I walk through the air–conditioned corridors of the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP), appreciating oil paintings in golden frames and white marble statues. Suddenly, I am stuck by a bright yellow poster, “Do women have to be naked to get into the São Paulo Museum of Art?”
The poster was made by an anonymous collective of artists and activists named the Guerrilla Girls, a radical art group that has made projects, posters, and interventions from New York to Shanghai, and even passing through Istanbul, London, and São Paulo.
The electric yellow poster found in MASP highlights that only 6% of the total number of artists in the collections that were on display are women; on the other hand, 60% of the works represented are female nudes. As a museum visitor, the poster led me to reflect on all the previous museums I have walked through: How many times have I viewed nude female bodies on display in artistic works? What does nudity tell us about the spaces reserved for women in the art field?
The connection is even more complex when acknowledging that the word pornography appeared initially in an artistic context. In the 19th century, the German historian C. O. Müller used the Greek word "pornography" (meaning “writing about prostitutes”) to refer to art museums’ collections. There is still much controversy in the art field that pornography cannot be considered art. If it's art, it's not pornography. Which begs the question, where do we draw the line between the female body as a sexual figure versus an artistic figure?
However, since art has been mainly consumed throughout history by elites, female nudity is a form of perpetuating “soft porn” for the wealthy and dominant circles of society. In fact, artistic circles consent and approve of the exposition of nudity in art, but not in real life. For example, in 2016 the performative artist Deborah de Robertis undressed in front of "Olympia", painted by Edouard Manet in 1863, and reproduced the pose of the nude figure facing the visitors. Deborah was arrested following the museum's complaint of sexual exhibitionism. This event further proves that the real–life female body has been marginalized and sexualized to a point in which it cannot be considered art, only pornographic. Society puts value in art pieces that contain nudity in renowned museums and galleries, but marginalizes those in real life.
In her program, The Shock of the Nude, Mary Beard, Cambridge scholar and classicist, criticizes the abundance of female nudes and how the sexualized female bodies in art meet male desires. According to the author, for centuries female nudity paintings were made by men, commissioned by men, and aimed at male delight, essentially serving as soft porn for male elites.
Beard mentions how rich, white men support the museums with donations of money and works of art. The Guerrilla Girls expose a disturbing dichotomy: In 1989, the price of a singular painting by Jasper Johns ($17.7 million) could purchase at least one work from 67 women artists—including Mary Cassatt and Frida Kahlo. These women were renowned in their own right, but have been historically often underpaid and underrepresented compared to their male counterparts. If museums are not showing a diverse range of artists, then it is no longer serving the purpose of documenting the history of art, but the history of power and money. The minimal presence of female artists from great art museums is an institutional issue, embedded in sexism from the male–dominated gallery owners and art critics.
The female nude in art has served to delight male artists and male viewers (similar to soft porn), but women have begun to utilize art and their own bodies to reclaim power over the narrative. Nudity has become an instrument to challenge sexist standards. In fact, many women began to use the naked body as a symbolic weapon in performances and protests. Carolee Schneemann used the naked body as a canvas, even winning a prize at Cannes in 1969 for a movie that was explicitly sexual. Marina Abramović shocked the art world with her performances, one in which she created a naked living doorway. Viewers were forced to confront nudity in art and in real life at the same time, rather than passively observing it.
Nudity has always been a factor in female representation, but its reasons and purposes have changed over time. It would be reductive to fix a single meaning for nudity, losing a series of uses and setbacks of women's power by simplifying it to the instrumental use of men. Even though the male gaze is still at the center of using the female body for profit and for consumption, women artists are reclaiming the narrative.