Skin Show

There are, as it turns out, a great many different ways to be naked.

The baring of skin itself, first of all, is complicated. It involves more than merely removing clothing. The method of removal can send messages. Sometimes “revealing” clothing, designed to “leave nothing to the imagination,” is engineered precisely for the purpose of goading the imagination into action. Naked skin can bear messages simply by existing in a context. Streaking is not quite the same as pornography, and nudists are usually consistent when they claim that they are aiming for a sort of value-neutral nudity by normalizing it through their practices. The incoming drapings and the use of hair and hand to preserve “modesty” on Botticelli’s Venus above her shell put the body on display, curating her nudity, framing it, embellishing and emphasizing it so that we know that the goddess of sex and love is the one bared before us. Her hand and hair over breast and groin might as well be neon signs pointing to where the action is. Modesty of that sort is provocative, even when it seems to be hiding quite a lot more than what Botticelli hides. What is revealed (and here we have nakedness as a process, as an art in itself) is a tease. Just ask Gypsy Rose Lee.

Sometimes, nakedness is merely clinical. Here is the corpse in a forensic mystery, laid bare and still and cold. Perhaps even the insides are out (as in the Body Worlds exhibit). The body is an object, a thing in the world, with a cornucopia of Latin-named features assembled into a neatly organized and unavoidably mortal whole. Even figure studies in drawing and painting classes can take on this clinical air — they are studies, after all. Here is a leg, there a breast, here a hand and an arm extended. Here is long hair draped over a slightly pudgy shoulder, there a gnarled hand resting on a withered thigh. Here is Michaelangelo’s David, a naked body as study and as art, its bareness itself turned into a representation or a sign clothing a thought.

Nakedness isn’t just about bodies, of course. We can be emotionally naked. We can be politically vulnerable. Our speech can be raw, our expressions unclothed in social niceties. Our spirits can be bald and immediate. We can be unarmed and unarmored, bare of pretense and defense alike. We can be denuded, prevented from hiding ourselves in so many psychological and social senses. Our souls can be laid bare. We can even use the process of hiding our skin to bare those souls (as is so well demonstrated in Naked Boys Singing, which also works well as a show in which the physical nakedness of the actors amounts to a metaphor for the emotional and psychological nakedness of every song).

Amanda Fucking Palmer is very, very good at being naked.*

What’s most striking about it, first of all, is that when she does it, it’s quite a bit different from the usual soft-focused and airbrushed nudity or semi-nude tease common to images of women in popular music. Starting with her elegantly drawn eyebrows, Palmer makes of herself a canvas upon which the word and the song grows, and it isn’t just another tittie show. Her body is an object in the frame, but not merely an object. It isn’t cleaned up and pornified and rendered plastic — the armpit hair’s just…there, as is every microscopic feature of her skin. This is no tease — it’s revelation, but in the most personal rather than in the grandiose sense. Her lyrics tell stories about characters and set scenes, but they don’t hide. There is art here, but not artifice, if that makes any sense. Her body and words and voice are raw and straightforward, marking the important difference between nakedness as assertion or provocation and nakedness as field of objectification. She lays it all (and herself) right out before you. She confronts you with herself, and you’ve just got to deal with it…and with yourself.
This is, perhaps, what is most striking to me about her brilliantly crowd-funded new project, Theatre is Evil (check all the news about it). From its production process to its beautifully produced art it is an exercise in all forms of nakedness. It is not a display. It is a celebration and a gift and a conversation. Her process is not an arcane secret. She creates as nakedly as she presents.
Worth recognizing here is that while nakedness of the many kinds in which AFP is expert may be beautiful, it isn’t always (or often) pretty. The confrontational directness of her revelations is often (just as art should be) uncomfortable. It disturbs and stirs and compels as much as it invites. Put it this way: There’s nothing passive-aggressive about this sort of nakedness (unlike the usual tease-style assumed for  presentations of women’s bodies).

It is in no fucking way passive.

It is all so much fun!
Theatre is Evil is all about naked cabaret punk (to use Palmer’s own phrase). The music is powerful, and the art is great and intimate all at once. In a way, the best comparison is to AFP’s own very active Twitter presence, a kind of globe-spanning collaborative chumminess that invariably gets to the point where shit gets real. Musically, there’s a whiff of the 80s about it that wafts gently through songs that are anything but gentle themselves. “The Killing Type” may look and sound brutal, but it’s positively kind compared to the sweeter-sounding and wicked-cored “Trout Heart Replica” or the haunting near-cruelty of “The Bed Song.” There are no simple emotions here, no cleaned-up bodies, no tidy packages of feelings. It’s as messy as life. Theatre is Evil is a constant reminder that in Pandora’s Box full of evils, Hope was a regular and ambiguous resident. The sound production (as has been the case on her best work, as a rule) lets Palmer’s voice sound to its rawest advantage. This is not auto-tuned smoothness — her voice breaks with reality, even when an effect is added here or there. The live versions of her songs and the recorded versions sound alike because they are similarly bare of technical pretense and fussy processing .
Theatre is Evil officially drops on Tuesday, Sept. 11. If you want to get some naked time, you should buy it. It’s like going to a trippy cabaret show in Hell and finding all the angels there, revealing the otherwise invisible seams in their bright souls (to bastardize Rilke a bit). If you get the chance, catch her live. I know I’m going to!

*I’m almost certain I’m not the first person to notice this or talk about it in this way. No time for good research right now. :)

About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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