Note: This post contains an image you may not want to view at work. You can also read a pdf of the post with a description of the painting rather than the painting, produced for an art teacher who wanted to share this with their students. This pdf may be reproduced for use in an educational setting.
A few years back, John Scalzi wrote a blog post with a line that has made its way around the internet. “The failure mode of clever is ‘asshole.'” It’s a useful thing to remember on its own, but it’s even more useful in the context in which it was presented in the post.
1. The effectiveness of clever on other people is highly contingent on outside factors, over which you have no control and of which you may not have any knowledge; i.e., just because you intended to be clever doesn’t mean you will be perceived as clever, for all sorts of reasons.
2. The failure mode of clever is “asshole.”
It isn’t just that you really need to succeed at being clever. It’s also that clever is ridiculously difficult, because it’s a two-party interaction. You can put work and thought into being clever, you can test your material on other people first, and you can still find that your audience isn’t in the mood, has heard the joke too many times, has a sore spot under what you intended as a gentle poke, or just has a very different sense of humor.
While Scalzi is talking about dealing with strangers in this post, I’ve seen clever fail among friends for all these reasons too, particularly during times of stress. The difference in that case is that your friends are somewhat less likely to dub you an asshole for one failed case of clever.
Why do I bring this up nearly four years after Scalzi’s post? Because I’ve been chewing over a different case of failed communication in the last few days, and I realized that it can be generalized to a rule very much like the one Scalzi posited: The failure mode of naked is “objectification”.
Let’s take this one in chronological order.
On Friday, I and a few other people were sent some photos taken at the art show at the American Atheists national convention, which was held this weekend. Along with the pictures came a statement that I’ll paraphrase as “I can’t believe the artist hung those here! How is that okay?”
Looking at the paintings involved, I have to admit that I found them incoherent. That made it hard to answer the question. But the fact that a piece of art doesn’t speak to me doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t speak to anyone, so I cropped as much context as possible from around the painting that was most prominent in the complaint and posted it on Facebook with a link on Twitter.
In both places, I asked, “Dear friends–particularly artist friends but all opinions welcome–what does this painting say to you?” The first response to come back, from a friend who has an art degree, painted a nude I still own, and continues to create art, was “‘look at my ta-ta’s'”. This friend followed up. “I’m sorry, I tried, I really did. I took two semesters of art history taught by two different flavors of feminist-inspired professors, I was awake for two thirds of it, aced the class, and i still got no meaning from this. Other than ‘my knockers. are. awesome.'”
Some additional early reactions:
- “Women can go anywhere and do anything, can achieve all goals and break through all prejudices, as long as they’re naked, shaved, and generally done up to please the average man in power?”
- “NEW jailbird fashion for spring! Strut your cell in style.”
- “Someone’s got an ax to grind, but no one to grind it against?”
- “‘Referee Bondage’.”
- “I get tones of sarcasm but it doesn’t really make sense.”
- “It says ‘I don’t actually understand feminism, but I think I’m being clever. Also, this young model is hot, and look at her nekkid. I want her to sleep with me, but she can sense my misogyny and is only keeping it from showing on her face out of professionalism.'”
Because the messages people were taking from the painting were so negative, there was also a good bit of snarking. It was more than an hour before someone came up with a message that would make something like this acceptable in an atheist art show for a general audience.
It says to me that we have confused consumerism and pop culture with freedom, at the cost of genuine progress. That we are no less imprisoned by today’s capitalism than we were imprisoned by “traditional” patriarchy. That we’ve learned to dress it up and make it feel like freedom, but we’re still imprisoned.
About that time, Ophelia, having also received these pictures, put up a post about the situation that put the painting back in context. Not only were this picture and two others of naked women hanging in the AACon art show/auction, but they were hanging among portraits of well-known, fully dressed atheist men. I shared that link on Facebook.
The response was general shock, combined with:
- “Since when did atheist/skeptical conventions decide they needed to outdo Sturgis on the objectification front?”
- “It reads to me as inherently hostile.”
- “Yeah, I was actually giving this the reading [the capitalism interpretation] did, until I saw the context. And I think in the hands of a feminist artist who was trying to make a statement about Consumer “Girl Power” Feminism tm or whatever, it could be thought-provoking–though still deserving a lot of criticism, on several fronts. But in that context…no. [The hostile] reading seems more accurate.”
- “Whatever the intended message may be, it first says Boobies! because boobies get attention.”
- “As an artist/atheist, my opinion is that when breasts are the focal point, instead of incidental to the piece, it’s saying, Hey look at the breasts. Perhaps it’s the only way the artist can think of to draw the viewer’s interest, in order to deliver the rest of the message.”
- “Well I see the picture as demonstrating internalized sexism. She doesn’t see the glass ceiling because of of it. But I agree, it doesn’t really have a place there especially when it’s contrasted with the pieces around it of prominent clothed men. Maybe that’s the artist’s point? But it looks like paintings of the other atheist men are in a different style. I think the artist is (a) being really ironic and using boobs to get money while the very same painting is against that or (b) making that ironic point or (c) doing the painting to actually fight sexism but unaware of their own internalized sexism (as demonstrated by the clothed men). But sadly I think that point will be completely lost”
A couple of people echoed my own confusion:
- “I can’t really tell if this is satirizing the ways in which feminism is now branded (there’s actually a book in the women’s studies section of the bookstore called “Sexy Feminism” and it’s everything it sounds like), or if it’s claiming that feminism itself is useless.”
- “The bar code makes me think “women’s rights are for sale” … no idea about the rest … well, no wait. Maybe “being naked puts you in jail” (I have not read any of the comments here yet)”
And a couple of people had additional interpretations that could be classed as feminist commentary:
- “Commenting cold here, uncontaminated by others’ thoughts: I get a vibe of incarceration from the bar-like background and scanty hula skirt thingie, and the juxtaposition of the “what glass ceiling?” seems quite jarring. Is it saying “the sky’s the limit for women as long as they stick to their prescribed patriarchal roles”? It’s thought provoking in any event.”
- “Women’s Rights now re-branded with a sexier more male gaze accessible package. You can have your pseudo equality all while keeping the objectification fresh and titillating.”
So, while it’s definitely possible to get a very reasonable feminist interpretation from the painting alone, it’s not at all guaranteed. In the context of paintings of clothed, famous atheist men, it’s much less likely. In the context of those paintings and the two additional paintings of naked women by the same artist that were hanging, well, the commentary got much less pleasant.
We managed to have some conversation on what kinds of nudity would be appropriate in that situation. A painting commemorating Maryam or Greta’s nude protests might work–with their permission because of the ways nudity is used against women. Someone suggested, “I think it would have been interesting and transgressive if the artist had painted artistic nude portraits of the Gods of Atheism, like Dawkins and Tyson”, elaborating, “All I’m saying is, it would be more transgressive, and maybe even make a good point, especially if the Nude!Dawkins was posed similarly to this young lady.”
Then I received a notification from Facebook that the picture of the painting had been reported for violating their policy. A couple of hours later, they deleted it, saying it violated this piece of their policy:
Nudity and Pornography
Facebook has a strict policy against the sharing of pornographic content and any explicitly sexual content where a minor is involved. We also impose limitations on the display of nudity. We aspire to respect people’s right to share content of personal importance, whether those are photos of a sculpture like Michelangelo’s David or family photos of a child breastfeeding.
Yes, despite having a policy exemption for art, Facebook still deemed the photo of this painting to be unacceptable. So how did it get hung in the first place?
Well, someone at the convention who had also heard a couple of complaints talked to American Atheists staff, including the person who approved those paintings for the art show and was able to give me some insight. As it turns out, the person who approved those paintings liked them specifically for the feminist interpretations they took from the paintings. They were unaware of the context (nameless, naked women hanging among famous, clothed men) when they approved the paintings, they knew the paintings had previously been hung in a feminist show, and they were in synch with the artist on feminist interpretations. Everything seemed great.
Then it turned out that other people interpreted the paintings very differently.
This is where I come back to Scalzi’s observations about being clever. Just as factors outside your control influence whether you succeed when trying to be clever, there are factors that influence whether you succeed when trying to convey a message by using nudity, particularly when issues of gender and race get tied up in the package. No adult comes to view nudity without carrying along a host of cultural and personal meanings, many of them conflicting. If you’re trying to reach a large audience with a message that uses nudity, you’re almost certain to fail with some of them–with more of them the less practiced you are at crafting your message, the less you consider the context in which your message will be presented.
And when you fail, the end result will be that your work is interpreted as objectifying the naked person instead.
You’ll notice that I haven’t named either the artist or the person at American Atheists who approved the hanging of the work. That’s because I don’t think who did what is the point here. I shared some of the feminist interpretations of this painting with the person who sent me the pictures and the person who talked with the American Atheists staff. I think those who attended the conference who I know had complaints now understand how something like this could happen in good faith.
I haven’t talked to AA staff or the artist, because they’ve been busy with the convention, but I’m pretty sure we won’t see a repeat of this now that people have been sensitized to the issue. American Atheists have been diligent in putting together and revising their Code of Conduct. I don’t see any reason to expect that to change. I expect in the future more attention will be paid to the overall context of nudity, and the fact that sexual content is present in the art show will be flagged–or flagged more prominently if it was already this year.
So why do I bring it up at all? Because this is a generalizable error, and it speaks to one of the provisions of the anti-harassment policy template that’s been widely used recently. In particular, it bars the use of “sexualized images” by exhibitors. American Atheists Code of Conduct is a little different, prohibiting “sexual images in public spaces (not related to convention sessions or materials)”, though it’s not unreasonable to consider art hung in the art show “convention materials”.
What happened this weekend demonstrates how hard it can be to successfully carve out exceptions to this rule. When our communities were talking about this provision a couple of years ago, some people asked for a bright-line definition of what counts as “sexualization” and were upset when none were forthcoming. The reason no one gave them what they were looking for is that sexualization involves adding sex or sexuality to something, and you can’t determine how much sex has been added until you determine how much was necessary.
When it comes to the painting above, particularly in the context in which it was presented at the art show, many people–the majority of those who responded to my question–had difficulty finding any clear message. Thus, they interpreted none of the sexuality involved as necessary, all of it as gratuitous, and read the painting as highly sexualized. When the message failed, all that was left was objectification.
Communicating effectively using nudity is difficult because everyone brings a different understanding of nudity to the table. It has been done well within the atheist movement. See Maryam Namazie’s Nude Revolutionary Calendar for some wonderfully, joyfully defiant nudity. But even that calendar didn’t connect with everyone. Some people still read those photos as objectifying their subjects. A few, though not all, of the people who did so publicly even approached the calendar with obvious good will.
This is simply a risk we run when using nudity to convey a message. When we fail, on a broad scale or in reaching an individual, that nudity will be interpreted as objectification. The failure mode of naked is “objectification”.
Does that mean we get rid of all nudity in our conferences and conventions? Not necessarily. After all, that anti-harassment policy template has suggested language for dealing with sexual topics and images in programming when that’s appropriate. It does, however, mean we need to carefully weigh the cost and risk of using nudity against what we gain from it.
It also means we need to understand that it will sometimes fail. We can’t rely on intent. We need to do what we can to help those who aren’t willing to tolerate the subsequent objectification to avoid nudity. And we need to understand that this failure is inherent to the situation, rather than automatically laying the blame on those who experience the objectification that occurs when a communication failure happens.
When we can do all that, we’ll be ready to deal with nudity.