Being Naked In UCSD Art Class Is Required But Not Remarkable
Monday, May 18, 2015
Aired 5/18/15 on KPBS News.
Having to get naked for a college class may seem unusual, but maybe not if you’re an art student. A UCSD professor has been at the center of a media storm because he requires students to do just that.
Associate professor Ricardo Dominguez has been at the center of a media storm since a parent of one his students at the University of California, San Diego complained to a local news outlet about a nudity requirement in his class.
The upset parent, who declined to give her name, told 10News her daughter was worried about failing if she didn’t take her clothes off with the rest of the class for the course’s final exam.
Dominguez, who has taught the class on performance and body art, known as VIS 104A, for 11 years without complaint, said much of what is being reported is not true.
“There is no final exam in which students are forced to take their clothes off,” Dominguez said.
The story has gone viral. Television commentator Nancy Grace did a whole segment on the topic for CNN. Newspapers in Russia and Germany have interviewed Dominguez about the class.
“I’m a bit fascinated by the global response, in a positive way,” said Dominguez, who also runs the visual arts Masters in Fine Arts program at UCSD. “I’m glad people are interested.”
Dominguez said the students who elect to take this class – which is not required for graduation - are on track to become artists and are learning how to implement their craft.
“I am teaching the practice of body art and performance art, not just a lecture about the history, not just a slide or another video,” explained Dominguez. In fact, the students in this upper level undergraduate course have already taken a prerequisite class in which they’ve studied the history of performance art. By the time they enter the class in question, they are at a stage where they will be making art.
Over the course of the semester, students act out 10 performances that are referred to as “gestures.” Along with a paper, these gestures are how the students are graded.
One of the performances is the nude/naked gesture. Students can opt for the nude version - that is without clothes. Or, they can do a more metaphorical version of “naked.” “The naked gesture is when one is raw or vulnerable,” Dominguez said.
“One can be fully clothed or one could be under ten rugs. They then speak about a vulnerability, a trauma, or a condition which is difficult to face.”
For example, a Muslim student didn’t want to do the nude gesture. Instead, the student sat on a podium and told the group about a childhood trauma. Another student wrapped herself in a sheet and read from her teenage diary.
“The mandate has never been that you have to be nude,” said artist Steve Fagin, who was head of the visual arts program at UCSD when Dominguez started teaching the class. “The mandate is that you have to expose yourself.”
Students are given a syllabus describing the gestures when class starts. After that, they have three weeks in which they can drop the class. Dominguez said the nude/naked gesture is just one in a series of gestures. He explained that you could not do the nude/naked gesture at all and still get a B- based on work from the whole semester.
But Dominguez said not doing performances in a class about performance art doesn’t make sense.
“It would be akin to wanting to be a painter, going to painting classes and never painting,” Dominguez said. “So it would be difficult for your painting professor to have a dialogue with you.”
The students who opt not to take their clothes off, leave the studio for the nude portion of the class. Dominguez said the students who are nude want it this way.
“They felt very uncomfortable if one of the students was clothed and all the rest were not,” Dominguez said. “Or if I were clothed and they were unclothed. It would create an uncomfortable sense of risk.”
That means Dominguez gets nude as well. The lights are turned down, candles are lit, and the students sit in a circle and perform their gestures one by one. Dominguez let his current students know that the media was concerned about him also being nude for the gesture.
“I was certainly willing to be clothed and they could do it but they all voted, yet again, that they felt much more comfortable not having anyone in the class with clothes on during the nude gestures,” Dominguez said.
Professor Avisheck Ganguly teaches performance at the Rhode Island School of Design, a top art school in the country. He said it’s not unusual for students in a class like this to do nude performances. “It’s not exceptional or out of the ordinary at all in this kind of intellectual context."
Ganguly said nudity is so common in performance art - going back to the 60s - that it’s downright typical.
“It’s almost evoked as a some kind of parody now,” Ganguly said. “It’s almost a bit of a cliché in some sense.”
Marina Abramović, the self-titled grandmother of performance art, has long used nudity in her work. A 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York included a 1977 work called “Imponderabilia” in which two nude performers stand in a narrow hallway that visitors can pass through if they choose. If they do, it’s almost impossible to not brush up against one of the nude bodies.
The body is a central part of performance. It’s a tool in the artist’s toolkit and how one chooses to clothe it or not is part of the artistic practice. So said Hannah Johnasen, a local painter who took Dominguez’s class two years ago. She did the full nude gesture. She said it was the most effective class she took at UCSD.
“It had a big impact on me,” said Johansen. "I was a neuroscience major and when I took these performance art classes, I switched majors. I wanted to be an artist.”
The university issued a statement clarifying that the class is not required for graduation and students aren't required to be nude. The statement pointed to students' online comments about the class. "It is important to listen to students who have actually taken the class. Again, the concerns of our students are our department's first priority," according to the statement.
Performance artist and UCSD professor emeritus Eleanor Antin founded the performance art class. She taught it for 30 years.
“I never gave an assignment that required nudity, though there were students who would use nudity,” said Antin. “It was perfectly fine. We all sat there and watched and discussed the piece.”
“All this fuss is totally idiotic,” said Antin.
Dominguez said none of his students have told him that they — or their mothers — were upset about the class.
Since the mother in the 10News story was never named, I wondered if Dominguez manufactured the whole thing as a prank. In his own art practice, he’s known for acts of disruption, staging electronic sit-ins that overload or crash websites. He helped create a phone app which uses GPS technology to help immigrants find water stations in the Southern California desert.
But he said with the end of the semester and all of his duties running the MFA program, he’s too busy to perform something like this.
“Just to be as honest and as naked as possible, I had nothing to do with this particular encounter,” said Dominguez.
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