Peeping Thomas

Tucked in the back of the Philadelphia Art Museum‘s modern galleries is a peculiar, enigmatic piece by Marcel Duchamp. Etant donnes was the artist’s final work*: he spent the final two decades of his life working on the piece after telling the world that he had retired from art-making. Upon his death, the work was discovered and, as per the stipulations of Duchamp’s will, installed at the PMA never to be moved or lent out to other sites.

peeping_eyeThe experience of the piece (she says, while digging into the cobwebbed recesses of memory) involves looking through two peepholes in an antique barn door: your gaze crosses a second threshold of a hole punched through a brick wall to the ultimate tableau of a naked woman splayed out on a bed of twigs. She is nameless, faceless — seen only from the neck down, legs opened so as to place the labia center stage. The Daily Beast says:

There is something that seems victim-like about the figure, her body limp and exposed. However, the woman’s left hand suggests something else entirely. It is active, steadily holding up a gas lamp and illuminating the scene.

The Wall Street Journal even retells an interpretive theory that the positioning of this mannequin may have been meant to evoke the way Elizabeth Short‘s killer positioned her body in what came to be known (and sensationalized) as “the Black Dahlia Murder.”** I’m not sure about this latter theory, but I’m with a lot of folks in seeing the work as invoking sex and violence — and in the way it implicates the art viewer in the process of victimizing and objectification by forcing us into the positionally of voyeur, of Peeping Tom.

Only here’s the thing: when I was brand new to Philly and visiting the PMA for the first time, I completely missed all of this artistic depth and ambiguity. In The Daily Beast’s description of the piece, Rachel Wolff theorizes:

The piece begins with a wooden barn door pierced with two inconspicuous peepholes. For the uninformed or uncurious, that’s where it ends (it’s not hard to imagine the inner dialogue: “It’s just a door? How ‘Duchampian’”).

I wasn’t even a sophisticated enough art viewer to make it to the threshold of Wolff’s imagined soliloquy. Again digging into the foggy recesses of years ago, I think my inner monologue, as I peeked a quick look into the alcove that holds the door/portal to Etant donnes, was about as uninformed as: Nothing to see here. I wonder what’s in the next gallery?

Strange and tangential as it may seem, this experience all came back into my memory this evening when I heard that an artist calling himself XVALA is soon to do a show in Florida that will feature life-sized reproductions of some of the intimate photos recently stolen by hackers and plastered across the Internet. (puke.)

XVALA justifies this as not actually being exploitative or re-victimizing, because it’s actually Important Artistic Commentary. As quoted in LA Weekly:

I’m calling attention to the fact that our information should be our own and it’s not. I feel like if we can’t call personal property personal it becomes public property. I would rather hit a delete button and have this go away. The perfect world would be where we can control our information, but nobody can.

So: you want to call attention to how awful and inhumane it is for people not to be able to have privacy in a digital age — and you’re going to do that on the backs of women’s bodies, by continuing to violate the privacy and bodily autonomy of women who have already been the target of digital sexual assault?

That is an “artistic statement” that I most profoundly Do. Not. GET.

At least Duchamp only exposed and dehumanized a mannequin — an actual inanimate object — in his piece. He didn’t dehumanize and objectify real-life female crime victims and pretend it was on some moral high ground of Art.

In his coverage of this upcoming show, Dennis Romero suggests “The show could test the boundaries between art and privacy, freedom of speech and content ownership,” reminding us that Lawrence has stated her intent to prosecute anyone who posts and further propagates the dissemination of these photos.

I hope she sues this guy’s pants off.

* I must learn how to do accents in WordPress.

** Often I try to find non-wiki sites for external links, but I couldn’t find ANYTHING else about Short’s murder that wasn’t peppered with gruesome post-mortem photos. If you turn to Professor Google to learn more about this case, be prepared for what you are likely to see.


Image credit: “Peep Hole” by 4BlueEyes Pete Williamson, shareable via a Creative Commons License (retrieved from )

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