Staying naked to save feminist art?

Today I came across a ‘street performance’ by a naked artist who explained she was a feminist. She invited the passer-bys to take photos with her, telling them that all the photos would be part of a bigger project. It’s a cold morning in Barcelona, but she reassured everyone that she was ‘staying naked to save feminist art’.

Nudes traditionally filled the paintings of artists old and modern, from Rubens to Modigliani. The ‘female’ nudity was always an ‘aesthetic object’ of beauty or desire, and rarely transcended this assigned ‘iconography’. When it did, it assumed spiritual and even divine associations (Da Vinci is a classical example), but that was the exception rather than the rule.

Then came the birth pangs in the 60s of a ‘feminist’ art committed to social change, an art that reflected on –and questioned- gender issues, turning the female body from ‘subject matter’ to ‘statement’. Eventually, the naked female body in art became an outcry, at times because it was the only ‘medium’ left for women artists to express themselves and be ‘seen’, and at other times because it was the most ‘direct’ message with a ‘guaranteed impact’ (which is in part –and by definition- what cause-related art is about).

This has been the case with many performances, happenings and other art forms from Valie Export and Carolee Schneemann and all the way to Tracey Emin, the examples are so many, and many questions arose: why does it have to be like this? Isn’t it –again- a way of objectifying the female body? Does feminism have to be naked to stay alive?

Of course not. Cindy Chicago, Barbara Kruger and the Guerrilla Girls did not ‘resort’ to nudity in passing their message across through their artwork. Nudity in art is a powerful tool, the human body is a very strong medium, I hate to see it squandered (Tracey Emin’s case), and I love to see it wittily and inspiringly put to the test (Carolee Schneemann’s case). Mine is a purely conceptual (rather than aesthetic) frame of reference.

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