Asking Students to Bare It All

A professor's assignment in which all students are naked (and he is, too) offers a chance for him to explain how to teach performance art.

May 11, 2015
Ricardo Dominguez

Art instruction -- which has long featured nude models -- is not the same as instruction in other subjects. But a complaint from the parent of a student at the University of California at San Diego has drawn attention to the pedagogy behind a course in which all students (and the professor) are naked for a class session.

The mother of a student (both anonymous) complained to a San Diego television station about the assignment of Ricardo Dominguez, an associate professor of visual arts, for his course called "Performing for the Self." The mother talks about the student feeling that she shouldn't have to appear without clothes in a class, but fearing for her grade if she skips the assignment (which is the final in the course).

In an email interview, Dominguez offered a take on the assignment that differed in part from that of the television station, but agreed that students and the professor are nude for the session on "the erotic self." He said he has been teaching the course for years, without complaint until now. A university spokesperson said Sunday that the university was looking into the situation.

While social media reveal some expressions of shock at the class, some former students are also saying that they valued the experience and learned a lot from it. One former student wrote that the exercise "helped many open up and feel okay with being physically or emotionally naked."

Dominguez said that students have two clothes-free options for the class, in which candles are the only lights for the classroom.

"The students can choose to do the nude gesture version or the naked version (the naked gesture means you must perform a laying bare of your 'traumatic' self, and students can do this gesture under a rug or in any way they choose -- but they must share their most fragile self -- something most students find extremely hard to do)," he said. "The nude self gesture takes place in complete darkness, and everyone is nude, with only one candle or very small source of light for each individual performance. Each student can select where everyone will be during the performance and where the performance will take in the performance studio -- just as they are able to do for all the performances they do. A student may decide to focus on their big toe, their hair, an armpit, as being a part of their body that is 'more them than they are.'"

Students, he noted, learn about the assignment at the start of the course, and have the option of switching classes. Students are graded "on the nature of the risks, transgressions and creativity of their gestures -- that are always unique to each student and measured to a great degree to their growth and thinking about the self in relation to the body-as-canvas as method for art production," he said.

The problem, he speculated, may be that people don't understand performance art and its use of nudity.

"Perhaps people do not understand contemporary and postcontemporary art or specifically the question of nudity in performance art/body practices and training, I do not know," he said. "But nudity has been and is a core part of the history of performance art/body art from the 20th century to now."

Former students have come forward on social media to back the professor. Wrote one on the television station's website: "As a student I participated in this same course and in this same final project. I think it's ludicrous that this parent is getting the media involved in an attempt to censor the learning experience of their child! God forbid your kid's boundaries be challenged in college (conceptually of course)! I'm so thankful that I had this experience… It's made me a better artist."

While some are saying that the course appears to go "too far," many are criticizing the mother in particular. Writes one person: "This article should be retitled 'Helicopter mom can't release control of her adult daughter's life.' I'm sure the daughter is thoroughly embarrassed about Mommy's self-insertion into her college career."

On ABC 10 News, the mother said of the assignment: "It's just wrong. This is a memory my daughter is going to carry with her for the rest of her life…. It makes me sick to my stomach."

Jordan Crandall, chair of visual arts at UCSD, said via email that it was important to pay attention to the students who have spoken out in defense of the professor.

Crandall disputed the idea that removing clothing is required, and noted that the course is not required for graduation. The course, he said, "has a number of prompts for short performances called 'gestures.' These include 'Your Life: With 3 Objects and 3 Sounds' and 'Confessional Self,' among others. Students are graded on the 'Nude/Naked Self' gesture just like all the other gestures. Students are aware from the start of the class that it is a requirement, and that they can do the gesture in any number of ways without actually having to remove their clothes. Dominguez explains this – as does our advising team if concerns are raised with them.  There are many ways to perform nudity or nakedness, summoning art history conventions of the nude or laying bare of one's 'traumatic' or most fragile and vulnerable self. One can 'be' nude while being covered. There are many comments from former students that are visible online.... It is important to listen to students who have actually taken the class."

Also expressing support for the professor was DeWitt Godfrey, president of the College Art Association and chair of art and art history at Colgate University. "Broadly speaking, a professor has the right and privilege over what happens in their classroom, and I would defend that principle," said Godfrey in an email. "I would not defend a professor who abused that privilege. In this case, if students were informed as the professor claims at the beginning of the semester then he has performed his duties responsibly. While this is an unusual case (I have never heard of this before) it seems that students had a choice to enroll or not and the expectations were clear. While one might debate the efficacy of such policy one should defend the possibility and the professor's intentions."

Dominguez is known for using art and technology in ways that are sometimes controversial. In 2010, he worked with hundreds of students to hold a virtual sit-in, which involved logging on to the president of the University of California system's website and prompting the page to reload over and over. The effort took place on a day of more traditional protests. News reports also said that Dominguez caused the message “There is no transparency found at the UC office of the president” to appear.


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