This talk is an introduction to a remarkable exhibit, Frank Cordelle's Century Project, which you're invited to see when we're done here. First, I would like to thank the art program and the School of Art, Drama & Music for having me as their guest on this occasion.My title is 'Siting the naked body,' s-i-t-i-n-g. Much of my information comes from research done in preparation for a course on operas I'm now teaching - called 'Body, Sex, and Gender in 20th-Century Operas.'I'll speak from several perspectives, mostly social and legal. What I say may express a few paradoxes. Paradox 1a is that you have a man standing here talking mostly about women. Paradox 1b is that a man took all the photographs of naked women you'll see in Room 114. But please don't jump to conclusions about motives or result, for conclusion-jumping is one of the causes of the mess women and their bodies have been in.Ordinarily I would invite anyone bothered by nudity to leave. But today I say the opposite, because confronting the unfamiliar in non-threatening surroundings - I trust we have that here - enables us to overcome our apprehension about it. Neither this talk nor the exhibit contains pornography, unless, like one Montreal columnist, you deem all nudity to be pornography. In that case you must repudiate much of the art in western history, including some of the finest religious representations ever produced.Speaking of art, in his classic study of the nude, Kenneth Clark declared that to be naked was to be deprived of clothes and possibly be disgraced. Nude, however, meant a balanced, prosperous, and confident body. Questioning this, John Berger says that to be naked is to be oneself without disguise; to be nude is to be an object placed on display, especially women for viewing by men. So he inverts the value of Clark's terms, honouring naked. Art theorist Lynda Nead complicates it all by showing there can be no semiotically innocent and unmediated body, and accuses Clark, fairly, of hiding the mind/body problem in his binary opposition of terms.Accordingly, I will use the two terms in no regular fashion. But what really is nudity?Perhaps lawmakers know what it is, or what's acceptable in public. Let's see if they do. I have three illustrations of police prowess and legal leadership.
Today still, nudity is different for men and women. Consider the legal troubles in the past few years of barebreasted women in Ontario, Saskatchewan, and B.C. Barebreasted men in North America have not evoked this reaction for many decades. In the mid 1930s a Clark Gable movie inspired many men to discard their shirts in defiance of American law.
One argument against women's exposed breasts is that they harm children psychologically. There's no evidence for it. Of course a young child will become upset if her parent screams 'Don't look at that horrible woman!' That scarcely demonstrates harm from women's breasts.
Another argument is that greater exposure of their breasts in general will lead to more violence against women. Strikingly, there's no evidence for that either. Individual women may be in greater danger in certain situations if barebreasted. But they know that. Even the strongest advocate of their rights distinguishes a social restriction from a legal one. For example, there's no law preventing women from wearing bikinis while alone on certain streets of Hamilton at night; but they sensibly don't do it.
The last argument, on which the first two depend, is that public breast exposure always implies sexual activity. No woman, in other words, would go topfree unless she were asking to be assaulted. She couldn't possibly take her top off because it was a hot day; or she was breastfeeding her child, was more comfortable swimming that way, wanted to gain confidence, or - was protesting men's authority over her body.
Restrictions in law on women's breast exposure stigmatize women for being women. Although there's no specific federal or provincial law forbidding women's exposed breasts, the municipal ordinances forbidding them apply also to girls with childhood breasts and women with removed breasts, but not to men with any size of breasts. This seems discrimination based solely on sex, contrary to Article 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and probably Article 28.
Therefore, prohibition of women's uncovered breasts denies women body equality with men. That goes against main principles of liberal feminism. The prohibition also clashes with more radical feminist notions of women's difference. Women's breasts are a social, political, and judicial site of struggle for body authority. If women made the laws, they wouldn't likely criminalize exposure of their own breasts but not men's, regardless of gendered behaviours of desire. For walking topfree in a forest, they wouldn't remove the rights of Kayla Sosnow of Florida and put her in jail for 20 days.
Our society's fixation on women's breasts is well outlined in three recent books: Breasts, by Meema Spadola; A History of the Breast, by Marilyn Yalom; and Breasts: The Women's Perspective on an American Obsession, by Carolyn Latteier. That obsession is closely connected to women's lack of self-esteem, often manifested in debilitating eating disorders and dangerous surgeries we all know about. Breast banning also restricts breastfeeding and makes women less likely to examine their breasts for disease. Moreover, nothing may represent objectification of women as much as men's fantasies of their breasts, alluring in proportion to how much they demand them to be hidden. Those demands are the real perversion, said the anthropologist Ashley Montagu; it's not some women wishing to go without tops.
In December 1996, Gwen Jacob was acquitted of indecency for walking topfree in Guelph on a hot summer day 5 1/2 years earlier. Her lawyer, Margaret Buist, appeared in a nasty debate in Cambridge Ontario the following June. Calmly, she managed to make some important points.
[VIDEOTAPE I-1. Margaret Buist. Broadcast from Kitchener 1997-06-25.]
One explanation of the breast exposure prohibition comes from Julia Kristeva's theory of abjection. She notes that abjection is caused by 'what disturbs identity, system, and order.' The maternal body brings about one trait of abjection, a simultaneous attraction and repulsion. In this connection, in The Politics of Women's Bodies, Iris Marion Young describes what she calls 'the breasted experience.' She suggests that patriarchal control of women's bodies depends partly on keeping the two main functions of breasts separate. Breasts, Young notes, 'are a scandal because they shatter the border between motherhood and sexuality.'
Scandal is a good description of what happened to a woman in Syracuse in 1991 who exemplified just that point. Carolyn Latteier's book tells the story. Confused that she was sexually aroused while breastfeeding her daughter, the woman called a local information hotline. A police investigation led to the removal of her daughter by a social service agency.
I conclude this part of the discussion with a limerick composed by Don Bensen in 1986. It goes like this:
Women's right to uncover their breastsJohn Q. Public rejects and detests- Except when for payThey display T and A,Which satisfies all legal tests.
One approach to the difficulties posed in heterosexual male culture by women's bodies is suggested by the philosopher Michel Foucault. Repressing certain ideas and activities, especially sexual, is part of a wider network of cultural definitions, institutions, and practices which promote a dominant ideology. Some of their main discourses are in education, law, medicine, and religion. In constructing sexuality and much else, the network binds the dominators as well as the dominated. Indeed, repression occurs only in conjunction with the pervasive opposite, well-organized promotion and proliferation. This helps to explain why repression may be indirect or obscure - hard to recognize, analyze, and overcome.
Notwithstanding institutions and practices, so much about body descriptions, classifications, and references privileges the male version. In Gray's Anatomy, for many editions the body illustrated was male; women's were illustrated as a kind of exception. Women's breasts are often considered simply oversized, gross versions of men's, just as their clitorises are considered puny versions of penises. Women are the target of the most derogatory monosyllables in English, despite some women's attempts to reclaim them. The masculine pronouns are still often used as generic, which denies women's physical presence altogether. Over 50 years ago, Simone de Beauvoir labelled woman The Other. My four examples imply that this particular other is alien, repulsive, contemptible, and disposable.
Various laws forbid exposure of sex organs. Some people say women's breasts are sex organs. 'When they use a word,' Humpty Dumpty would agree, 'it means just what they choose it to mean.' We should also recall what the good old egg said about his meanings. 'When I make a word do a lot of work like that,' he said, 'I always pay it extra.'
Real sex organs simply defined are readily visible on men. (You really needed me to tell you that.) Some women who've been put through terrible legal ordeals for exposed breasts have exclaimed in exasperation that they felt like walking around totally naked, since their sex organs aren't visible and therefore they couldn't break any law. Even while advising them against that, for fear they really would pay extra, anyone could acknowledge the male-centredness of legal prohibitions not to expose sex organs.
In this connection, I'm struck by the poetic writing of Luce Irigaray, her Écriture féminine. In one passage she dismantles all this with provocative subtlety and enchanting irony:
What would lawmakers make of that?! But even men's laws rarely forbid all public nudity. It's permitted in remote public locations, for example. Moreover, some nudity in artistic production is acceptable, recently increasingly so. That may be traceable through events like the 1969 Woodstock, individuals like Madonna, and more public discussion of more of the body, brought on by such phenomena as the devastation of AIDS and the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Developments in communication have brought more relaxed European attitudes towards the body closer to North Americans. So has cable television, where paying subscribers are presumed to be more capable of turning off channels they don't like. And what about popular music generally, and music videos? And the Internet, where every kind of nudity and sexual representation is available constantly.
Still, over the past few centuries, nudity in western art - in the 20th century including film, television, and digital media - has been overwhelmingly female. It isn't hard to discover why. Most artists have been heterosexual men. Their activities, including their art, often reinforce their superior gendered status. If that sounds wild, much recent feminist and gender theory clarifies it. Really, wouldn't it be odd if male social structures weren't reflected in images of the body?
This includes the use of the nude female for scopophilia, the male gaze of pleasure, of possession, direction, and often violence. I don't mean that every man's look of appreciation for a woman's physical state is exploitative. Yet often in art, as Berger puts it, men act but women appear; men look but women are looked at, including and especially by the presumed male spectator. Laura Mulvey found the same problem in a lot of mid-century Hollywood films. Of course the situation has improved some, partly because of feminist artists in various media.
One recent challenge to the male gaze has arisen from an unlikely source. Calendars. Last spring, eleven women in Rylstone, Yorkshire, England decided to raise money for leukemia research. They posed nude for a 2000 calendar. Reportedly, they wanted to raise at the outside $12,000 - but they raised $825,000. Were these women young models in full frontal sexual display? They were discreetly posed and strategically covered women aged 45 to 66.
These women are nude while performing feminized domestic tasks. That was probably a selling point. On seeing the Rylstone calendar, many middle-aged English women, cast out by media idolatry, applauded loudly.
From England this year, there are now more than ten such specialty calendars of men or women who are more or less nude, often with genital areas or women's nipples unseen. But the calendar making the most noise comes from halfway around the world, from the Matildas Australian soccer team. In November, the initial 15,000 copies sold out in a week. The calendar has been reprinted, selling out each time the day it appears.
Twelve of the team's 20 women posed nude. Short and trite statements appeared with each picture. Do the words help place the intent away from the passive or exploitative?
The marketing of this calendar and undoubtedly a lot of men buyers suggest male scopophilia. The photographs challenge the viewer, however, with their strength and athleticism. That's not a combination for the classic male gaze, even if a few photos make the connection between athletics and sexuality. Some men will find some of these photos erotic. On its own, that doesn't imply they're exploitative.
The women themselves spoke of personal affirmation, team spirit, and promotion of soccer as powerful and graceful. 'No one could make me feel low or sleazy about this,' said Katrina Boyd. 'I feel strong and confident with what I have done with my body.'
This is not a Playboy or Pirelli calendar. Whether successful or not, erotic or not, the Matildas were photographed as athletes, not pinup girls with fake names and occupations. They're trying to form counternarratives to the prevailing culture that says naked women in public belong to men and are of bad character or asking to be violated. Paradoxically, the Matildas contest with their unprotected bodies those very sites of subjugation.
However, they may be able to appropriate aspects of pinup calendars to change thinking about their bodies only when the male-dominated social order changes. Or is it the converse: could change in social order come from a new culture of the body? Perhaps both together.
As for North America: two weeks before the Matildas calendar was released, the Ohio State University women's rugby team went to Washington DC. For a group photo there, they posed without tops. That's legal in DC. When the women returned home, without any due process they found their team had been suspended. They were required to meet individually with a powerful male administrator and were forbidden to talk to the media. They were then forced to apologize for their action and agree that they had wrought great damage on their beloved university.
Most North American films, even recent ones, link nudity and sexual activity. Therefore, it's difficult to find nudity in these films that isn't sexual. Here's one example, however, from The English Patient. The heroine simply gets out of a bathtub. But sexual implications linger, because she and the hero are in that kind of relationship. And the camera work still favours the heterosexual male viewer. So does the scene's composition and even the colour of the woman's pubic hair. Because the man remains in the tub, we see little of his body.
[VIDEOTAPE II. The English Patient.]
Even if male nudity is becoming commoner in North American films, it's still rare, and when it's used, it's commonly either a rear view or from the waist up. Last fall, David Suzuki's The Nature of Things produced a TV program called 'Phallacies' - yes, it's the pun you think it is. It was an elementary exploration in art and society of the penis. It ran on the CBC, not exactly an obscure cable pay station. At one point in it, an authority compares eastern and western societies and offers one reason why penises are rarely seen in public western art. In typical Suzuki fashion, the narration goes on to say that showing penises is taboo, just as the program does exactly that.
[VIDEOTAPE I-2. Suzuki program. Broadcast on CBC, fall 1999.]
There are other reasons to censor men's genitals. One relates to homophobia. Male nudity beyond the locker room may be a threat to many men, leading to doubts about their sexuality and control. Another is that men's body image may suffer if they think women are comparing their genitals with another man's. A third is that the power structure inherent in looking is upset: the roles of men and women may be reversed through male nudity, leading through a different route to men's vulnerability and loss of a privileged position.
Of course, to depict sexual activity might require male arousal. But even young actors wouldn't easily produce erections on camera - in multiple takes - and the concept is still not part of mainstream cinema or art. That, then, is a practical reason why men's full frontal nudity in films is more likely to be treated non-sexually than women's. It's convenient, isn't it?
Sex is a tough subject for most people to discuss. It connects through intense emotions to privacy and security, intimacy and bonding; and therefore entails much vulnerability, and risk of violation of personal boundaries, breakdown of relationships, and loss of self-respect and will. To help reduce these dangers, we wear clothes that hide the parts of our bodies our culture deems sexual at the end of the 20th century.
Most of the time those body parts are doing little. Emphasis on their supposed indecent aspect assists in producing considerable shame and guilt; and a split - not a mind/body split, but a body/body split. Certain body parts become alienated and irredeemable, with attendant psychological and interpersonal problems of considerable scope. One observer back in 1939 put it this way:
The Freudian implications in that sound dated, and the point about nudism will emerge shortly. But first some comments on our difficulty with public nudity, whether in a film, in photographs, or on a beach. I emphasize that we're not wrong to have this difficulty, whether it's necessary or not.
Public nudity, especially if unexpected, preempts our attention and demands we cope with a strong distraction and strong emotions. We're placed in a position of confronting what is normally suppressed and repressed. Instinctual interest goes against cultural taboo and leaves us fascinated yet unsettled, until, perhaps, shame inhibits us further. Soon to follow are fear or disgust plus notions of disorder or violation.
All this is real. But it's not in any way natural; it's culturally created. Other cultures, especially in hot climates, may not have such a problem; and western Europe, for the most part, is less squeamish about nudity. But in North America, what are the characteristics of the offense of public nudity and of harm flowing from it? In his book Offense to Others, the legal philosopher Joel Feinberg explains persuasively why nudity of others may be embarrassing.
But he argues that many cases of nudity are banned for moralistic or paternalistic reasons which may not survive scrutiny. For simple nudity, law enforcers in North America are having trouble these days gaining convictions on grounds of immorality, indecency, obscenity, or public disorder, which are the classic ones. In Canada, authorities are now resorting to charges of trespassing and mischief - for people as opposed to artistic productions - especially when women's breasts are involved. There haven't been many cases of nuisance, which is in Feinberg's discussion of public nudity.
Notions of offense through nudity sometimes result from what he calls individuals' energetic image-making. In other words, in the absence of clear danger, those offended by others' naked bodies sometimes produce the offensive experience in themselves, even or especially when imagining people nude in public. A few years ago, one man in Texas travelled 100 km to find a remote beach in order to be offended by naked people on it - and have charges laid against them.
Another source of problems with nudity is Sigmund Freud, especially as seen through Benjamin Spock. Although he tried to be tolerant of nudity in the home, Dr. Spock made claims about its dangers that are unsubstantiated. His opinions were based on Freud's less supportable ideas of sexual development, and on his own purely anecdotal experience. Joyce Brothers, like Spock, a popularizing physician who neither did research nor studied any, also presumed that home nudity, especially of adults in front of children, led to incest. Again, this is a fear with no factual basis. It's decisively countered by the research of many psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists, including Albert Ellis, Robin Lewis and Louis Janda, and Margaret Mead.
In 1988 Lewis and Janda concluded that a vital determinant of a child's sexual adjustment is often 'attitudes towards sex that the parents convey to their children.' These are more important than any actual practice. A casual attitude towards family nudity Lewis and Janda found to have positive effects on self-esteem as well. It's clear that there's no compulsion to be nude around our children. However, we don't have to exhibit gymnophobia - fear of nudity.
Recently we've heard that there shouldn't be a nude beach in Toronto because 'families' go there. Women shouldn't be allowed barebreasted in a swimming pool because there are 'families' there. The Hamilton Spectator won't print pictures from The Century Project because it's a 'family' newspaper.
Such utterances turn all nudity into 'adult entertainment,' since family is a code for Children Present. That doesn't do much for children's feelings about their own bodies. Many of them are taught that what's between their legs, along with female breasts, is bad, in private as well as in public. Children's body image and self-esteem are probably harmed more by panicking over nudity than by ignoring it or turning it into a lesson in body education and respect.
Another large source of Angst over naked bodies is religion. This is a problem with a long history in some religions but not others. Many Christians would agree with a statement frequently heard which goes like this: 'Everyone knows the Bible tells us to cover up.' Apart from the exaggeration, this is an example of what psychologist Thomas Gilovich calls false consensus. He shows indirectly that our lives are structured to produce it occasionally, i.e. to overestimate our support through motivational and cognitive mechanisms. His book is insightfully titled, 'How We Know What Isn't So.
Even if a majority really does believe something, that hardly makes it true. At least a few years ago, most people thought the 21st century began last month. In Galileo's time, people 'knew' the sun revolved around the earth. If we could establish validity or usefulness of propositions by polling, that would save us a lot of thinking for ourselves
Many Christians are unwittingly influenced by harmful biblical interpretations from later theologians: for example Augustine in the late 4th century. His attitude, along with many others' since, was that the body is vile but the mind can be pure. Augustine prominently condemned sexual pleasure and declared women lesser beings than men. It wasn't much of a jump to find woman both cause and control of all carnal evil. In two books, Riane Eisler shows how women and their bodies, once a source of wonder and honour, became transformed - not only by the church - into objects of subordination, and often disparagement and abuse.
The Bible contains innocent and useful incidence of nudity. Many baptismal ceremonies for children and adults of either sex occurred with full nudity, possibly of all participants, in Christianity's first few centuries at least. The symbolism should be obvious.
In the Bible, most problems aren't in nudity itself, but with some sinful behaviour it accompanies. Still, this doesn't prevent many from claiming that the story of Adam and Eve proves that we must 'cover up.'
I won't examine the possibility that the Bible is not a rule book or self-help manual. Nor that it isn't the foundation of Canadian law. Nor that Adam and Eve's shame or sin was not nudity but disobedience or hubris.
Why not argue along the lines of Biblical literalists? That Adam and Eve used fig leaves to cover their groins may simply prove - are you ready - that a husband and wife should never see one another's genitals; and moreover, that men and women should go about topfree all the time. I'm sorry that that's such a perversion of such a powerful story.
The essential problem, the art historian Paul LeValley pointed out, is confusion between fundamentalism and religion, between religion and morality, between morality and sex, and between sex and nudity. The opposition of fundamentalists to nudity has several sources and is wholly in error.
Nudism, often called naturism, has significant connections to Frank Cordelle's photographs. Contrary to some people's assumptions, nudism isn't exhibitionism and voyeurism gone mad. Paradoxically, nudist beaches and resorts seem to be mostly safer than others. When clothes come off, other barriers are raised. Codes of conduct are in place not to gawk or harass; indeed to treat people at least as well as when they're clothed. Curiously, the absence of sexual expression, such as flirting and teasing, makes nudist locations more conservative than many other places.Clothes for nudists are a physical and psychological encumbrance to body freedom, especially the feeling of air, water, and sun on the whole body. Nudists find a closer identification with nature which is sometimes spiritual. They consider clothes a dispensable indicator of status or class, a kind of social armour, and unsurprisingly, in recreational and other informal activites, an impediment to trust among strangers.Women have reported feeling more respected in nudist environments than anywhere else in public. They've expressed joy at being naked and not objectified, threatened, or demeaned. Young children may also enjoy themselves more in these environments. If the nudity per se is beneficial for them, helpful adult attitudes towards it and the body reinforce that.Few of the subjects in The Century Project are nudists. But one central concept connects many of them to nudism: body acceptance. We cannot achieve the appearance of models we are constantly told to imitate under threat of acute personal inadequacy. Therefore, we're much better off not even trying. We accept our own unique bodies with their imperfections and treat them as well as we can.The next videos, although promotions for nudism/naturism, raise the theme of body acceptance very clearly. One of the speakers talks of eating disorders; the statistics presented come from 1995. How appropriate to have this here today, because this week is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week across North America.These excerpts run for about five minutes. They are mainly concerned with body image and eating disorders.[VIDEOTAPE I-3. Naturism and women. From The Naturist Society's Experience the Freedom.][VIDEOTAPE III. Zae Zatoon, Stan Dale, Zae Zatoon. From The Naturist Society's Body Positive.]That is a theme that occurs often in The Century Project [referring to the therapeutic value for Zatoon of her discussing her own abuse, in her interview and while nude].
The nude people in these tapes have been in their own isolated areas. Rather intriguing is what happens when nude and clothed encounter each other. Nudists don't generally provoke clothed people; in fact, they don't generally go near them, acting more as respectful guests in their world. When they meet, there may obviously be difficulty. Wreck Beach in Vancouver, Beaconia Beach near Winnipeg, and Hanlan's Beach in Toronto all have different mixes and outcomes.
But there's a unique annual event where the blend of nude and clothed brings virtually no problems: a race and walk each May, 12 km across San Francisco. It's really a gigantic street party, with tens of thousands of people, some just out for exercise but many in every imaginable and unimaginable costume. Among those are what some might call in this situation the costume of nudity.
This is a side street. They went there because it might have proved a little disconcerting to some of the large crowd at the official starting point on Howard Street to find a hundred people suddenly peeling off all their clothes.
For these people, going nude through these streets in this orderly party-parade was about as sexual as the pavement they walked on: different in intent from various Gay Pride parades. Still, it's an environment of tolerance. There are reasons for this, going back more than a decade. It probably helps that it's San Francisco and not Hamilton or Cambridge.
So: if a hundred thousand clothed people can accept a hundred nude runners and walkers in the middle of the day, can we walk clothed over to Room 114 and accept Frank Cordelle's nude subjects?
Why are Frank's subjects nude? You have several answers already. Other reasons come from the history of art and photography, and their handling of the universal fascination with the human form in portraiture.
The nudity in Century is used to achieve something; it's not sufficient in itself. Perhaps the clearest reason for it is that the bodies' topography tells much of their story, individually and together. There's no point depicting a mastectomy and its psychological effects by making it invisible with clothes. Conditions of old age may best be illustrated by naked oldsters refusing to admit to any ugliness foisted on them by disparaging youngsters. Young children's forthrightness may be captured by nudity. Puberty's concerns are often about the body: illustrating them with clothes would miss the elements of change, mystery, and unease. Of course, we may also shut the door on this by declaring that images of naked children under a certain age are intolerable.
In the midst of the raging debate on child pornography, to deal with even the major issues would take a long time. Some have been dealt with in a book called Suggestive Poses, published in 1997. In one article in it, Mary Louise Adams is concerned that there seems no difference between major and minor incidents involving children and nudity or sex. She points out adult obsession and discomfort with sex and our confusion over childhood sexuality. This sometimes privileges harmless activities such as nudity in the home above physical violence and continual neglect as determinants of harm to children.
If we don't believe that possibility, we should consult Cynthia Stewart of Oberlin Ohio. She may face 16 years in jail for taking a few photographs of her daughter in a bath.
Nothing said here condones child abuse, sexual or other. Regardless, The Century Project, with a few nude images of girls in Room 114, will not increase incidence of pedophilia. Those who disagree may be taking Frank's pictures out of their context and putting them into an imagined one of their own. As James Kincaid, English professor at the University of Southern California, noted: it seems that every photo of a naked child 'must pass this test: can we create a sexual fantasy that includes it? Such directives seem an efficient means for manufacturing a whole nation of pedophiles.' That is also Feinberg's principle of 'energetic image-making.'
We mustn't conclude that every photographed naked child is a victim, that adults involved are pedophiles, and the photographer is producing pornography. Even the hastily and badly drawn laws on the subject in the Criminal Code indicate that.
I don't blame people who are concerned about photos of children but hope they find this exhibit bold and beautiful instead of frightful.
To understand women's bodies, we must get as far away as possible from the peculiar notion that worthy women are all about 22 and look like - you can supply your own choice of name. This exhibit shows us that bodies come in all configurations; and more importantly, the photos and words together confirm that the measure of a woman's worth is not the measure of her fetishized body parts.
In Century we find nudity successfully used to defuse nudity; to demythologize and deobjectify girls' and women's bodies; to displace and dethrone the male gaze. Those are the profoundest paradoxes of these photographs, which heterosexual men may have difficulty accepting. Indeed, when they look at this exhibit, men may feel awkward. They're used to connecting nudity with sex much more than women are. But treating the women in this exhibit as enticing models emphatically does not work.
The photos and words accompanying them are of real women, sometimes crying out in anguish or anger, sometimes expressing pride or exultation, or just telling us what they think of their bodies or what it's like to be a woman - or remaining silent. This is an environment of trust, into which we tread with respect. Any other way will lead to failure and degradation - not of the women or the artist, but of the viewer.
Women may also experience difficulty with the exhibit at first, feeling almost as vulnerable as Frank's subjects. But then, as identification takes place, they may accept the imperfections in the subjects' bodies and their own, and recognize the stories. After one showing of Century, a woman decided not to undergo breast augmentation. Another wrote, 'So many important ideas are portrayed in your images, e.g. beauty, family, survival, love, life, loss, womanhood, femininity. You capture the feeling of what it is like to be a woman in a way that touches my heart and soul.'
Looked at deeply, the nudity in Century constitutes not a dare, not a joke, not a transgression even. Isaiah probably understood nudity. Gandhi did. To Kenneth Clark's notions of the nude body, we must add the body of peace. In this exhibit, many nude photos offer an ultimate statement of non-violence, a personal unilateral disarmament.
Is there anything like this project? Oddly there is, although its method is different. A web site called The Body Objective was started a year ago by two women in order to post nude photos of and stories by and about women and their bodies, including their experiences with eating disorders, abuse, and body shame. The two site owners, Cindy Olsen and Peri Escarda, bravely started by posting nude photos of themselves. Here's Peri Escarda, who has accompanied her photo with a poem. She kindly recorded it for us today.
Beautiful in life, not just image. Beautiful in process and relation, not just proportion or object.
And now, two images from another location on the Internet:
It's another paradox, of course. The sexual implications of these clothed young women are much more explicit than those of the naked people you've seen so far. Skimpy clothes such as thong underwear or bathing suits are often more erotic than total nudity, hiding and emphasizing disembodied body parts. Such images are not what The Century Project is about, unless you include its implicit criticism of them.The moral problem is not with a couple of seductive poses in themselves. It's their context, quantity, and pervasiveness. On a wide scale they privilege detached, impersonal, object-centred visual eroticism, especially in male scopophilia, and act as a fetishizing compulsion on both sexes in a debasing cultural hierarchy.
The last videotape is self-explanatory. Like another we've seen, the material was shot about five years ago.[VIDEOTAPE III. Frank Cordelle. From The Naturist Society's Body Positive.]Before concluding, I now introduce to you the 'update' of the photographer you just saw, creator of The Century Project, Frank Cordelle.Frank is available all week to answer questions and enter into discussions, with individuals or with groups or classes.In this talk, it may seem that I've constantly blamed men and praised women. That's not what I've done. Women may be as right or wrong, responsible or irresponsible, insightful or careless as any men. Although feminisms have not always recognized it, women have sometimes collaborated with men in their oppression. Given the hidden nature of some of the oppression, that's hardly surprising. Indeed, only recognition of it allowed the 1960s women's liberation movement to progress.Social construction of gender simply points to histories of men's dominance, which isn't created by identifiable men or women. Much of this dominance has been and still is played out through the body. In three different spellings and meanings, the naked body is sighted by eyes, cited by processes, and sited in society's discourses. In life and art, the body, clothed or not, acts as a site of enactment and reinforcement of a culture's rules and gendered disciplines, especially dominance not by all men but by men in general.However, art, films, other artistic media, television, calendars, even the debate about topfree women and the increase in organized nudist travel - all are changing the body encoding, the body landscape. Nudity in some settings has allowed women to throw off the lack and insufficiency imposed on their bodies. They're no longer influenced by demands to improve their bodies in a never-ending chase after a non-existent norm offering them inferiority and insecurity.Nude or not, women are taking back their bodies. What are they doing about the male gaze? Many are no longer fighting it. They're either welcoming or ignoring it, or both, but on their terms, and therefore not in a demeaning manner. The male gaze may remain - but with its power dissipated, because the object of the gaze is no longer compliant or complicit in subordination or humiliation. Also, increased ordinary nudity in the various media may decrease its sexual signification. All this could change radically the way women are seen and treated, and ultimately the way we all perceive ourselves and relate to each other.Is all this just temporary, some kind of millennium craze? Or, with women leading the way and for once men following, is this a contestation, an emancipation of the body from the discourses and disciplines that mould it?
The following quotation comes from Bill Viola, an American video artist whose production The Messenger, also involving nudity, was at the Art Gallery of Hamilton a year ago.
Frank Cordelle's artistry has helped women to reconcile their mind and body, to transcend their conflicts and traumas, including eating disorders, sexual abuse, other violence, disease, disability, and physical decline. But as I've said, it isn't all dismal. Many of the women in the project reveal joyous and exulting spirits, refusing to be embarrassed about their bodies, refusing to trade in the shame and disgrace of femininity or being female. Still, the risk that all took, naked and vulnerable, has brought the more troubled among them - and among their viewers - some resolution to their own drama, relief from the darker realms of their experience.
The Century Project allows all who connect with it to recognize these struggles and question the negative aspects of our socialization against the body, against ourselves, and often against each other.
You are now invited for the rest of this week to visit with these women as their guests. Thank you for listening to me and for looking at yourself with them.
Follow us ...
Looking for photos?
The Federation of Canadian Naturists (FCN) and the Fédération québécoise de naturisme (FQN) share the Canadian membership in the International Naturist Federation (INF), which has its world headquarters in Antwerp, Belgium.