September 12, 2007


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No, really, he was. It was Saturday night and I sat at the Common Ground drenched from another one of Ithaca’s torrential downpours and watched as one of the most beautiful men I’ve ever had the fortune of being within ten feet of dance naked in the name of art. The show was called Queer Love Shoefest, and the performer of the first piece was completely naked. Did I mention that already?
He didn’t start out naked; in fact, I had no idea the show involved full frontal nudity. If you like, you can blame my Midwestern upbringing for my naivete; apparently most performance art includes naked people. Throughout the show my slightly prudish self tried to maintain decorum as the immature 12 year old inside of me pointed at his penis and snickered. But still, it was performance art, and I could at least pretend to be a cultured adult.
Now, as I just admitted, I’m a bit of a hypocritical prude when it comes to nudity. I’m the first to preach about the unfairness of men going shirtless in public on a hot day when I’m standing there sweating in a tank top. Half of my major’s focus is sexuality studies (and no, that is not “hot,” random guy I met Friday). But still, I turn a little red when it comes to nudity or sex in public, especially when it’s labeled as art. But I’m not embarrassed about being embarrassed, mainly because- seriously? Y’all are somewhat embarrassed too.
We’re quick to blame our culture’s history for our awkwardness with sex. After all, censorship is much stricter in the States than in Europe, where the body is displayed in every art form without a single “ahem.” As the loveably moronic Cooper pointed out in Euro Trip, our country was founded by Puritans – and it’s that religious background that gives us such a Victorian sensibility… or at least we like to think it does.
Our more cultured selves tend to appreciate sex and nudity as an art form, aligning with the liberal, artistically minded, European sensibility. (If you think I’m being facetious now, it’s because I am.) It’s not that we shouldn’t; the human body is beautiful (duh), and because art imitates life, and sex is an important part of life, then sex appears in art. One might argue that in our post-post-modern world, sex and nudity actually imitate art or product, but that’s a little over my head (you can explain it to me later). Anyhoo, all this creates a bit of an issue: when do I get to call it porn and giggle, and when is it art and I have to take it seriously?
Luckily, the Supreme Court anticipated that I would be writing this column and would need a little help, so back in 1973 they created something called the Miller test that would help answer resolve the “Is it porn? Is it art?” puzzle for the masses. One condition of the test is called the (S)LAPS Test. The test – (Serious) Literary, Artistic, Political, Scientific — which gets points from me for its unclear use of parentheses, claims that if the art/porn in question doesn’t have any redeeming social value, it’s pornography. Yup, that’s not subjective or vague at all.
At what point then does porn stop being porn and become art? Why is it that while the show I was at was considered art, strip clubs are trashy? Is the only difference that we are told one is art, and the other is that loaded-term: trash? You can argue that if the intention is artistic, then it automatically has merit, but by that logic every work made by an artist who took him/herself too seriously qualifies. I’m not innocent in this; I’m the first to say “that was just a gratuitous sex scene.” But on the other hand, what do we mean by gratuitous? Has anyone said, “Hey look, gratuitous food scene! Why are those people eating pizza?! That’s gratuitous! Make it stop!”
We don’t because it doesn’t make us uncomfortable. Unlike nudity, we don’t compensate for our discomfort by averting our eyes from food’s private parts. But with a naked person, it’s different. We feel like trespassing on an extremely private, vulnerable moment. Thus, we distance ourselves. Ironically, in our discomfort we stop seeing the performer as a person, and instead see him or her as a piece of art, which is not that far off from a piece of something else.
If you’ve ever watched bad porn for kicks, then you realize there is generally something missing — you don’t care about the characters. They aren’t vulnerable, they are just naked. But if you feel like you’re intruding, like you should turn your head or offer them a shirt, if you want to appreciate their work while still maintaining decorum — then that is art because it acknowledges the people behind it. Go ahead and blush — it’s a compliment. Embrace your embarrassment- I am, and I’m even wearing clothes.