Double Exposure: Artists are summoning the age-old distinction between naked and nude, on gender roles, sexual politics and more
It might have been a test of how our perceptions of the unclothed body in art have changed over the past four decades: Two years ago, at the Museum of Modern Art, a young man and a young woman stood facing each other in a doorway, immobile and wearing nothing. Visitors could choose to squeeze between them or to use another entrance into the exhibition.
The piece, called Imponderabilia, was a re-creation of a 1977 performance work by Marina Abramovic (together with her then-partner, Ulay), and it was among the most talked-about aspects of her 40-year retrospective at MoMA. Most reviewers referred to the two people in the doorway as “naked,” but might they not also be thought of as nudes—living embodiments of a long line of sculptures of the human body stretching back to Greek kouroi, especially since the “performers” were trained dancers with well-toned bodies, who stood as stiff as, well, statues?
Naked or nude? Or something else altogether in our postmodern stew of mediums and messages?
Half a century ago, when Kenneth Clark published The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, he could make a clear distinction: “To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition,” he wrote. “The word ‘nude,’ on the other hand, carried in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled, defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body re-formed.”