News

Portrait of Naked Man Ignites Controversy on Streets of New York

by Claire Voon on July 25, 2014

IMG_2104c

The nude male photograph in the front window of a Manhattan gallery (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

A photograph of a nude male in a downtown Manhattan gallery’s front window has drawn protests from neighborhood parents and schoolteachers requesting its removal. Fully frontal, the young man stares out to the busy street with his genitalia in plain sight, in a large image that is part of Rivington Design Houses’ current exhibition. CFNM (clothed female, naked male) is portrait photographer Bek Andersen’s first solo show in New York and features nude portraits of men in the intimate settings of their homes. Inside the gallery, eight additional photographs hang on the walls, each as unflinchingly revealing as the print hanging up front.

IMG_2103a

Gallery owner Brion Isaacs

The show opened only a week ago, but the photograph quickly bred controversy within the surrounding blocks, home to two preschools, a public school, and a daycare center. Two days after the opening reception, police arrived at the gallery to inform owner Brion Isaacs of complaints that a nude man was walking on the street, but they left upon realizing the man was merely a work of art. Isaacs, however, found himself facing “a mob of teachers and parents” at the start of this week who insisted he take down the photograph, claiming it was inappropriate for children. Isaacs refused and plans to keep the image up through the duration of the show, which ends on August 15.

“I told them they have the full right to avoid our space, or tell [their] kids not to look or walk in the next street or around the block,” Isaacs told Hyperallergic. “Or tell them what’s really happening. Because you’re in New York. You’re going to see a lot worse than a bunch of penises.”

He also offered to bring Andersen into the gallery and host an open discussion with children about the show and listen to everyone’s opinions, but the teachers and parents laughed at the suggestion, saying there was no way they were going to allow that to happen. When he asked if they would allow their children to see Michelangelo’s David, they said yes, with one parent arguing that the sculpture is “different because his penis is smaller.” Isaacs also recalls a teacher saying that “freedom of expression needs to have its limits,” a remark he found odd coming from someone in that profession.

“I also asked them how many of them bring their kids to museums and galleries, and two people raised their hands out of 20,” Isaacs said. “So I could understand why this may be surprising to them.”

IMG_2106b

Harlem resident Scott Laubner surveys the controversial photograph

The image, which Isaacs chose because its square format fits the window well, has drawn mixed reactions from passersby: nearly everyone pauses by the gallery or, at the very least, turns his or her head to stare. Drivers and passengers in vehicles stopped in traffic elbow one another, pointing out the marked member. Most people, according to Isaacs, just giggle or snap a photo with the full-frontal male — which he had expected; some of the offended do walk inside the gallery, and like the parents and schoolteachers, demand the photograph’s removal.

“I’d say we hear both sides everyday,” Isaacs said. “Everyone thinks we should put a camera up and video people’s reactions. It would be funny.”

Harlem resident Scott Laubner, 44, who learned about the show only through the publicized controversy, finds no issue with the image. “I think it’s fine, really,” he told Hyperallergic. “There’s nothing sexual going on. It’s just a naked person … there’s nothing wrong with that. This is what we all look like underneath our clothes.”

21-year-old kimono designer Sasa Li agreed. “I can see why some people would be offended by it, but quite frankly, it doesn’t bother me,” she said. “I feel like there’s a lot of sensitivity towards male nudity, and then when it comes to female nudity, it’s like, whatever, it’s the norm. I have no qualms with this.”

Isaacs also thinks that different reactions would emerge if the image was of a woman, adding that it may also depend on whether or not she shaved her pubic hair.

IMG_2096d

Installation view, CFNM (clothed female, naked male)

Edward Arakelian, 22, visiting from Sydney, Australia, thinks that the manner of display may also play a role in the photograph’s reception.

“I think it’s a bit full-on, to be hanging on a window on a main street, but that’s just my personal opinion,” Arakelian said. “The height of the painting as well … it’s easy for kids who pass to see especially the genitalia — it’s sort of right at their height. Maybe if it was a little higher, or if it wasn’t as obvious it would be alright, but especially with kids, it’s a bit out there.”

This is far from the first time the male nude has tested the limits of public taste and art. In 2004, Czech sculptor David Černý installed a fountain in Prague of two men gripping their penises, while water streaming from the tips wrote out quotes by the city’s most famous residents. And in 2012, Vienna’s Leopold Museum devoted an entire exhibition to art revolving around the male nude, featuring larger-than-life pictures of naked men by its facade. More recently, who can forget the barrage of complaints Tony Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” (2014) received on the campus of Wellesley College, regardless of its subject wearing underwear? In a curious incident in 2011, which bucks the trend, sculptor Laura Facey received backlash for her “Redemption Song” (2003), which is a symbolic representation of the spiritual emancipation from slavery, because of complaints that the male figure must ‘gay’ since he did not respond sexually to the presence of the naked female figure in the sculpture.

  • Subscribe to the Hyperallergic newsletter!

Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.
  • http://www.calacademy.org/webcams/penguins/ Multiphasic

    I was mainly disturbed by the thought of a frisky Malcolm Gladwell welcoming me to his jacuzzi.

    • Derrick

      Banal and boring photographs. THAT is why they’re offensive.

  • richard rockford

    This is like a billboard on a highway. It can be restricted because it forces people to view it. The image is very nice, the subject is perfectly fine, but, like a screaming boom box, it infringes on others who must be forced to listen. Those who wish to see this art may en
    ter the gallery or take time to look through the window. The a gallery does not have the right to force a naked adult on all ages and all cultures of all passersby.

    • battlepriest

      So – you seem to believe that there is something inherently wrong with looking at truth.

    • Chris Topher Chivington

      but why is it okay for huge companies to relentlessly shove unhealthy images of beauty, consumption, and unhealthy products in people’s faces? children being indoctrinated into a consumerist way of life is way more harmful than seeing a photograph of a nude male.

      • Seph

        Amen. I completely agree.

  • glass

    I’m offended by that hot tub. Look at it!

    • battlepriest

      Agreed.

    • http://originaldigital.storyworkers.org/ Fred Mindlin

      Yes–I once told my step-son, who has a big truck since he works in construction, how much I like the bumper sticker “Nice Truck–Sorry About Your Penis.” He said he thought it should read, “Nice Porsche–…” I agreed with him, but sadly, far fewer would get the joke…

  • Stephen Aman

    Bravo to the gallery for pushing the buttons of the prude and easily offended. Get over yourselves people. “But think of the children. . .” The children don’t care because they don’t have your fear of the male body.
    I wonder if the model was a Calvin Klein model with six pack abs if people would care as much.
    Perhaps we should pass a law that says naked people are alright as long as they’re beautiful, idealized women depicted via historical methods such as painting or sculpture.

  • PaigePyramid

    I’m completely and overwhelmingly offended by the photos. How utterly boring and cliche. The stench of being gimmicky can be smelled from half across the world. No style, just a photo. These photos say something but it’s the exact same story as the millions of other nude photography portraits that exist within the last 15 years. Anyone who took a nude photo, blew it up and placed it in a storefront window would get the same exact effect; take your pick from the countless and endless photos that exist in this context. Where is the talk on the paces where these photos were taken, the story, the memories that it might spark within your own life — but that can barely happen because no one sees anything further than the nudity itself. That’s why I’m against nude photography

    Other than knowing a photo from memory it’s beyond difficult and nearly impossible to distinguish which photographer took what in this digital age. Photography has barely progressed in the last 60+ years aside from the actual technology — with 99,9% of photography be so heavily focused on technology rather than content or organic technique.

    Claire, It would have been nice if you even touched on any of this. The article was solely based on the shock value and the gimmick of nudity and how people act as if they were 13 year olds in sex-ed. We’ve heard this story one too many times…. abortion, religion, equal rights, animal rights, public nudity, blah blah blah. Both sides are extremely boring and sooooo redundant. I don’t care about any one side because I’ve come to terms that they’ll always be those two sides that exist. For me that is freedom where all ideas can coexist. The struggle of power and ideal domination being force feed to each other on both sides is absolutely ludicrous, boring and harmful. I think we all need go watch all seasons of Family Ties.

    • higgs merino

      “I had four biscuits. I ate one. Now, I have three biscuits.”

    • battlepriest

      What I detect, somewhwere in the middle of your word-salad rant, is that you don’t see the value in this artist’s work. Others differ, and that’s what makes the discussion of art interesting – we all have an opinion.
      You seem to require a list of qualities to be checked off before you consider a piece worthwhile. That says a lot about you – much more than you realize.

    • Stephen Aman

      Actually, I agree with much of what you’ve said here. Personally the photos seem trite and a little dull and looking at somewhat eroticized photos of nude men has no particular appeal to me. I don’t see in them anything that I’ve not seen many times before.
      But since America has an absurd fear of the naked body, and the photo in the shop window is only faintly suggestive, the display itself doesn’t bother me. People need to get over themselves.
      I guess the only bothersome thing about it to me is that it could easily be viewed as a publicity stunt.

    • Jeffrey Turner

      I think the point is that it’s usually nude women that we see photos of so although I don’t think the photos are that good either, they do begin to turn the tables.
      Who cares, really! What the fuck is wrong with nudity?
      I’m bored! :)

  • Marli BareBoater

    The highway billboard analogy falls flat as there is no long distance
    view of the poster which is actually inside the Gallery & one needs
    to actually peer in to see it…….like most things in life people have
    the discretion to view it or not & they are certainly in charge of
    their response.

    Leave it as is & move along if you really are incapable of an emotionally intelligent response

  • Marli BareBoater

    & it would be an opportunity for parents to engage in some valuable dialogue with their children to teach them about making wise choices in life rather than shielding them only to condemn them to be victims of unwise choices

  • battlepriest

    Nudity in art has always symbolized Truth. Truth with a capital T. That people are fearful of or “offended” by nudity tells me that they run from truth. How is running from truth a good thing?

  • Dreamer

    Everybody has a naked body under their clothes.

    The photos look nice.

  • glenn

    the shame is ….so defined by the intellect.. the mother…father… the educator all maligned…
    as a weapon…a vice …a method to kill…all revealed in this penis of young man…a shame you say…to alert who….to what…the shame of this class…of people!!!!!!! gjmars

  • Steve_MGA

    If kids have “seen” it early, they will be anxious to “see” it when they get a little older and want to play “doctor and [female/male] nurse”

    • Jeffrey Turner

      Oh yeah, And what is wrong with that? You do look a little like Rick Santorum!
      By the way, do you have any documentation that what you said is a bad thing?

  • Jeffrey Turner

    Ah, nothing like the puritanical influence that a good portion of our population is still under.
    When my oldest daughter was a young child, maybe 5, I don’t really remember, she threw open the shower curtain and asked, “What’s that?” I said, “That’s a penis, boys have a penis, girls have a vagina.” Her reply, “OH” as she ran out of the room.
    She’s now a well adjusted 38 yr. old woman and I don’t think that traumatized her one bit.
    Get real people, we all have one or the other, most of us have brothers or sisters so we actually get to see those things.
    Another story, As a 6 yr. old I was running through the house to go out and play with my friends, my Mother was breast feeding my baby brother and I asked Mom, “What’s he doing?”, she answered, “He’s eating!”, my answer, “OH”.
    This isn’t rocket science, make a big deal out of something that isn’t and you perpetuate this puritanical bullshit.
    Be open, honest and not ashamed that you actually have these body parts and your kids will grow up more normal.

  • Sheldon Drake

    today in the news, attention whore gallery exploits stupid people with faux-controversial work

  • Deadartistssociety

    I am afraid for children that are raised thinking the body they will grow into is a shameful one. Fear of the photo increases fear of the thing itself.

  • saneprofessor

    Of course in San Francisco, would not get a seconds notice. And that’s why the world of cool is heading West, like a tsunami. Sorry NYC. You just are losing it.

    • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian
      • http://www.dinodinco.com/ DINO DINCO

        SF’s ban on public nudity isn’t the same as squawking over representations of nude bodies through photographs. The former can be contextualized and defended as a public health issue (e.g. itchy butt holes on bus benches), not just clutching at one’s pearls because David wasn’t hung like a donkey.

        • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

          Though remember that nothing was taken down, just a couple of neighbors complaining.

  • http://www.arttrek.com Ann-Marie Stillion

    I can’t stop thinking of the beautiful way that men were once sculpted and painted in art history. Their big beautiful selves dotted my studies of ancient civilizations. We have lost something. Maybe we will get our groove back. Cheers.

  • Jarryh • S

    “[Michelangelo’s David] is ‘different because his penis is smaller.’ “

    Oh, that’s what it is all about! The size of a penis! Small dicks can be put on view everywhere, because they are nothing, nothing. They are of no use or of no importance. Small penises are not sexual. Who cares about small dongs? Only big ones do matter.

    Same goes with small titties, they are nothing. Small people are of no value, too.
    Let’s imagine there’s a gang bang out in the street, where a bunch of midgets with their minimal dongs rape a small woman who’s got small titties. Is it okay to leave that with no attention? You know, you can just walk by, because there’s nothing sexual in the act, nothing significant. “It’s just some small dicks and stuff, who cares?”

    Is this the way the Americans think, the famous American hypocrisy?

    • Guest

      I just read ALL the comments. They are almost more interesting than the article itself – everyone seems to have a strong opinion and that’s a beautiful thing! The artwork provokes a healthy discussion and that is why, I believe, it is a good piece of art. Imagine all the conversations, questions, giggles, frowns, snaps and pointing happening around the gallery front window – is that a bad thing? The photos do not seem provocative, sexual or even commercial. They are just portraits and yes, the subjects are naked, but artists have been painting, photographing and sculpting nudes since forever which have, quite frequently, been exhibited and still live in churches all over the world. Maybe the modern day nude in the gallery/museum is a good analogy and echo to the centuries old nudes in places of worship, a lot of them very controversial at the time.

      • Jarryh • S

        I’m not sure, though, how you people deal with these nude things in England, but in America it’s always the same hypocritical attitude. Like that one I focused on: small penis -> okay, big penis -> no way!
        Penis is penis, and we all got one, except you gals :)
        And at least in art there should not be any prohibitions considering showing nudity.

  • http://www.sabinastefanova.com Sabina

    I just read ALL the comments. They are almost more interesting than the article itself – everyone seems to have a strong opinion and that’s a beautiful thing! The artwork provokes a healthy discussion and that is why, I believe, it is a good piece of art. Imagine all the conversations, questions, giggles, frowns, snaps and pointing happening around the gallery front window – is that a bad thing? The photos do not seem provocative, sexual or even commercial. They are just portraits and yes, the subjects are naked, but artists have been painting, photographing and sculpting nudes since forever which have, quite frequently, been exhibited and still live in churches all over the world. Maybe the modern day nude in the gallery/museum is a good analogy and echo to the centuries old nudes in places of worship, a lot of them very controversial at the time.

  • Amanda

    What a load of hypocritical nonsense! It’s just a body–he’s not doing anything. He looks perfectly pleasant. People accept nudes in museums because they’re sanctioned by tradition; sadly some don’t like real people in the real world without clothes. It’s the difference between nude and naked. We really do need to get over it and accept that we all have bodies, and they can be aesthetic objects like anything else.

  • Seph

    I wish I could have a coherent answer on the reasoning behind thinking that children are somehow “harmed” by seeing the bodies of naked adults. Is there a convincing argument on this that does not rely on religious belief?

  • point

    Well, the artist seems to have succeeded. The work is being talked about.

  • Thomas A. Mahaney

    Gee when I lived on Christopher street. There was a leather store that had an Easter display of a man all tied up and gagged with a string of colored Easter eggs comming out of his butt!! New York is getting so uptight!

    • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

      Let’s not forget no one has taken it down. Just people griping.

  • Wile Coyote

    Oh Puhleezz. You see worse than this just looking at a National Geographic Magazine!!!

  • bear on the peaks

    How dare anyone be offended or bothered by anything these days? Everyone just needs to become more unvoiced and complacent. I was at a public library yesterday next to a man watching porn on a computer and like a good citizen I darned not say anything. I then boarded a bus and a man playing a ghetto blaster was sharing a song about b****ches everyone, and again, like everyone, I dared not say anything. While this country sends millions of dollars to dismantle governments around the world and our own infrastructure crumbles, sex has become “circus” to amuse and distract us, and, thanks to the “progressives” we are being taught to silence ourselves. The fact is this gallery owner’s need for attention and disrespect for his community is obscene. Take the photos from the window down already!

Previous post:

Next post: