up a guarantee that one will be looked kindly upon. Being covered “too much” can, it turns out, still cause fear, outrage or affront. This was made clear in August of this year, when a woman in Nice was forced to strip off her burkini because it was not “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism.” A woman in nearby Cannes was also fined for wearing too much clothing on the beach. These incidents occurred almost 70 years to the day after the first bikini – a French invention of 1946 – scandalised the world.

Just to add to the complexity, the bikini’s anniversary was marked in the West by largely celebratory commentary. And yet the bikini was also still made to point to women’s fleshly troubles. In the words of one recent commentator:

The bikini has gone from being a sign of women’s liberation in the Sixties, a literal throwing off of the modest clothing of a conservative era, to a worrying showcase of a new oppression — the rigid diets and plastic surgery that increasing numbers of women succumb to in pursuit of the ‘body beautiful.’

The flesh of women can cause troubles, it seems, whenever and however it is revealed.

Lucian Michael Freud, ‘Standing by the rags’, 1988–89. © Estate of Lucian Freud. Image © Tate, London 2016

The different social and cultural rules governing male and female nudity, and the unequal social punishments attached to violating those rules, continue.

Breastfeeding in public continues to attract opprobrium from some quarters, irrespective of whether a breast might be visibly exposed. Simply the idea of the breast – coupled, I suspect, with a newly intensifying disgust at such embodied and fluid intimacy – can be all it takes.

When a mother was “caught” on camera breastfeeding her child while she waited backstage for her husband to perform on The Voice, there was an all too predictable uproar.

Clearly some commentators were less liberated than Pope Francis, who in 2015 told 33 mothers in the Sistine Chapel “not to think twice” about breastfeeding in public or in church. This was a rare moment when the value accorded to the female nude in fine art was actually extended to real women’s “nakedness”.

Occupied territory

This moment of liberty was just one twist and turn in what art theorist Lisa Tickner terms the “occupied territory” of female nudity. (Indeed, the painted nudes under which these women fed their babies have not themselves always been kindly regarded; 38 loincloths were painted over the nudes in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement fresco in the Sistine Chapel between the 16th and 18th centuries.)

38 loincloths were painted over the nudes in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement fresco in the Sistine Chapel between the 16th and 18th centuries. Dennis Jarvis/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The picture becomes even more complicated when encounters with nakedness have cross-cultural dimensions. In March this year, indigenous blogger Celeste Liddle shared an image on her public Facebook page of a group of Aboriginal women performing traditional dance at a 2010 protest against the Northern Territory intervention.

Facebook removed the post, citing “community standards.” Were the images of bare-breasted women performing ceremony offensive? Were breasts adorned with traditional and sacred imagery even to be understood as “naked?” Facebook thought so.

Perhaps this is no longer an instance of nudity being wielded as a weapon in determining how “civilised” a practice or people might be, but it is certainly an exemplary instance of the modern tendency to reduce the many possible meanings, significance and experiences of nakedness to only one possible meaning – the erotic.

Facebook’s rejoinder that “some audiences within our global community may be sensitive to this type of content – particularly because of cultural background or age” is in its own way quite true. The law, with its reliance on categories like offence and affront, does not seem to have much scope to view nakedness more bountifully.

Happily, some of the more joyful, frivolous or liberating meanings and experiences of public nudity persist, albeit in highly circumscribed and regulated ways. The annual Sydney Skinny Ocean Swim or the occasional visit by photographer Spencer Tunick offer rare opportunities for joyful collective public nudity.

This is not to everyone’s taste, and it undoubtedly offends the values, sensitivities and even aesthetic preferences of many. I understand this, and respecting that is part of what it means to live in a modern nation in the 21st century. But frankly, I’d rather watch a collective romp of bodies in all their mundane, unglamorous diversity than any stock-standard consumer-driven parade of beautiful naked or semi-naked bodies. Give me joy over beauty any day.

Nude: art from the Tate collection is showing at the Art Gallery of NSW from 5 Nov 2016 – 5 Feb 2017. Ruth Barcan and Wendy Steiner, Richard L Fisher Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, will give a lecture on the nude in art and culture at the Domain Theatre on Saturday 28 January 2017 at 2pm.

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