Naked News: We're Still Prudes! Even at the Museum

A naked man and skeleton, appearing in Marina Abramovic's career retrospective at MoMA. Emily Anne Epstein / Corbis

Two naked people, one man and one woman, stand facing each other in a doorway. Halfway up a wall, a naked woman sits on a bicycle seat, slowly raising and lowering her arms. In another room, a man lies on a bench with a skeleton draped over his body. Both the man and the skeleton are unclothed.

The naked people are currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, where they are part of a retrospective of performance artist Marina Abramović's work. Performers recreate pieces from the artist's career, while on another floor, Abramović stages her latest installation, entitled The Artist Is Present, for which she will sit at a table, not eating, drinking, or speaking all day, every day, for the duration of the show. She is not naked.

The show is about halfway through its run, and already several visitors have been asked to leave for interfering with the work. Just as museumgoers are not allowed to caress a Rodin or scrape at a corner of a Rembrant, viewers of the Abramović show are supposed to keep their hands to themselves. But they don't, and earlier this month, a man with a 30-year membership was barred from the museum for life after he groped one of the performers. Models report more subtle encounters with errant hands and body parts as well; one told a reporter he'd felt erections against the back of his hand more times than he could count. But the excitement, it seems, is mutual: as the New York Post reported, one of the male models was asked to leave his post after he became visibly aroused. So why does the appearance of flesh still have the power to shock, titillate, and disgust?

It would seem that after centuries of looking at naked bodies in the name of artistic enlightenment, we would be accustomed to checking our prurience at the museum door. We even have a different word for unclothed bodies when the presentation is arty: they're not naked, they're nude. In Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, a new show of photographs by Ryan McGinley, the naked (excuse me, nude) subjects mostly stare at the camera with bored nonchalance, almost daring the viewer to notice they forgot to put on their drawers. When people do react negatively to images of flesh, we are quick to cry censorship, or at least artistic insensitivity, as when Cardinal Carafa objected to the naked figures in Michelangelo's painting of The Last Judgement, or when former attorney general John Ashcroft had two partially nude statues at the Department of Justice hidden behind a curtain. Schoolchildren can be depended upon to giggle and point at the David, but that's because they're children. Adults, it's presumed, know the difference between nudity as titillation (porn) and nudity as edification (art).

The Abramović show is different. The most obvious reason is because it involves real people, not sculpture or images. But Abramović is not the first artist to install live models as part of her performances. Abramović's work is all about control—the artist controlling her own body, controlling her aversion to pain, controlling her fear of death. And, as the installation makes clear, it is also about the artist controlling her audience. Apparently not all audience members are quite so willing to submit to Abramović's will.

Nudity would seem the ultimate vulnerability, but the nudity on display in Abramović's work is carefully defended. Guards stand watch over all the performers. Placards list the rules for the performances. Museumgoers who want to sit across from Abramović during her show-long vigil are instructed not to make faces, not to speak, not to touch the artist, and not to take photographs. They can sit as long as they want, but they can't break the rules.

There's an inherent tension in looking at art in public institutions, the desire to interact with the piece (get close to it, touch it, turn it over for a better view) bumping up against the strictures imposed by the guardians of the art. (Think of those museums where sensors go off if you lean over an invisible line for a better view.) By presenting so many naked bodies, Abramović makes the viewer aware of the controls being enacted on their own bodies. It requires discipline for the models to participate in the show, but it also takes discipline to view it.

On a recent Saturday, Abramović sat, impassive and barely moving, at her table, while across from her a visitor mimicked her stillness. Guards, dressed in standard-issue uniforms, stood on the perimeter of the atrium, keeping watch over the proceedings. But the visitor was well-behaved, and the guards looked bored. They began gesturing to each other across the atrium, making hand-signals and cracking each other up. The spontaneity of their movements, and the freedom of their interaction, made the "official" exhibit seem dour, even oppressive by comparison.