Young Jean Lee’s “Untitled Feminist Show.” They are not naked to get you off.
Some time ago I wrote about something I like to call “The Piss Christ Test“: the idea that critics–or anyone in the arts–need to always try to take a step back from our own perspective in order to reclaim a certain naïveté with regard to the work we’re considering. Because engagement with a form and the fluency that comes with it can result in a sort of myopia: It becomes easy to read the work from inside the discourse, whereas from outside, the work can be appear needlessly opaque (or worse), which can only be apparent to us if we change our perspective from an insider’s account based upon intent to an outsider’s perspective, someone who’s actually trying to read a given work.
This isn’t exactly the sort of directive you usually hear applied to criticism for precisely the reason that it offers no resolution to the problem it postulates, and criticism has traditionally (and unfortunately) been more about offering answers than asking questions. Which perspective is wrong? The naïve outsider looking at the work of art generated through an unfamiliar practice, or the consummate insider who spends hours a day taking part in the ongoing development of dance or experimental theater? I’m not remotely cocksure enough to try to answer that one. And personally, I doubt there is a satisfactory answer.
Perhaps nowhere can we see this essential tension demonstrated more succinctly than in the issue of nudity onstage. Within the field of contemporary performance, particularly dance, nudity is, in and of itself, so common as to be unremarkable. (In fact, a sure sign of a lack of sophistication would be to present nudity as somehow shocking in its own right; from within the field, tits and cock no longer no longer serve épater la bourgeosie, even though ironically, they actually still do.) And within the discourse surrounding the work, the nude human form can be situated in diverse ways. It’s a political, economic, and erotic location, to name but three broad fields with which it intersects.
Yet we’re all also aware that nudity, outside the arts, often carries a certain stigma. I’d venture to guess that for many artists, this hits close to home in terms of family members for whom nudity onstage and in public is interpreted in solely pornographic terms. It’s stripping, the body reconfigured as exclusively erotic, and exposed to sate the prurient interests of another.
The Piss Christ Test should force us to acknowledge this latter perspective, even if we don’t want to or even if, indeed, we choose to ignore it and proceed as we would otherwise. But we know it’s true. The proof of the pudding is in the eating–someone who interprets nudity as exclusively erotic is revealing a great deal more about himself than he might suppose, and thereby proves his own point. But even without a resolution, we know that these two perspectives exist and clash within the field. And anyone who actually cares about the art form grapples with these issues, which unfold and blossom into increasingly complex configurations and intersections as soon as we look deeper than this superficial dichotomy. It’s all extraordinarily complex, as indeed it should be: Once we consider the issue of “nudity” from this perspective, we realize that we’re not actually talking about nudity at all, but rather arriving at the body as a location of political, economic, and erotic conflicts playing out both within the art form and outside it, in the broader culture.
Given all that, it would seem rather inadvisable to try to approach the topic of “nudity in dance” at all, as a thing in and of itself, and certainly not in any form shorter than book length. Sadly, Alastair Macaulay of the New York Times did not think so, and offered a lengthy and extraordinarily misinformed critical essay last week on just this topic.
It’s not even worth engaging most of his arguments on their own merits–which is sad because beneath the vapid thesis and framing of the piece, Macaulay has some interesting things to say–because the entire thing is based on such a terribly middle-brow analysis as to be worthless.
What do I mean by middle-brow? Well, look at the tension I described above: If the dance people and critics think that someone who sees a naked body and can only think about sex is low-brow and unsophisticated, then I’d wager that our low-brow fellow would readily declare us all high-brow snobs. Both of which perspectives I can personally appreciate. But then there’s the dreaded middle-brow person who seeks to somehow split the difference, someone who finds non-existent middle-ground between two opposing camps: Acceptable to no one and based on misrepresentations of both, it’s the most pointless space to occupy.
That’s where Macaulay winds up. In his attempt to grapple with the issue of nudity, he can’t see any further than his own penis. He starts the piece talking about a visit to a strip club some thirty years ago that he found painfully droll, and he ends not far away, having recast most of the world of contemporary dance as little more than raunchy burlesque whose various shticks he appraises with the cool detachment of a pawnbroker. In fact, if he were to have to rejiggered the essay to be about the “erotic” in dance, he may have had a leg to stand on, but still there’d be no shortage of blindspots, ahistoricisms, and a not-so-subtle misogyny problematizing his analysis.
All of which is deeply unfortunate given his position and platform. I don’t often jump on the bandwagon of people who sit around banging their heads on desks and screaming about what a piss-poor job editors do of putting “real” criticism in print, but seriously–the form deserves better than to have the principal critic of the Times essentially declare that most of the people working in the art form he covers can be credibly seen as strippers and sex objects, an interpretation based on an extraordinarily narrow perspective that has very little to do with the form and does not remotely try to grapple with the actual aesthetic implications of most of the work he references. We would never see the Times‘ art critics make so blunt and unsubtle a point about nudity in the visual arts–why is it okay for Macaulay to do this to the field of dance?