AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

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“TO OPEN MY LEGS IS TO OPEN MY MOUTH”: SEXUALITY AND ART

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In September this year, French-Luxembourgian performance artist Deborah De Robertis exposed her vagina in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.

A few days ago, she was acquitted of charges of sexual exhibitionism by Paris’s High Court. Why? Because (a) her intent was not sexual in nature, and (b) the “material element of the crime” was missing (= you couldn’t *see* her genitalia because pubic hair obscured it). (Yes, you may giggle now.)

She was, however, sentenced to 35 hours of public service for biting (and damaging?) a security guard’s jacket.

De Robertis has done a few of these controversial performance pieces. Last year, she posed as Manet’s Olympia in front of the painting in the Musée D’Orsay. See her video of the performance below. (May be NSFW, depending on your W.)

She told artnet News that the court “has found that my [Mona Lisa performance] can not constitute an offense of sexual exhibitionism because of its political, activist, and artistic dimension.” Furthermore, “I show the genitals of women as they are, hairy and natural, and my nudity is not sexual because it refers to the pictorial nude.”

However, at the Olympia performance, she read a letter that included the following: “By accusing me of indecent exposure you publicly deny the point of view of the same nude models that you expose, thereby reducing them to mere objects.” (You can read her full letter in the comments on the above video.)

I don’t think she should backpedal quite so hard by maintaining that her nudity is “not sexual because it refers to the pictorial nude.” Her nudity is complicated. She is a living, breathing person who stands, sits, or lies before the audience. If we experience her nudity as sexual, then we should question why we don’t experience Olympia or other “pictorial nudes” as sexual. And if we do start to or do sometimes see those as sexual, then we should ask to what degree this is or should be objectionable.

So while the acquittal states that her intent was not of a sexual nature, this is in a sense simply false. Her intent was primarily and fundamentally of a sexual nature. It is about sex and gender in art. It isn’t about sex acts (at least not exactly or directly), but it certainly is about the male gaze and the objectification of women, which is ultimately impossible to separate from heterosexuality and sex acts themselves.

In fact, precisely what she is doing is subverting the ways in which we normally interact with the pictorial nude. The pictorial nude is a disembodied object, which is exactly what her performances aim to upend. Why is it that her actual nude body must be censored, while the image of another woman’s nude body is fine? Defenses of nudity in art indeed often try to toe the line that artistic nudity is not sexualized, vulgar, or otherwise problematic, but if we understand the implications of her own work, it may become difficult to stand behind this defense.

Of course I’m not suggesting that we censor art. (I haven’t even touched on the related complexity of prudish and repressive attitudes toward sex.) I am saying that there is an important respect in which her work is sexual, and should be permitted to be so. Obviously, her intent was not to sexually harass or assault, but to expose (hah) the way that we interact with women’s naked bodies in art: as objects and images, at a safe distance, and above all, silent. So, to be clear, I am not taking issue with her acquittal, nor with the acceptability of nudity in art. Surely these are both the right answers. But the reasoning in both cases seems a little off. The answer has to be more nuanced than what we’ve gotten so far.

(For those interested in feminist performance art, De Robertis isn’t the first to take on these issues. A couple of especially interesting cases include VALIE EXPORT‘s influential work comments on voyeurism in film through Action Pants: Genital Panic (1968) and Touch Cinema (1968-71). And the latter EXPORT work has been performed more recently by Swiss artist Milo Moiré.)

Read more about it all here:

Header image: detail from Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale (1968)

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