in defence of nudity in self-portraiture*
Now Playing: joan as police woman - to survive
About a month ago I had the good fortune to take part in an afternoon's walk with a group lead by a Melbourne art consultant**. The consultant was very informative, introducing us to some great spaces and reminding us of the variety of innovative art showcased in the streets and laneways of Melbourne, and that the opportunities to exhibit your work are by no means limited to traditional galleries. Some of the spaces she took us to I knew quite well, some I had heard of but had not visited, and some I had not previously heard of at all but really should have.
When the tour ended at an artist's studio above Brunswick Street with wine and cheese, a few of us who had brought along samples had the opportunity to show our work to the consultant and receive feedback and constructive criticism.
I was interested to hear what she might have to say about my work, however hesitant at the same time. Although much of what she said during the walk I agreed with, I was conscious from things she had said that there were points, particularly in regard to photography, where our viewpoints differed quite strongly. Specifically in regard to the use of digital versus film, and as I was to find from her critique of the self-portraiture showcased in my book darkness & light
, in regard to nudity in art.
Not to say that I don't see her views on these aspects as valid and justified responses. I guess, for a start, I just find the judgment by purist film photographers and art collectors that digital photography is "a whole other medium, not photography" [not her exact words], or somehow inferior to film photography, quite tiresome. Admittedly before buying my dSLR I was a skeptic myself: there are many differences between film and digital photography that work as pros and cons depending on what the photographer is wanting to create, what the photographer or viewer's personal preferences are, and the way the photographer prefers to work. But in my view, they are both photography.
I guess it is easy to assume that because I use a digital camera currently and that I am an emerging artist, not an established artist, that I have never used a film camera, but I am a relatively recent convert, only having bought my Nikon D50 in late October 2005, after having shot with film for over 13 years prior to that. I also intend to shoot more film in the future. I don't see digital and film photography as mutually exclusive, just that at this stage digital suits my needs in terms of minimal cost, quick turnaround, greater image control and greater flexibility.
In regard to nudity, she expressed her concern whilst looking through my images, that more and more (especially female) artists were using nudity in their work, and that perhaps this was being exacerbated by artists frequenting online art communities. That perhaps there was a tendency for artists to view these sites not only as art communities, but also potentially as dating sites.
Although I think there are instances where this is a valid concern, for me personally this is not and has never been the case, so I initially found the idea a little absurd and a little insulting. The concern that the primary reason I might incorporate nude self-portraiture (or nudity at all) in my work as a ploy to attract potential partners, to me seems a fairly superficial reading of my images. And in fairness, looking over an artist's body of work created over the course of a year in under five minutes would lend itself to superficiality, so a misreading of my work may be understandable.
Personally, if I were actually using sites like RedBubble and Flickr as dating sites I would have to say it's worked abominably. I've been single (and happily so, mind) for over three years now. Though that's not to say I haven't had my share of interest from other online art community members over the course of my time on the various sites. So I guess it is testament to my not using the sites for the purposes of finding a mate that I have been single for all this time. I meet some wonderfully talented (and in many cases, exceptionally attractive) folk on the various online arts communities I'm on and I enjoy getting to know those people as friends and fellow artists, whether online internationally or in person locally, but I tend to be more enthralled by their art than by the possibility of some sort of amorous tryst eventuating.
As I observed in the epilogue to my 365 Days project, there were approximately 56 days where the photographs were taken whilst I was naked or semi-naked, however only about ten of those images actually include what I would consider nudity (ie, bare breasts, etc, not just bare flesh like shoulders, back and legs) and an even lower count made it into my book. I think this says more about my freedom to wander around my apartment naked (being that I lived alone until recently) and my propensity during the project to shoot soon after I showered, than about wanting to "please the punters".
I think if someone is looking at my work and fixating on the nudity, it says more about the viewer than about me, as nudity plays a relatively small part in my work overall. Whether they are more interested in my body than my artwork, or they have taken umbrage at the increase in nudity in female self-portraiture is dependent on the viewer. It's not an uncommon observation to make about the prevalence of nudity in female self-portraiture: Germaine Greer expressed her view on it
in the Guardian back in January 2008.
This is not to say that the art consultant I showed my work to had an issue with nudity overall or was propounding the belief that nudity in art is invalid. On the contrary, one of my images that she returned to repeatedly in the book was The Artist and Muse in her Studio
. I think it was very clearly an issue of context and, not knowing my work or myself and going on first impressions and titles alone [if she noted them], she had little direct context in which to base my work.
In most instances the use of nudity in my work is entirely contextual [I say "most" because in my online "realms" I don't always compartmentalise what I consider "art" away from my other photographs: my Flickr photostream is more like a semi-personal blog and my website encompasses my art side by side with my commercial style work].
For example, I have used nudity to express vulnerability [But It's Not Enough To Be Lovely
], freedom [Awakenings
] or sensuality [Concupiscence
], to depict characters within film tributes [River's Edge
] or to express personal body image issues [I Want to be Shameless Like the Sun
]. Other times it may be as basic as exploring light and form - I happen to find the female form a beautiful thing to look at and I know I'm not alone in that – or simply that a costume or clothing would detract from the overall feel I'm seeking for the image.
Images she mentioned clearly in the negative were Her Name Was Lola
and Easy Rider
. I would not claim either to be high art, they were both just a bit of fun, but given the book was a collection of images from my 365 Days project
and that I was pleased with the final images, they were included in the book. The whole reason the former image came into being was completely about the pasties, not about my body at all: in conversation with a friend about my fascination with learning to twirl pasties (because most of my photography originates with a fascination with something or other), she revealed she actually had some and offered for me to borrow them. The title was instant because I was unable to get Barry Manilow's song out of my head whilst shooting and editing. The latter came about purely because another friend offered me the use of his motorcycle as a prop and 'kitsch bikini pin-up' was the first thing that came to my mind.
As the consultant herself stated, being an artist is often a self-indulgent practice and much of the strongest art comes from artists expressing what they know, their personal experiences, emotions, etc. And what can we or do we seek to know better than ourselves?
Germaine Greer states "the woman who displays her own body as her artwork seems to me to be travelling in the tracks of an outworn tradition that spirals downward and inward to nothingness". "Why can't she use someone else's? There is a possible answer, which is that the use of the nude is necessarily exploitative, and therefore a female artist who needs to use a body has no option but to use her own, but surely it can be no more than a sophistry. Why does a female artist need to use flesh in the first place?"
[It's interesting to note the comments above from the Guardian article The connection between art and exhibitionism
came a mere three months after another Guardian article of Greer's entitled Immodest Proposals
, in which she praised the work of a number of female artists who used themselves as nude subjects].
In my view using flesh in my work is simply a part of expressing who I am or who the characters I'm depicting are. As I wrote in an interview with Phirebrush
, "The reality is that people are not just faces and hands and backs and shoulders and feet. My complete body is an important part of who I am and contributes to how I see myself, clothed or unclothed. My sexuality is also an inseparable part of who I am, however it is not
all that I am, therefore the assumption that an image showing nudity is always about sexuality is a superficial view."
The argument that female artists might resort to using themselves in their art rather than another person because it may be "necessarily exploitative" ignores the very common preference of many female self-portrait artists I know (myself included) to have full control over their creative images – from concept through framing, shooting, styling and posing, to post-processing and exhibition.
In addition, the common dismissal of a physically attractive artist using themselves in their work is extremely shallow. The use of oneself in an artist's work is often intrinsic to the piece as it serves to further personalise the context of the work; so to say an artwork is less valid because the artist doesn't have the [in Greer's words] "flab" of Jenny Saville
, for example, is insulting.
Like many women I have a love-hate relationship with my face and my figure. Dysmorphia to varying degrees is rampant amongst most women I know. Although self-portrait artists like Katie West
honestly say they are not subject to low self-esteem
despite claims leveled at them even by close friends, the same cannot be said for all female self-portrait artists [we are only human after all]. For myself, as noted above, often nude self-portraiture is a way of confronting this distorted view of myself and my personal body issues, but not, as is often thought, by holding the images up to an audience and receiving positive affirmation from others.
Often it is as simple as replacing a mirror with a camera in order to emotionally remove myself from my reflection and to be able to see myself objectively - not in the manner of the "male gaze", but in a less distorted, less hypercritical, non-subjective manner. As most women and men would attest, it is easy to look at another's face and body appreciatively and without judgment, but not so your own. Flaws and imperfections come to the fore in respect to our own appearance, so for me often getting out of my own skin [of a fashion] is one way of dealing with this.
If those images also explore character, narrative, a particular emotion or a particular moment then they transcend what might be seen as mere therapy to become art.
As I stated in the Phirebrush interview, if I were photographing other models and I had their permission to publish or exhibit images of them nude, my primary consideration would be in the merit of the overall image. Although in respect to the internet there are still the added considerations of who may be viewing the images; how family and friends may perceive the images and what the repercussions may be (if any); and my own body image issues and personal feelings that need to be contended with, I try to keep the merit of the overall image as my primary consideration.
As a self-portrait artist who incorporates nudity into my work, I am finding it more and more common to have my motives for this questioned, which is something I now find alternately amusing and annoying. As has been evidenced by comments on my Flickr photostream, my bare feet are just as liable to be coveted by viewers of my work as my bare breasts, yet no one asks me to justify photographing myself barefoot. Although from time to time my work including nudity receives more attention than I feel is due to it than to those images where I am clothed, I see no reason to self-censor my ideas or modify my vision for images in this respect as the most important thing to me in creating images is to remain true to the ideas I have.
Despite how this may all sound, I did greatly appreciate the art consultant sharing her knowledge with our group, and the time she took to look through and give feedback to myself and others who brought along samples of their work.
Questioning your motives, both in art and in life, is healthy; whether prompted by your own instincts or in response to others' criticism. *Yes, this is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek Susan Sontag style title.
**I have not named the art consultant as this is not intended as a personal attack on her at all, it was merely her comments that prompted my further examination of my work and intentions and subsequently inspired me to put my thoughts down "on paper". Just because I disagree with her on some points in regard to art does not mean I have any less respect for her knowledge and her ability to give constructive criticism.