Nudity Laid Bare — & that about covers it!

ART TIMES Sept/Oct 2009

I made a very brief reference in passing to Oh, Calcutta! in my column about nudity on stage a couple of months ago, and got a very full and well-written reply from Claudia Carr Levy, the widow of Jacques Levy, who directed the original production.
Her basic point is that Oh, Calcutta! should not be lightly dismissed. Her point is undoubtedly well taken. A great many very talented and highly successful people worked on it in all sorts of ways. Her spirited defense of the show is well thought through and well substantiated. Of course, the show is far from universally admired. Clive Barnes’ well-known review is a pretty good statement for the opposing camp.
However, I must say that I do not think that her points invalidate mine, and Clive Barnes’ position doesn’t really address it either. My point is this: nudity obscures content. In revealing skin, we cover much.

Consider, for example, Playboy. We all read it for the articles, right? Of course right! And in fact, some very famous people have written very good stuff for Playboy over the years; so much so that a good defense of the magazine could probably be built on that foundation. Yet mention Playboy to anybody who’s ever heard of the magazine and there can be little doubt that what pops into the mind is the centerfold, not the prose. Or put it this way: you hear the fine writing that has appeared over the years in the magazine along with hearing about the centerfold, but not without hearing about the centerfold. The centerfold gets top billing every time.
Nudity obscures content.

A very fine actress I know did one of the roles in Killer Joe in which the character is forced at gunpoint by her brutal attacker to strip. And she did the moment and did it completely and did it well, and in the context of the play it’s an important thing. And that’s pretty much the only moment that got talked about, both among theater people and among the audience in general. If you heard about anything else in connection with the production, you heard about it along with that moment, not without hearing about that moment. That moment of skin got top billing every time.

Nudity obscures content.

Ms. Levy takes me greatly to task for my other passing reference, to Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris. I think by now you can see where I’m going with that. We could have had the psychology of the story without the skin—but without the skin would we have Last Tango in Paris? We might have the film, but we certainly would not have the cultural event, the world-wide furor, the multi-national censorship, the permanent place in the collective consciousness. The bottom line is that what the broad popular consciousness knows about that film is that Brando gets naked. The film gets buried under the perception.

Nudity obscures content.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to shut down nudity on stage. The Puritans can go be Puritans on their own without any help from me. My point is that using nudity in the theater—to say nothing of other media—is like applying oils to a painting otherwise done in watercolor. It covers everything, which is certainly an ironic phenomenon. You use it, if you must, greatly at your peril. It can, and probably will, distort and color everything you do. It is the Sorcerer’s Apprentice of esthetics, and woe betide you if you are not magus enough to master it. Step boldly if you must, but know well that greater magi than you have failed!

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