Naked under Courbet's painting: where is the line between art and exhibitionism?

After the Damien Hirst episode, another incident returns to make us discuss what is the line between art and waffling: a performer undresses under Gustave Courbet's L'origine du monde

After the controversy of the past few days over Damien Hirst’s sheep that is supposed to be exhibited in Arezzo as part of the Icastica exhibition, another episode from a few days ago gives us another cue to try to understand where art ends and mere provocation, exhibitionism, or perhaps waffling according to some, begins instead.

The news broke yesterday but the episode dates back to last Thursday: a Luxembourg-based performer, Deborah de Robertis, sat under one of Gustave Courbet’s most famous paintings, L’origine du monde, which is on display at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The peculiarity of the episode is that the girl sat down putting her genitals on full display, showing them off to the public in a blatant gesture.

A video of the performance circulated on YouTube last night, but it was removed (EDIT: the video has since been reinstated, this is the link to the performance). But still circulating on the web are frames of the footage, which are obviously unmistakable. Following the performance, law enforcement was alerted, but it seems that there will be no particular consequences for the girl.

This is not the first time someone has stripped in front of a work of art: a few months ago a Spanish boy had done the same thing in front of Sandro Botticelli ’s Birth of Venus at the Uffizi. Thus we return to the discussion yesterday about Hirst’s sheep. And even the performance, if it lacks a strong message and if it lacks originality, what is it if not pure exhibitionism or provocation? Add to this the fact that by now one of the quickest ways to achieve ephemeral (but who knows if useful) popularity is precisely to show one’s graces, possibly in crowded environments, and perhaps passing off the performance as a work of art.

In a statement to the Luxembourg-based Wort website, the girl said her intent was to reproduce Courbet’s work. But is this weak basis enough for the performance to qualify for the label of a work of art? And, in case it is enough, what would be the value of such a work of art, considering the lack of a serious and structured message supporting it, and the utter lack of originality, as well as elegance and refinement? And the last question: isn’t it the case that with actions of this kind,contemporary art is in danger of passing, in the eyes of the public, more and more as a ridiculous antics in which anyone can do whatever comes into his or her head in order to call themselves an “artist”?

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