The Failure Mode of Naked

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.

Color painting of a woman naked except for a torn mesh bodysuit and a few non-concealing, black-and-white ribbons. In the upper right is a UPC barcode labeled, "Women's Rights". In large text along one side of the painting is the text "What glass ceiling?"
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.

The Failure Mode of Naked
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21 thoughts on “The Failure Mode of Naked

  1. 1

    Many people who have read John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing”, which discusses nudity in art from a leftist feminist perspective, will likely have the same reaction I did: this is for men to view a naked woman. To find out that the other images were clothed men is not surprising and brings to mind how many “traditional” paintings feature a naked woman and several men who are fully or mostly dressed.

  2. 2

    I am always bemused when people get upset over “tits”, “cocks”, and “fannies”. On the subject of the artwork, it does look like straightforward porn, so would be highly distracting in a public place. I would also like to make a plea for the return of pubic hair into our lives.

  3. 3

    OK, the first image, the one you included, could have a feminist interpretation.
    I don’t think it conveys the message well, but we can agree to disagree about it.
    The “light my fire”? Ehm, I really want to see somebody attempt to give it a feminist interpretation. If it is about “religion oppresses women, leaving religion frees them”, it fails spectacularly, because it’s male gaze, nothing more. It’s the atheist dudebro version that is “I hate religion because it keeps me from seeing nekkid women and fucking them. I want more fucktoys around”.
    The third one, with the creepy old-guy hand trying to touch the young woman?
    How? How on earth? Please, somebody try to explain how “creepy hand trying to touch naked woman” has any feminist interpretation.
    It’s more like people are seeing so many objectified women every day, they don’t even notice it anymore.

  4. 4

    The “I have an art degree, so I must understand” is the same as “I have a degree in theology” as a defence of religion. I find that there are many people who get first class degrees by simply memorising information and regurgitating it, without understanding. Especially so with art degrees. I could see how this could be seen as sarcasm, but it’s Scary Movie sarcasm when it needs to be Blackadder or Jane Austin.

  5. 5

    susans #1
    “Traditional paintings” – I might add: in Western/Christian tradition – suffer from the ages of reduction to biblical themes. Thus thousands of paradise scenes, and thousands of “Susanna and the Elders”, and hundreds of breastfeeding Marias. The delicateness of skin tones and textures is a major technical challenge. Male nudity – following Greek aesthetics – played a comparable role until the 19th century. Michelangelo’s David is a male objectification. Only the object he is reduced to has a better name in puritanism.
    The specific US combination of puritanism and rape culture never ceases to amaze me.

  6. 7

    Now I want to see a painting of a nude model trying to escape through the glass of the frame using the tag line “what glass ceiling” as ze uses a barcode as a censorship bar…

  7. 8

    Old hand trying to touch young person. I remember being in love with a woman just shy of fifty when I was in my mid thirties, She was starting to show her age, but it didn’t mean anything to me.

  8. 9

    Gee, thanks, manocheese, for being a jerk about art degrees and, dysomniak, for being a jerk about, well, everything in the last several comments you’ve left here. Because, you know, there is obviously only way to interpret art.

    Giliell, I’m pretty sure message of the “Light My Fire” piece supposed to be about religion oppressing female sexuality. To someone who identifies with the woman in the piece, it will work. To someone who doesn’t, either because of the sexual idealization you note or for another reason, it’s going to cause problems. That’s what this post is about.

    As for the third piece, this is the only one for which I’ve found an artist’s statement. The hand isn’t supposed to read as “creepy old guy”. It’s supposed to be the hand of the artist, who is relatively young, reaching out in a moment of loss and ending. I think the nudity is meant to signal the degree of intimacy between subject and artist in order to deepen the loss, but there are a number of technical issues with this piece that keep it from getting there for me. Maybe it would have worked with the subject reaching out the artist in return instead of being passive or with a different gesture from the artist (which would have been harder to work into the plane of the piece). I’m not sure. I would also agree that it feels shoehorned into a specifically feminist show.

  9. 10


    Giliell, I’m pretty sure message of the “Light My Fire” piece supposed to be about religion oppressing female sexuality.

    Yeah, as I said, the point could be made. The problem is that the woman looks 100% like the bazillion objectifying male gaze depictions of naked women out there.
    It’s a bit like Poe’s law applied to art.

    The hand isn’t supposed to read as “creepy old guy”. It’s supposed to be the hand of the artist, who is relatively young, reaching out in a moment of loss and ending.

    Same thing, if you need an explenation, you failed as an artist.
    It’s like me painting when I was a kid: I would carefully label all the aimals because you really could not recognise them from my drawing.

  10. 11

    Hi Manocheese – I am the one who initially only responded about the ‘ta-ta’s’.

    Actually, Steph forgot that I never quite finished that degree 😉

    I am no Jane Austen and that photoshopped boobie-fest picture doesn’t – imho – deserve Jane Austen.

    I pointed out my art history class because damn it, if you want to get anything out of an art career, you need to look at what has come before. Educate yourself on context and content.

    I was guilty of sleeping through a lot of the class, but I was pointing out that at least in my slacker attempt, I still apprehended enough of the material to demonstrate it. And I pointed out the feminist-bent of my classes because I figured Some discussions of why an artist would depict a naked woman – and how she was depicted – would help
    me find an excuse for the above picture.

    Nothing I’ve experienced since, or studied then, provided me with a concept, context, or reference frame to excuse the obvious fail of that picture as a feminist statement. If all i got out of the painting was ‘look at the knockers god gave me’, I wanted to be clear that I had an educated position to develop my response from.

    It doesn’t make me an expert, just someone who has actively sought out enough art history to throw out an educated guess in my response. And as an artist, I am familiar with the responsibility of making specific artistic choices.

    Stephanie, my apologies for this derail!

  11. 12

    I’m not a formal student of art or art history; but I am an art aficionado. I’ve been to just about every major art museum all over the world — modern and otherwise. If there’s a great museum and if I’ve got a block of time, I’m there to the exclusion of other activities. So, not formally educated; but immersed enough to think I might have a valid opinion.

    The “Light My Fire” piece frankly seemed to be sending quite the opposite of an atheist message. In fact, I felt it was tightly bound to a common theist complaint about atheism — ie, “All you atheists want to do is sin.” As such, I felt it completely out of place in an exhibit at an atheist convention. My reaction to it was: “Why hand your enemies ammunition?”

    The “Hand” picture to me was extremely problematic; mainly because that hand looks OLD. Older than mine (even if it isn’t), and I’m not young. The fact that the model was completely shaved made the apparent age disparity even worse. With zero connection between the hand and the model, it looks to me like a desire for ownership. The completely dispassionate look of the model reinforced that concept to me. My gut reaction was “Ew.” Not that that isn’t a valid reaction to art — Piss Christ, Olifi’s “The Virgin Mary” (with elephant dung), etc, were meant to evoke distaste. I don’t think this is what the artist was going for — but that’s what he got.

    The “Glass Ceiling” (above) is better, but it confused me. I understand what the artist was going for — but considered it a swing-and-a-miss. If the bar code had been more prominent (even so far as to be body paint ON the model), it might have been better. But the red hair and the other eye-catching aspects of the model just threw it way off message. Technically, the “broken glass” aspect is not well done — and if you’re breaking a glass ceiling (even if nude), you’re not standing upright. What is being shown isn’t a ceiling — it’s a wall. Confusing. In short, I agree with Shari: the main message is “What Knockers!” (and not in a satirical Young Frankenstein way).

    I will say that other commentators here seem to not understand that the juxtaposition of the nudes with the other pieces during the exhibit was not done by the artists — that’s just the way the people who set up the exhibit placed the pieces. So, there’s a misinterpretation of context. The nudes and the non-nudes need to be taken separately, like any other exhibit of contemporary art by various artists.

    Sadly, I think all three nudes fail even absent the context concerns. “Glass Ceiling” fails a little bit less than the others. IMHO, of course.

  12. 13

    Art can, at its best, show us reality in ways we never understood before. It can go right past motivated reasoning and confirmation bias to hit us at an experiential level.

    Nudity can help in that by removing defenses, emotionally and symbolically.

    If, on the other hand, you need to explain it to everyone who doesn’t already share the experience you’re trying to get across, you’re not succeeding. If the people you most want to reach get the opposite message (not, “Hello! your world ain’t working for some of us!” but “Boobies!”) you’re going beyond “fail” and into “counterproductive.”

  13. 14

    Hmm. Shari, you’re right that I’d forgotten that, though given how far you’d gotten and the circumstances prior to you leaving school, I guess I’m not surprised I didn’t focus on that detail.

    Kevin, I think that’s generally a fair analysis. My understanding is, though, that the artists had control over arranging the spaces they were given.

  14. 15

    I just saw some cover shots of the exhibit space. The artwork near the nudes did not seem to be by the same artist(s) as the nudes, so I made the assumption they weren’t. It’s possible I’m wrong and they were meant to be seen as part of an overall impression.

    If that’s the case, then yes, placing these pieces of naked women next to renditions of all-male, all-clothed famous atheists (I saw a charcoal drawing of Hitchens in one shot) would be even more problematic. Kind of a 19th century approach–like Manet’s Lunch on the Grass, which has always struck me as a pretty bizarre juxtaposition of clothed men and naked women. Gratuitous nudity for the sake of gratuitous nudity.

  15. 16

    Kevin, you’re right that this wasn’t quite an accurate statement from me. The charcoal of Hitchens was by the same artist, as were those of David Silverman, Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Sam Harris. However, the effect was then amplified by the fact that these paintings were next to a set depicting Darwin, Einstein, and several other well-known men. So there was some control and some factors out of the control of the artist.

  16. 17

    So, to sum up. Portraits of important scientific skeptical dudes. Portraits of unknown naked women in dubiously non-scientific or skeptically-framed images. If those were the only portraits of women, I really think that makes this mess even bigger. The Goldiblox FB page has bajillions of cool pictures of female scientists to work from.

    Art note. I’ve sketched Darwin – great face to work from. Craggy, wrinkles, facial hair. Yay! In general, male faces are a lot of fun for me to draw because their bone structure is more obvious than in female faces. Women, even very thin ones, require more subtlety in the approach to sketching them because it always feels easier for me to get their expression – and therefore their identity – wrong. HOWEVER, that’s still a cheap, cheap excuse not to do as many kickass portraits of women as you do of men. If doing portraits of scientists and skeptics is your thing, that is.

  17. 18

    I don’t understand the artistic merit in those paintings of women at all.

    I’m not surprised though – I’m so surrounded by cis white male 2%er privilege that when I attempt to check it I usually find I don’t get it all. I’m trying though …

  18. 20

    […] Let me say right up front I’ve normally got zero problems with nudity in art. Art featuring nudity can be innocuous, it be beautiful, it can be tasteful,  it can be sexy, it can be erotic, it can be challenging. There is a place for nudity in art, absolutely. I even enjoy some cheesecake/pinup/erotic art if it’s clever. But when it comes to nudity that’s pretty obviously there to titillate I think there’s a time and a place, and that place is probably not the American Atheists National Convention art show. […]

  19. 21

    @15: at least, Manet was riffing off a Renaissance painting while also satirizing the Academic conventions of his day. The atheists’ show, OTOH, seems to be focused more on contempt for women.

    I’m all for men & women who are proud of their bodies, etc., but I would need some more information to believe that’s what’s going on here.

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