I See Naked People: Times Feels the Pain of 'Modern Art' Exhibitionists

The Times engaged in promoting a very tabloidish display of exhibitionism on Friday's front page.
The front page of Friday's Times has an article on people going naked in public - as part of an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. "Some Forget You Should Not Touch the Art," quipped the headline. Reporter Claudia LaRocco relayed the outrage of a young dancer named Will Rawls as he was touched by an "older man" as he stood in the buff:

"He proceeded to slide his hand onto my ribs and back and then touched my butt," Mr. Rawls said. "As he was passing me he looked me in the eyes and said 'You feel good, man.'"

Rawls complained to security, and the museum "revoked the man's 30-year membership and barred him from returning to the museum." Such outrage is the only kind expressed in the Times account. Nowhere in the piece was there any outrage at the public nudity itself, or any hint at whether the "art object" could get arrested for indecent exposure.

This is odd, considering the case of Kathleen Neill. Last August, she was arrested for public nudity - inside the Museum of Modern Art. The Times never reported it.

She was posing nude for photographer Zach Hyman, not as an exhibit, but as part of Hyman's moving studio of nudes in public places - including the subway. The judge dismissed the case in November. The Times could have explained that New York's law for indecent exposure excludes breast-feeding mothers and "any person entertaining or performing in a play, exhibition, show or entertainment."

LaRocco was more interested in just titillating the reader:

In addition to the gropers, there have been less extreme but still unnerving encounters. Mr. Rawls, for example, said that standing with his arms at his side he had felt more erections "across the back of my hand than I can count,"and Kennis Hawkins, also an "Imponderabilia" performer, described a visitor surreptitiously taking waist-high pictures of her and her partner in the piece last weekend. (Photography is forbidden.)

...Rebecca Davis, a performer who has been out for several weeks with a back injury unrelated to the show, said she, too, had been surprised by the number of unsuitable gestures. She recalled her shock at hearing that "someone was grabbed in their private parts" the first weekend of the show, and recounted how a woman, perhaps intoxicated, clutched the fingers of the two people in "Point of Contact," in which two immobile performers stare and point at each other.

"She was probably thinking she was playful, but the act itself seemed aggressive," Ms. Davis said.

Once again, LaRocco isn't fully informing the reader as to the level of "aggression" in some of the "art" itself, conceived by performance artist Marina Abramovic. Rewind to the New York Times of March 20, 2010, a story titled "Who's Afraid of Marina?" by Randy Kennedy:

Probably the most talked-about part of the exhibition - generating headlines like ''Squeezy Does It'' in The New York Post - is a re-creation of a 1977 work in which Ms. Abramovic and her partner then, the German artist Frank Uwe Laysiepen, known as Ulay, faced each other naked within the frame of a gallery doorway, forcing people who wanted to enter to squeeze between them. Throughout the day at MoMA, some people did submit to the squeeze, with both men and women generally turning to face the female performer when there was a male-female pairing at the door.

But easily two-thirds of MoMA patrons moving from the first gallery into the second stared over at the flesh-flanked doorway - some people staring for an inordinately long time - and then decided to take the art-free route, through a plain doorway that required no bodily contact.

"I just can't do it,"' said Maria Gabriela Madrid, a fiction writer from San Antonio. ''I feel like it's too personal, too much of an invasion of their space."

Isn't it funny for the Times to sneer a bit at the Post, as if the Times, and the museum, aren't engaged in promoting a very tabloidish display of exhibitionism?

LaRocco closed the article in complete (if clothed) submission to Abramovic and the publicists of MoMA:

In a brief statement, the museum's communications department stressed that untoward incidents have been few and far between during the run of what it described as a heavily trafficked show. MoMA, the statement added, is "well aware of the challenges posed by having nude performers in the galleries," and "discussions took place between MoMA's security staff and Marina Abramovic and the performers to ensure that the performers would be comfortable in the galleries at all times."

And despite the physical and emotional discomfort of these encounters - and the draining nature of the work - all theperformers interviewed said they were often exhilarated by their daily shifts (some of which are now as short as an hour 15 minutes, because of several fainting episodes). There are plenty of magical moments with strangers, including those who innocently touch bare skin, whisper "thank you" or do improvisational little dances that have the usually stoic performers cracking up.

Many of these artists have their own careers as dancers and choreographers, and they described the MoMA experience as making them feel simultaneously more vulnerable and more empowered. Asked how the museum setting differed from a stage show, Mr. Lai said it was far more fulfilling.

"You get immediate feedback," he said. "You're causing a definite reaction in the audience, different from the typical reaction you want in a regular stage performance. This is more about human nature."

One more conservative angle was missing from the Times piece: the Museum of Modern Art's taxpayer funding. They claim it's less than one percent of their budget of more than $100 million.

- Tim Graham is Director of Media Analysis at the Media Research Center.