Amazon Woman, Griffis Sculpture Park (photo from Flickr user stroh78)

We always say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Whether it’s destroying a blasphemous print, banning Robert Mapplethorpe from NEA funding, or censoring the David with a fig leaf, nudity in art presents a consistent flash point. An obvious lack of clothing rarely fails to be provocative, and such is the case with a certain Pittsfield, Massachusetts woman’s quest to allow women to go out in public, as men do [or as women and men are allowed to do in New York City], without shirts on. The Boston Globe reports on the story:

In Katherine Gundelfinger’s view, women should have “equal access to sunshine’’… Gundelfinger said she would like to see states pass laws to allow women to go shirtless wherever men can do the same. In Pittsfield, police Captain John Mullin said, that latitude apparently extends to everywhere outdoors.

Clearly, the whole publicly-topless woman issue is not such a big deal in sculpture parks. In that sense, art seems to exist in a different realm than humanity, a depiction having less significance than the Real Thing. Gundelfinger argues,

… [she draws] a stark distinction between her goal and what she considers the immorality of exploitative sexual imagery … she filed a complaint with municipal officials about suggestive illustrations of barely clothed women that had been posted in the windows of an adult-video store. “I’ve seen women more provocative fully clothed than I would be in just a pair of swim trunks.’’ [says Gundelfinger]

Art constitutes a kind of moral, non-exploitative version of naked imagery. What Gundelfinger’s argument and the controversy around this issue brings to mind is really the conflict between “nakedness” and “nudity”. A discussion as old as the Church, early scandals originated over the question of whether holy figures could be shown completely unclothed. The omnipresence of fig leaves as proto-censor bars play testament, even in an early Masaccio fresco. “Nakedness” is the dirty, earthly, impure version of “nudity,” which represents the heavenly purity of biblical figures.

So in Pittsfield’s version of things, as in our society at large, male toplessness is seen as a kind of nudity, a morally accepted display of nature, where a woman without a shirt is scandalous, unnatural and unacceptable. Gundelfinger holds that we should embrace all human bodies as nude rather than naked, pure rather than shameful. In my mind, changing minds like that is a worthwhile goal, but the proposed revisions make for a vast jump on the naked-nude continuum. On the other hand, the policy could have unforeseen benefits!

As Mark Papas, 55, third-generation owner of the Pittsfield Lantern Bar and Grill says, “I can see where it would be a real boon to tourism.’’ For Mark and all those who may not know there is also a movement around the world to make this happen, called Topfreedom.

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...

One reply on “BREAKING: People Want More Topless Nudes”

  1. I wouldn’t say art necessarily constitutes a non-exploitative naked imagery — in certain contexts, there is certainly art with exploitative nakedness/nudity: Garry Gross’s “Spiritual America” of a preteen naked Brooke Shields comes to mind (which is not to say that the nakedness has to be of a minor to even be exploitative). However, I agree with your overall point. One column tests out the NYC law of lady toplessness, to predictable enough results.

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