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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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Though body image seemed to be less of a concern 40 years ago, Schneemann said “the same over-idealizations inhabited women’s sense of how they should be or could be,” and some of that bubbled up to the surface of their performance pieces. In “Carving: A Traditional Sculpture” (1972), Eleanor Antin recorded herself losing 10 pounds over 37 days, playing with the idea of Greek sculptors carving at marble to create ideal forms. Two years later, Canadian artist Lisa Steele blurred the gender lines when she filmed close up images of her various disembodied imperfections in the video “Birthday Suit — with Scars and Defects.” Though Chicago admits that anorexia and bulimia weren’t yet major issues during this time, she recalls a film in Fresno by one female artist that showed “a very large, naked woman getting into a bathtub and caressing herself.”

Chicago blames the “white male canon” for the fact that, 40 years later, Dunham’s normal naked body is still considered “shocking.” “When I created ‘The Dinner Party,’ I believed that I would be able to break the cycle of erasure that it recounts in which century after century, women do not know what women before them thought, taught or created,” she said. “Now I understand that we are still IN that cycle largely because the mainstream institutions (universities and museums) perpetuate a male-centered curriculum and art in which women are ‘added on.’”

But Dunham is breaking the cycle in one institution at least: Hollywood. The self-styled feminist knows about Chicago’s work, even if precious few others in Tinseltown do. Last April, in response to L Magazine’s question of who she would invite “living or dead” to her fantasy dinner party, Dunham listed off everyone from Katharine Hepburn to Tavi Gevinson and said they would all be eating “on plates designed by Judy Chicago.” And while still a student at Oberlin College, Dunham appeared to give Chicago another nod with her 2008 performance piece “The Fountain,” which she uploaded to YouTube. According to the New Yorker, the video (which was removed after garnering 1.5 million hits) showed the 21-year-old student breaking the rules by stripping down to a bikini and performing her ablutions in the campus fountain. Dunham’s work reminded Wark of Chicago’s 1972 performance piece “Ablutions,” a meditation on rape that included a tub in which women were “bathed.”

Over the years, Dunham continued (and continues) to include the art world in various forms in her work. In her first series, the 2009 web show “Delusional Downtown Divas,” which was made for the art magazine Index and includes a cameo by ’60s performance artist Joan Jonas, three pretentious New Yorkers attempt to cash in on their 15 minutes in the local art scene. And in her subsequent indie meta-feature “Tiny Furniture,” Dunham’s college-grad alter ego moves back in with her artist mother (played by the director’s own mom, photographer Laurie Simmons). Then there’s Marnie, the wannabe curator in “Girls” who realizes in the second season that she may already be a dinosaur.

Delusional Downtown Divas #1 (Desperate Decadence) from Delusional Downtown Divas on Vimeo.

For better or worse, Dunham was weaned on art. Her mother is a photographer who creates domestic miniatures with dolls, and her dad, Carroll Dunham, creates paintings “inhabited by rectangular shapes sprouting male genitals,” according to the New Yorker. In an interview with Baltimore City Paper in 2011, Lena admitted that, on top of the semi-autobiographical subject matter of “Tiny Furniture,” her mother’s photographs inspired the film’s minimalist aesthetic. And despite her father’s refusal to appear in her projects, Lena described his work as having “kind of an interesting body-sexuality thing to it that I think I found sort of liberating and inspiring.”

 
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