Sunday, June 26, 2005

Tasteful Nudity, Part II (Shifts in Perceptions)

It's been a while since the first Tasteful Nudity post, and I do want it to be a regular feature, so today I want to highlight the work of my favorite Dadist, Man Ray. Undoubtedly one of the most inventive (technically and stylistically) artists of his generation, Man Ray seemingly never tired of finding reasons to photograph women with no clothes on.

One of my artists, Jennifer Dalton, has this great PowerPoint piece titled, "Contemporary Art According to Jen" in which she skewers the rationales and strategies artists use to position themselves in the art market. It's a very funny piece in which she names names and doesn't hold back, including this slide titled, "It May Seem Like This Work Is About Sexy, Near-Naked Women, But It's Really About Something Else Entirely." Man Ray was the king of artists employing this strategy.

It's ironic that today we could offer up Man Ray's work as an example of "tasteful" nudity, as he most definitely sought to stir up controversy with it. But given where some contemporary artists have dared to go, Man Ray's work seems almost academic today. Almost...this image is still provocative:

Man Ray, Julia,
silver print, 1942

Considering the year (1942), I'm sure this image was just as controversial as, say, Andres Serrano's are today. Of course, if John Ashcroft had had his way, it might have become just as controversial again, but, thankfully, in case you hadn't heard, Gonzales isn't quite as prudish; the boobs at the DOJ have been exposed.

Occassionally, Man Ray's works borders on obvious gratuitousness (that is, the artistic/conceptual objective, if there really is one, gets lost among all the breasts). Consider this image:

Man Ray, Electricité, 1931, photogravure, 10" x 8"

The "electricity" excuse for this piece may have seemed advant garde at one time (it certainly seems to speak to the curators at the Chrysler Museum of Art [they own it]), but today it's just annoyingly obstructing our view of her left nipple.

This image (from his first film "Retour á la raison") is a bit less obvious in the way Electricité seems to me:

Then again, looking at these images in preview, I'm not so sure Man Ray's not still as provocative as he was back then. Seeing one image at a time, it's easy to associate his time and place in history with an innocence that's gone. But looking at them altogether, one gets the sense that he was perhaps just a bit of a perv. ;-)


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