Chin: Muse-en-scène: Thinking in the Nude

The unpolished side of social media makes the highbrow accessible.

by Clara Chin | 1/31/19 2:15am

If Mapplethorpe had Instagram, would his account get banned? In museums, nudity and emotional expression are well-accepted. But the account @artwerk6666, which often features twerking and seemingly baroque iPhone photos of the nude body, recently got deleted at 69 thousand followers for about the 17th time. Featured on Vice, Dazed 100 and a couple of smaller culture websites, Alexandra Marzella, the owner of @artwerk6666, is an artist, selfie taker and feminist performance artist — so what’s the issue? Nudity. Nudity is crass and unsophisticated, or so digital admins would have you believe. Her account, however, is one of many that intentionally misuses social media to display an affect of rawness that destabilizes the idea of a polished public face. An Instagram feed with different variations of golden-hour selfies would be a boring place to be. Social media spaces should take the recent Tumblr regulation initiatives as a sign to take a step back, since feminist performance artists rely on social media to destabilize the image of the perfect woman for consumption.

With images of beautiful, smiling women surrounded by friends, social media has been called out for encouraging unrealistic beauty and lifestyle standards. To challenge this, feminist content creators give stripped-down, intimate versions of their art. Filmmakers dance around in their underwear, artists paint on their live streams, and models rant about life on their stories. Mia Kerin (@miakerin) was featured on the Dazed 100, a yearly list charting the “rise of those who’ve dared to give pop culture a shot in the arm,” for her unedited selfies and satirical makeup videos on Instagram. The seemingly flawless model Ceilidh Garten (@lilmixedhunny) posts photos of herself lying in bed voicing stream-of-consciousness, self-deprecating thoughts like, “I gave up because that’s what I’m really good at doing.” Meme artists like @memesturbationation post vaguely psychoanalytic captions over films, like “Me after idealizing someone in my head and then actually engaging in conversation,” with a username and tone alluding to private thoughts made public. And of course, there is Marzella, whose nude photography often features a caption about mental health and feeling. This kind of work is akin to the confessional poetry of Sylvia Plath or Diane Wakoski, sensual and emotional, almost like a diary. It often receives criticism for being unprofessional, simplistic or downright explicit. But this kind of conceptual art is both complex and important because it critiques the notion that we must keep our bodily and emotional flaws to ourselves; aesthetically pleasing yet thought-provoking content deconstructs the aesthetically boring goal of perfection that social media too often propagates. While seemingly low-effort, these works bring the high-brow down low.

A concept that threatens the freedom of these kinds of stripped down social media pages is digital citizenship. The Digital Citizenship Website (a consortium of educators dedicated to research on the term) defines it as “the norms of appropriate, responsible technology use,” adding that “too often we are seeing students as well as adults misusing and abusing technology but not sure what to do.” Common Sense Education, a nonprofit organization with information about technology culture for families, has developed a curriculum meant to help students use social media “responsibly” and curate a public image that will not get them in trouble. While educating young people on cyberbullying, hate speech, and privacy issues is important, the focus on citizenship conceives of social media as a regulated political space instead of a liberating space for art-making. These organizations seek to normalize risk-free internet behavior to keep the internet a safe space, but as a result discourage forms of expression that aim to unsettle. Nudity may be used to express ideas about intimacy and de-sexualizing the female body, and open discussions about depression and mental health can encourage being in touch with one’s emotions; since both forms of vulnerability are considered unprofessional and digital citizenship maintains the idea of social media as a professional space, regulations inspired by the idea of digital citizenship prevent these modes of artistic expression. The move toward digital citizenship helps to explain the rationale behind Tumblr’s recent ban on adult content. While Tumblr’s ban still makes exceptions for nudity found in art, the algorithm has identified non-explicit material as explicit, and is inadequate to handle art that toes the line between erotic avant-garde and straight pornography. The notion of social media as a public space discourages people from expressing their raw emotions and from taking risks in using the body as form.

Artistic and ideological freedom on social media is especially important to me in light of my senior fellowship. My monograph is about destigmatizing desire by applying the psychoanalytic framework of hysteria to contemporary cinema. That sounds fancy, but it is essentially about sex and emotion (with some slightly bigger, slightly more literary words). I strongly believe in the analytical long-form writing I do for academic research, but this kind of work has little meaning if it dies in an ivory tower. It is easy to value intellectual thought if it lives in a college library, a museum, or a theater — even if, like mine, it addresses sexuality or mental health. But sometimes this work needs to be taken apart so that it reaches circles of people who do not have the same technical background as a professional artist or writer. My meme page might seem emotionally risqué or simply trashy, but it is essentially the same content as my essays, with a different vocabulary. Without social media, the institutionally-supported work I do has no impact on the wider community for whom I write.

It is the vulnerability and nakedness (whether literally or figuratively) that destabilizes the space of the internet. “Edgy” content allows conceptual art to reach people all over the world, even if they have never seen a Marina Abramovic exhibit in a museum or gone to a film festival. While the issue of cyber safety is important and certainly warrants some protections, over-regulating the internet and conceiving it as a space of policies and citizens prevents it from being a revolutionary space of creation. If Gaspar Noé’s pornographic shots in Love and Climax are accepted as art because they have graced the screens of film festivals, emotionally honest and physically vulnerable content by independent women creators should be celebrated similarly.