Robert J Landy Ph.D.

Couch and Stage

The Naked and the Nude

How much exposure is too much in the creative arts therapies?

Posted Jan 11, 2018

Recently, I attended a creative arts therapy conference as a keynote speaker in Melbourne, Australia. The title of my talk was "Squaring the Circle: Reflections on the Search for Integration within a World of Refugees." As is my wont, I prepared a Powerpoint presentation, using multiple images to illustrate my central thesis that the search for meaning can be understood and enhanced by embracing contradictory aspects within the self and between the self and the world. The term, squaring the circle, is an ancient mathematical conundrum concerning the discovery of equivalency in area between a square and a circle. Since antiquity, no mathematician has been able to devise an equation to solve the problem, and so the term has come to mean a problem that cannot be solved. In the mid-twentieth century, the analyst Carl Jung used the term to denote individuation, a search for wholeness within the psyche, an integration of mind, body, and spirit.

For the past several years, I have been experimenting with photography and illustration, focusing upon the depiction of circles and later, circles in relationship to squares. At one point, my research took me directly to the ubiquitous Vitruvian Man sketch of Leonardo Da Vinci. My interest was not only in the depiction of the man in two poses, with lines connecting various parts of the anatomy, but also in the text by the ancient architect, Vitruvius, transcribed backwards by Leonardo, speaking of the correspondence between measures of distance in the human body and those of buildings. Most particularly, I was taken by the placement of the man within a circle within a square. For Leonardo, this was not only a representation of the equivalency of men and buildings, but also of the human figure and the cosmos.

In my study of the piece, I came across a scholarly notation suggesting that the Vitruvian Man was a self-portrait. That information spurred me on to photograph myself naked in two poses, then place the double self into a circle and square, finally adding a text. I played with this image in many ways, searching for a harmonious balance of man, circle and square, and for personally meaningful texts that speak to the harmony and dissonance of my particular search for meaning within a world of journeyers and refugees, displaced by changing environmental, political and psychological forces.

I planned to show several renderings of my Vitruvian Man self-portrait, explaining how and why I chose each image then tying that explanation to the central thesis of the talk. Getting ready to take the journey, I thought to contact my host and make sure it was acceptable to show the slides as I, as lecturer and expert in my field, appear naked.

I was surprised by the response: "I am concerned about the nakedness for some people. It's one thing having a drawing of the naked man in the original, it is another having a photograph of the person that is there speaking," she said.

"I could add a fig leaf," I joked.

"Fig leaf, Photoshop, or leave it out," she replied. "I can see it is an important part of the journey, but there is plenty of other material that will hang together without it. It’s your decision."

I felt challenged. I did not want to remove the slides altogether as they were part of my carefully constructed narrative. And yet, to add a fig leaf seemed preposterous. I was certainly not going to leave it out. After researching the history of nudity in western and non-western art, I was somewhat relieved to learn that censorship and prohibitions were ubiquitous, and not only in strictly fundamentalist cultures. Christianity was behind almost all of Western censorship of nudity, including either fig leaves over the genitals or broken off penises on all of the statues in the Vatican Museum. 

But then I realized that my presentation was for a professional group of therapists who used art as part of their training and treatment. This was not a conference about art per se, and so the issue of exposing the body, no less the body of the speaker, was much more charged. All arts therapists are expected to subscribe to a code of ethical principles speaking to professional boundaries regarding not only touch, but also demeanor. For example, the Code of Ethics of the North American Drama Therapy Association states: "Drama therapists are responsible to practice in a manner that maintains professional boundaries, based on the individual’s therapeutic goals, safety, and best interests." And so I wondered, would revealing my body, genitals and all, violate that particular principle? Would doing so not be in the best interest of the audience, made up of creative arts therapy students and professionals?

It became clear that I needed to be less concerned about my artistic integrity and more concerned with the issue of boundaries, especially since I was aware that the audience in question was multi-cultural and that some held beliefs that were unknown to me. Having taken this step, I considered how to cover up the potentially offending organ. The overt censorship of removing the slides was not an option for me, and my host agreed to the showing of the images, if in an altered form. A fig leaf was an anachronism, if not a joke. And so I decided to remove the genitals—not via the Vatican model of castration, but gentler, by the digital cuttings of Photoshop.

The process was complex and led me to consider my personal performance history as well as the more professional question of how much self-exposure is optimal on the part of a teacher/therapist/lecturer in a field that is a mix of art and therapy, the former having a much longer history of experimentation with nudity and self-revelation in a more literal sense than the latter.

On a personal level, I participated as an actor in the New York experimental theatre of the 1960s to 1970s, having appeared naked in the infamous production of Dracula: Sabbat, at the Theatre for the New City in Westbeth.

The experience, in rehearsal and performance, was difficult psychologically as the actors were directed not only to disrobe, but to engage in simulated sex on stage, each night with a different partner. At times, the boundary between simulated and actual was porous. In rehearsal, there was little thought about boundaries and sexual preferences and the effects upon actors. It was all about the theatrical effect and the vision of the writer and director, which was a dark one, ritualized each night in the performance of a Black Mass celebrating Satan. At the time, I was a teacher of special education and prayed that my students and colleagues would not attend a performance, but there were colleagues who came, especially following a prominent review in The New York Times, and I felt ashamed in their presence.

Some years later, when I was teaching at a university, I co-authored, directed and acted in a performance art piece called Men Are Circles, Men Are Spears at Franklin Furnace in New York City. Again, I performed naked and again was concerned about being seen by colleagues and students. In this case, several students appeared, knowing about the piece as it was reviewed in the press.  However, in preparing the piece, all the creators were sensitive to ethical considerations and the piece was framed within a clear political context, which provided a degree of aesthetic distance. Those who came were aware of my activities as a theatre artist and seemed to accept those terms without difficulty. I felt no shame in performance and in being seen by people I knew.

The professional question of how much self-exposure is optimal on the part of a teacher/therapist/lecturer in a field that is a mix of art and therapy, is still a very open one. The notion of the removed, distant therapist, modeled by Freud and his early followers in order to invoke feelings of transference on the part of the patient, has long been superseded. In psychoanalysis, for example, the concept of enactment speaks to the unconscious dynamics that play out between therapist and patient, and leads the therapist to take on a more active, revealed role in treatment. And in the creative arts therapies, the therapist reveals herself in many ways. Examples include somatic countertransference in dance therapy wherein the therapist utilizes her body to feed back projections from the client, and developmental transformations in drama therapy, where the therapist becomes an actor in the client’s drama, opening up many potential levels of personal revelation, conscious and unconscious.

In a broader context, the Victorian propriety of the early twentieth century, as well as the political and moral conservatism that ushered in Donald Trump and like-minded heads of state, concealed a profound blurring of professional and personal boundaries. These have been revealed in the analytical field by an awareness of extra-marital affairs, most notoriously between Carl Jung and his former patient, Sabina Spielrein, and that of Sigmund Freud and his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays (although the latter is somewhat speculative). And, despite prohibitions against the psychoanalytic treatment of family members, Freud famously analyzed his daughter, Anna. As of this writing, in 2018, the lurid realities of powerful predatory men in the United States government and performing arts continues to be revealed by courageous women previously silenced by the same. As such, the revealed therapist and artist stand naked in the light of their accusers, offering an alternative model, finally, of equity and justice. Bringing this back to the de-gendered Vitruvian Man, the question of self-revelation is less about private boundary violations and more about public ones, especially those in a contemporary society where the most private behaviors are daily exposed and lauded in the tabloid press and social media.  

Outside of treatment, as in the case presented in this blog, therapists also take on other roles as part of their professional responsibilities, such as presenting at conferences or performing in art events. Which brings me back to my dilemma of revealing myself in front of a professional audience as the de-gendered Vitruvian Man. I wondered what statement I was making by, as it were, removing my genitals to protect the putative modesty and beliefs of some members of the audience. Was it a culturally-sensitive act? Was it an aesthetic cop-out? Was it a bizarre rendering drawing more attention to itself than necessary?

Although I thought about the act of aesthetically removing my genitals in political and psychological ways—as presenting a post-binary understanding of gender roles; as exploring the implications of removing my genitals and experiencing the loss of masculinity, power, identity—I also considered the fact that my action was a practical adjustment make as an outsider within a foreign country to satisfy the needs of my host and audience. 

Over years of attending conferences, I always found myself drawn to presentations of self that were open and revealing, risky without being self-indulgent, as in autobiographical performances that uncover precise layers of the performer and in doing so, point to the universal nature of a shared humanity. And yet, it has always been clear to me that the line between self-revelation and self-aggrandizement is often thin. The beauty of drama and indeed all the arts in therapy is that they hold the two in balance, within an aesthetic frame of role and story. When the balance is transgressed, as in too much or too little revelation of body and soul, the self is diminished somehow. Too little exposure, hiding behind the frame, implies fear and disconnection. Too much exposure, breaking through the frame, implies insensitivity and grandiosity. Both extremes alienate audiences and leave them bored, hostile, sometimes frightened for their own safety. There is a poignant scene in the novel, Snow, by Orhan Pamuk of a theatre performance in a small town, torn apart by opposing political philosophies. Breaking through the imaginary fourth wall, the actors take out real weapons and begin firing at the unwitting audience, wounding many, some fatally. 

Reflecting upon my decision to de-gender the Vitruvian Man, I sought a middle ground, a modest nakedness without genitals, and thus without a weapon that might blaspheme or at the very least disrespect cultural propriety. In the terms of the poet, Robert Graves, I chose to be naked rather than nude, the latter being narcissistically grandiose. And yet, by removing the genitals, I drew further attention to myself as a performer. Was the removing then more exposing than the revealing? And to return to the central question of the blog, how much exposure is too much in the creative arts therapies? And concurrently, is there a confluence or spectrum of self-exposure in terms of the physical/sexual, emotional, and verbal domains?

Following my presentation, I was approached by one of the elders of the organization who apologized to me.

"What for?" I asked.

"For feeling pressured to remove the genitals," she responded.

"It was my choice," I said, "I could have left out the Vitruvian Man slides altogether. But in removing the genitals, I got to think about it and its meaning."

"What does it mean to you?" she continued.

I replied: "It means that I will be more mindful of how I present myself professionally and how my performances affect audiences. And I will be more playful, adding aesthetic distance which can be refreshing for a professional group." And then I asked the rhetorical question: "What if I did not remove the genitals—what then?"

My close colleague and co-keynote speaker at the Australian conference, Stephen Levine, wrote a revealing piece called ‘Keep Your Shirt On: Art, Therapy and the Spaces In-between,’ about the implications of spontaneously removing his shirt while engaged in an interactive workshop experience with his trainees, all of whom were women. For Levine, the act was an expression of vulnerability when coming from a place of isolation to community, which was the theme of the training. For some of the trainees, it was an abuse of power and privilege. Levine suggests that the issue of professional boundaries can best be explored in the liminal space between art and therapy, between revealing and concealing, between teacher and student, woman and man, therapist and client, expert and novice, between judgment and critical learning. I fully agree, as there is no clear way to either expose or dispose of the genitals, or power or privilege, without destabilizing some in a group whose gaze is built on their particular sensibility and culture.

In the end, the group of organizers of the conference convened to reflect upon the success of their undertaking. In the discussion, the presentation of the de-genitalized Vitruvian Man was a hot item, some stating that if the image was genital, they would have walked out. Others were critical of the choice to remove the genitals and still others found the compromise prudent, if not uncomfortable. As is often the case for art therapists, one person offered the group an opportunity to express their feelings through making drawings, and all did so. Because of my unwillingness to offend my readers, I will withhold a presentation in word or image of the drawings, only to say that several were large and misshapen and evoked raucous cathartic laughter

For me, the naked and the nude
(By lexicographers construed
As synonyms that should express
The same deficiency of dress
Or shelter) stand as wide apart
As love from lies, or truth from art.

Lovers without reproach will gaze
On bodies naked and ablaze;
The Hippocratic eye will see
In nakedness, anatomy;
And naked shines the Goddess when
She mounts her lion among men.

The nude are bold, the nude are sly
To hold each treasonable eye.
While draping by a showman's trick
Their dishabille in rhetoric,
They grin a mock-religious grin
Of scorn at those of naked skin.

The naked, therefore, who compete
Against the nude may know defeat;
Yet when they both together tread
The briary pastures of the dead,
By Gorgons with long whips pursued,
How naked go the sometimes nude!