Spencer Tunick and the RNC: Slacking in Cleveland?

The Plain Dealer’s editorial board generally doesn’t weigh in on the subject of art, unless the cigarette tax is on the ballot, or unless one of the neighborhoods revitalized by arts activity has some significant moment. And even in those cases, they tend to avoid taking up the art itself, preferring instead the discussion of economic impact. They don’t fancy themselves critics. They leave what they have of that to Steven Litt.

So it got our attention back in May when they made exception, for none other than Spencer Tunick.

We like to think that artists make art for reasons other than to ride a wave of attention. And we like to think that newspapers choose editorial subjects for reasons other than clicks. But in this case–in both of these cases–we can’t be so sure.

Would the PD have editorialized on an art installation if it didn’t involve 100 naked women? It’s perfectly valid to note that Tunick’s installation–news of which broke at Scene magazine–is a response to the Republican National Convention, and therefore that it is not just timely, but politically relevant. True. But its also worth noting that there is plenty more publicly installed art– much of it substantial, informative, and conceptually resonant–associated with the RNC. And the Editorial Board didn’t weigh in on any of that. So it’s probably safe to say Tunick got their attention with those 100 nude women, and he got it because they were going to get a lot of attention.

Having said all that, the PD had a wonderful Emperor’s New Clothes moment, pointing out that as much as Tunick says he is celebrating the power of women to sway the election, he is every bit as much taking advantage of women and of the RNC for his own personal gain.

“Art is in the eyes of the beholder,” wrote Thomas Suddes. “So are publicity stunts. And that’s what my eyes behold.”

” ….. the ‘artist’ will recruit 100 women to exploit for his own gain,” wrote the amazing Kevin O’Brien. “It’s a cynical, self-serving idea and we should all get right back to the important task of ignoring it.

The Editorial Board usually has its multiple voices synthesized into one, but in this case we are treated to five individually quoted perspectives. The one that most appreciates Tunick’s work (at least his earlier work) comes last.

Elizabeth Sullivan writes, “The gobbledygook of Spencer Tunick’s attempted explanations of what he’s trying to say with this latest Cleveland nude installation is off-putting, and so is his obvious attempt to exploit the publicity of the RNC. Nor would I volunteer. But I can’t help liking his work — many images (not all) from earlier installations are haunting and beguiling, and strike me as a celebration of our shared experiences in the varied land and cityscapes of Planet Earth.”

Which brings me to the main point: Sullivan is exactly right about much of Tunick’s other work: In landscapes with significant components covered in nude bodies, the bodies become like paint, but paint with the idea that each individual stroke is a sentient being with its own perspective on the whole. If some vast gatherings of nude bodies are reminiscent of Holocaust images, others celebrate life, or diversity, or portray humanity as infinite.

From the page describing the current project, “Everything she says means everything,” on Tunick’s website: The photograph will involve 100 nude women holding large mirror discs, reflecting the knowledge and wisdom of progressive women and the concept of “Mother Nature” into and onto the convention center, cityscape and horizon of Cleveland. The philosophy of the artwork relates to the idea of the sacred feminine.”

What is it about mirrors and the RNC that doesn’t seem so sacred?

The current project in Cleveland seems like an afterthought with the intention of grabbing the spotlight. As he told Scene in May, he was then recruiting 6,000 people for a shot in Bogota. In Cleveland, he’s going for 100.

His earlier shot here also seemed to need a few more bodies, and maybe a few more road closures. From a vantage point near the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, at the North end of East 9th, he shoots straight down the middle of the street, with the skyline serving as a horizon, and East 9th leading clear through the city, almost to a vanishing point. But the arrangement of bodies doesn’t quite get that far. They come to an end at Lakeside, probably for logistical reasons, which in the picture looks like the river of humanity comes up short.

In the interest of full disclosure, several friends and family members are naked in that river of humanity. If you look closely you might be able to find them.

How Tunick’s shot of one hundred women posed with mirrors on private property in Cleveland Sunday morning will ultimately come out remains to be seen. But I can’t get over the idea of the artist using women and the RNC in a hurried attempt to to take advantage of a spotlight that even had the eyes of the PD’s editorial board.

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.