Nude Window Display at Chair and the Maiden Turns Heads
Megan Hanford, 26, posing for an exhibit by Brian Reed at Chair and the Maiden
By JOHN ELIGON
She stands fully naked under a suspended web made of various objects including shark eggs and teeth, beads and clay pipes. Her nakedness is essential, Mr. Reed explained, “so she can be fully at the center of that connectivity” of energy.
Some may call it art, others something less flattering.
The line between art and public indecency has continually been tested, from Spencer Tunick’s mass nude outdoor photo shoots that started in the early 1990s to Amy Gunderson’s going topless at the Mermaid Parade in Brooklyn in 2001.
Like most things in our system of jurisprudence, the answer is everything but clear.
“I believe that the base of any culturally free city depends on its acceptance of the body nude, in art and in life,” Mr. Tunick wrote in an e-mail message.
Mr. Tunick and his allies usually point to a clause in the state statute addressing public nudity that provides an exception for “the breast-feeding of infants or to any person entertaining or performing in a play, exhibition, show or entertainment.”
They say that this clause makes the law clear: as long as it is in the name of artistic expression, you may appear naked on any street corner, storefront or other public space.
Some, however, say that the law does not allow one to impose nudity on others, especially for commercial reasons.
“If you’re walking down a street in New York City and someone is naked in the window — and so children and whoever can see it — you’re depriving people of their choice,” said Daniel S. Connolly, a managing partner at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani, and a former lawyer for the city who handled public nudity cases. “That’s where you butt up against other people’s rights.”
Mr. Connolly, who represented the city in a lawsuit filed by Mr. Tunick about a decade ago, said he believed that the First Amendment did not necessarily protect public nudity when it was for a commercial purpose.
“The gallery owner and everyone would like to tell you this is a battle of government against the little guy and freedom of speech versus censorship,” Mr. Connolly said, referring to the Chair and the Maiden exhibit. “I don’t think so. This is a guy who owns a gallery who wants to get some attention.”
Ronald L. Kuby, the lawyer who represented Mr. Tunick in the lawsuit, said the gallery was in the right as long as it was portraying an artistic message.
“Simply walking around naked in and of itself is not protected conduct under the First Amendment,” Mr. Kuby said. “But lying down in the street naked with other people in order to express the duality of nature versus man, or to illustrate some post-apocalyptic vision, is artistic and does communicate a message.”
Mr. Tunick started his photo shoots in New York in the early 1990s. He sued the city after he was arrested several times; the charges were dropped each time.
In June 2000, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the city could not stop him from staging a mass nude photo shoot below the Williamsburg Bridge.
Mr. Tunick has since taken his mass installations to many other cities around the world. Perhaps the exposure of such displays has made some people indifferent.
As she strolled past Chair and the Maiden, holding her young son’s hand on Thursday afternoon, Alexandra Conley barely took a peek toward Ms. Hanford.
“I’m a native New Yorker, so I’m pretty unfazed,” she said.
Mark Moffa, who lives in Chinatown, stopped and said, “Wow, I’ve never seen anything like this,” adding that he thought it was “inappropriate because there are kids.”
In the end, Ms. Hanford made it through her four-hour shift in the window without police intervention. Paul J. Browne, the department’s chief spokesman, said they took no action because there was no lewd act.
Beyond the legality, Mr. Kuby offered up another theory for the lack of interference: “The truth is, even the cops like looking at naked people.”
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