If Nudity is Artistic Expression, Who Owns the Body Used as Art?
By Suzanne Reisman on February 26, 2010
BlogHer Original Post
Although the news is frequently disturbing, I still read the newspaper while I eat breakfast. On Friday morning, a news item caught my eye: an art gallery in New York's West Village is displaying a live naked woman. The title told me everything that I needed to know: Hey, Look! She's Naked! But It's Art, So It's All Right.
The article discussed first amendment rights. In New York, nudity is an artist's right to expression, but more conservative lawyers argue that the public has a right not to have nudity imposed upon him/her. It's important to note that an individual, however, cannot just decide to walk around naked and expect to be covered by the first amendment if she/he is arrested. The nude model was not arrested as she stood in the gallery window. The article concludes, "Beyond the legality, Mr. Kuby offered up another theory for the lack of interference: 'The truth is, even the cops like looking at naked people.'”
Actually, and I think this is really the heart of the matter, cops don't like looking at naked people; they (like everyone else) like looking at naked women. And artists like using women's bodies as mediums for their messages not because women's bodies are somehow mere inherently beautiful than men's (that's a social distinction), but because they don't actually belong to the woman inside the body herself, so they are thus malleable. Everyone is comfortable looking at it and making it into whatever they want from it.
Men's bodies, however, belong to men. They inhabit their bodies autonomously. It freaks people out to see naked men because men deserve and are granted privacy because their bodies are theirs. We do not display men's bodies for messages, artistic or commercial, except in extreme circumstances. Hence, art using men's bodies is "edgy" and generally invokes a harsher backlash.
I know in my heart of hearts that if a naked dude stood in the gallery window in the West Village, there would be much more than shoulder shrugging and cops passing by. Indecency laws would be rolled out. No one would accuse the conservatives who oppose a naked person standing in a gallery window of being a prude if the naked person had a penis. As a society, we are suspicious of naked men. Why would a man be naked unless he had some nasty intentions? Naked men are predators.
This attitude carries over into other aspects of life. Since women do not have agency over our bodies, it is much easier to pass laws telling us what to do with them, particular when it comes to reproduction. Religious zealots have done everything they can to deny women control over their ability to reproduce, from refusing to fill or cover birth control prescriptions to restricting abortion. Has anyone suggested that condoms should be banished, that erection medicines should be carefully monitored, or that vasectomies should be banned?
I've not heard such arguments in the US. Because who has the right to tell men how to use their bodies? No one except the man who owns it. Again, unlike women's bodies, which belong to others, men are the people who know best what their bodies need. We would never mess with them.
Lest I come across as a prude, I have no objection to nudity in theory. A body is what a body is. I just have a problem with treating women's nudity differently than men's. This is how Western culture has worked for hundreds of years, of course, but that doesn't mean that it is acceptable. So until women get to own their bodies the way that men do, I will frown and grumble and be annoyed when I read stories about naked women standing in gallery windows being acceptable forms of an artist's first amendment rights.
Some other thoughts on nudity, self-autonomy, art, and feminism
- Go Topless! A National Organization for the Right of Women to Go Topless by red_menace
- Feminism or Exhibitionism? by Cherry Zhang
- Naked v. nude: a contrast in definitions by Katy Steinmetz
What do you think about nudity, nakedness, autonomy, and gender equality?
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