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Naked if I Want To: Lena Dunham’s Body Politic

Critics can't stop cringing, but the "Girls" star's prolific nudity harks to a decades-old feminist art tradition.

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Before Schneemann lay naked in her 1963 installation “Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions,” female artists kept their own nudity out of their work. “It was private, it wasn’t part of any explicit cultural discussion except as pornography or science,” Schneemann said. “The taboo about penetration and moisture and intercourse, really that overrode any other aesthetic conversation.” She started including herself in her own “body collages” in response to the “constrained realm” in which female artists lived. “I thought that was suppressive and an artifice and it didn’t respond to the way I experience my own life,” she said. “I thought I could work differently.”

Man, did she ever. In her controversial 1967 film “Fuses,” which won the Cannes Film Festival Special Jury Selection prize a year later, Schneemann recorded herself having sex with her boyfriend then manipulated the celluloid – staining, painting and re-editing and mixing the images with nature photographs. In so doing, she revealed how a woman’s depiction of her own sex act differed from a man’s. Despite stating in her 1976 book, titled “Cezanne, She Was a Great Painter,” that her work was intended to make “a gift of my body to other women,” Schneemann was promptly labeled a narcissist and an exhibitionist. It was a criticism largely reserved for women, claimed renowned feminist art critic Lucy R. Lippard in her seminal 1976 essay “The Pains and Pleasures of Rebirth: European and American Women’s Body Art.”


“A woman using her own face and body has a right to do what she will with them, but it is a subtle abyss that separates men’s use of women for sexual titillation from women’s use of women to expose that insult,” she wrote, adding, “Men can use beautiful, sexy women as neutral objects or surfaces, but when women use their own faces and bodies, they are immediately accused of narcissism.”

Though Lippard allowed that there is an element of exhibitionism in body art – “perhaps a legitimate result of the choice between exploiting oneself or someone else” – she refused to accept that artists like Schneemann were vain. To illustrate her point, she used male performance artist Vito Acconci, whose 1971 work “Seedbed” had him lying underneath a gallery ramp masturbating and fantasizing about the visitors above. “Because women are considered sex objects, it is taken for granted that a woman who presents her nude body in public is doing so because she thinks she is beautiful,” Lippard wrote. “She is a narcissist, and Acconci, with his less romantic image and pimply back, is an artist.”

While Schneemann was exposing her unblemished back on the East Coast, Judy Chicago promoted performance art on the West Coast. By the 1970s, Chicago had reportedly coined the term “Feminist Art” prior to launching the Fresno Feminist Art Program, the first of its kind in the U.S. There, she used performance as part of a “consciousness raising objective,” according to Jayne Wark, author of 2006′s “Radical Gestures: Feminist Performance Art in North America.” Like Schneemann, Chicago employed the medium to break women out of their established position in society. “I discovered – long before feminist theory – that my young female students all knew how to ‘perform’ femininity, and I helped them translate those abilities into performances,” Chicago said via e-mail, “including ‘The Cock and Cunt Play,’ which I wrote and used to help the students deal with their limitations because the ‘female role’ (as we called it then) interfered with their abilities to grow as artists.”

Throughout the ’70s, performance art began to proliferate (“Women often flock to new creative areas because there are not the same institutional barriers,” said Chicago), with conventionally beautiful women like Schneemann at the helm. According to Knafo, pretty performers would use their looks to “question the person with the gaze.” In Hannah Wilke’s 1979 work “So Help Me Hannah: What Does This Represent/What Do You Represent (Reinhart), 1978–1984,” for example, the artist sat in a corner lost in thought, naked, her legs spread. “It would ordinarily be a pornographic image but it’s not because she’s got her hand on her head and she’s thinking, so you see her as a thinking woman, not just as a sexual object,” Wark explained.

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