Nudity and art: what's our problem?
We snigger when artists like Marina Abramović expose themselves in performance. But shouldn't we be cheering their bravery instead?
Bare necessities ... a visitor to the Marina Abramović retrospective passes between two naked actors. Photograph: Mary Altaffer/AP
"So what kind of art is that?" asked a Radio 5 Live presenter on Friday evening, with a giggle. He was responding to the news that some members of the audience had been ejected from the Marina Abramović retrospective, The Artist Is Present, at New York's Moma for touching the naked performers. The piece in question is a recreation of Abramović's 1977 piece Imponderabilla, created with her then-partner, the German artist Ulay, in which the pair stood nude and very close together in a doorway, so that those passing through had to directly confront the artists' gaze and, of course, their nakedness.
Even before the incident at Moma, the nature of Abramović's practice, which stretches back 40 years to the 1970s, and which has frequently involved her body (a 1974 performance asked audiences to select one of 72 objects, including a gun, and use them on her body in whatever way they wanted), has been the subject of casual derision in some quarters; and of course the latest story has caused plenty of sniggering.
When will we stop laughing and start cheering the bravery of these artists? As Abramović herself observed when security concerns were first raised about the amount of naked flesh on display, we seem less comfortable now about nudity in the gallery or the theatre than we were 30 years ago: "In 1977, there was no problem, and it looks like now there is a problem. So, what's wrong? ... In America, they showed Janet Jackson's nipple by accident and that was the main news of any TV programme for days, at the same time as the Iraq war. That's totally wrong."