Art, Nudity and Necessity

On Friday night, I kicked off my weekend by going with a friend – an arts journalist – to a theatre production wrapping up its run.

Overall, I liked the play and its messages.  (You can visit Play Anon’s blog for her take.)

But near the end, the leading actor (and central character) – in what would have been the emotional height of the play – took off ALL his clothes and just stood there on stage. Stark naked.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t taken aback.

A couple of times, I cast a sideways glance at my friend. She was partially covering her mouth with her hand. I could only guess at any number of things that could have been running through her head. But among them, she probably wasn’t thinking:

“I can’t believe I’m looking at this guy’s junk.”

Sophmoric and unsophisticated? Well, I’ve never professed not to be.

But it did get me to thinking … Was this necessary?

I know I’m not asking an original question. But I think it’s one occasionally worth raising.

When is seeing an artist nude crucial to the message they’re trying to convey? And when it is just gratuitous ? 

With respect to the production I saw – and without going into much detail – I think I understood why he did it. Within the context of the piece, he used his body to represent, among other things, vulnerability and discomfort at facing a personal truth.

That also probably meant also getting us to face our own personal discomforts … making us in the audience feel just as uncomfortable  … to address the matter head on (so to speak).

For as he stood there in all his naked glory, save for his pair of socks, I found it difficult to look at him – and to look away.

Was it relevant? In this case, yes, I think so. But I still hold my reservations.

I’ve never considered myself to be the most liberal person around – who truly is? But I don’t think I’m a complete prude, either.

Neither is the friend with whom I saw the play. But I think even she has her limits.

When we hung out on a previous occasion, she recalled going to an art charity event a few weeks earlier. One actor – a friend of hers – did this piece in which he performed au naturel.

She said the performance made her a bit mad. She felt as if her colleague had gone for that “gotcha” moment, doing his bit naked, because he thought he could get away with being able to do it for art’s sake.

I remember another instance, a handful of years back, in which I went to the film festival here in town. A friend of a friend had a free movie ticket at the last minute; I thought, why not?

Granted, when she was like, “We’re going to see a sex film,” almost gleefully, I knew what I was getting into.

The film itself – based on the blurb I read beforehand – focussed on the anatomy of a relationship from just the physical perspective.

Was there nudity? You bet. Was it explicit? Yes. Was it a cinematic achievement? Hardly. I just thought it was a bit excessive.

Looking back, I wonder: did I just spend almost two hours in a theatre on that late summer evening watching glorified pornography? Or art?

Maybe that’s a bit of a stretch. So consider this:

For the last couple of spring semesters, another friend of mine – a high-school art teacher – goes through the process of finding people to work as nude models for her students’ sketch class. 

Is this acceptable?

To me, I don’t see a “gotcha” element to this. It’s for educational purposes – learning to sketch and draw a live form.

Do I think it’s the only acceptable circumstance? No, of course not.

I’m sure this won’t be the last time I’ll see nudity in an art piece or production. Perhaps as I see more of them, my personal standards will expand.  

Or maybe I’ll never stop questioning its relevance.