A controversial class assignment in a UC San Diego visual arts class requires students to be naked. (Photo: ImageBROKER/Alamy)
A visual arts professor at University of California, San Diego, has come under fire this week for an assignment that requires students to be naked in front of the class.
For his class “Performing the Self,” Associate Professor Ricardo Dominguez makes students perform what he calls a “nude/naked gesture,” which is basically a short performance in the nude.
This week, the mother of one student in the class spoke out against the assignment. “It bothers me; I’m not sending her to school for this,” the mother, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, told local 10News on Friday. “To blanketly say you must be naked in order to pass my class… It makes me sick to my stomach.”
The mother told local news that her daughter was not aware of the assignment before last week’s class, though Dominguez tells Yahoo Parenting the assignment was presented to students at the beginning of the course. He also says students don’t have to be physically nude. “Students are aware from the start of the class that it is a requirement. The ambiguity around the question of ‘nudity’ and ‘nakedness’ is intentional,” he says. “The options are clarified in the class. Students learn that they can do the gesture in any number of ways without actually having to remove their clothes. 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.” Dominguez says he hasn’t had a complaint about the assignment in the 11 years he has taught the class.
The mother isn’t buying it. “Shame on him, and shame on the university,” she said.
Jacquelyn Bulkowski, a current student in Dominguez’s class, supports the assignment. “As strange as it might seem to other people, nudity is an artistic expression of self that could not be more classic,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “My professor is amazing and very kind and as a current student and I can say he has two, if not three, times explained the assignment. Everyone is on an equal playing field of being naked in a pitch black room sitting in a circle. Each of us are supposed to choose a part of us that is more ‘us’ than the rest of us (big toe, shoulder, whatever) and hold up a light to it (candle or flashlight, whatever you choose) and explain why. No one’s genitalia will be on display unless that is what they choose. If someone can’t bear the thought they are given an assignment to emotionally nude themselves.”
In regards to the complaining mother, Bulkowksi says she may not know the whole story. “The girl whose mom is making a fuss is overreacting,” she says. “Her daughter had an option to drop the class, it is not mandatory for graduation, or she could have put [in] the effort to make an alternative gesture. The fact that her daughter didn’t is one of two things: either her daughter is lazy or she, like me, trusts her classmates and understands the importance of the gesture. Her mom hasn’t been with us in that room and doesn’t know the environment that has been created. It is one of trust and professionalism.”
Shanise Mok, a UC San Diego alum who took Dominguez’s class, says the physical nudity option is encouraged. “On the first day, we went over the syllabus and Professor Dominguez did mention that in the requirements there would be a nude gesture. He encouraged us to be physically naked, but people were able to talk to him if they had issues like religious constraints,” Mok tells Yahoo Parenting. Mok, who took the class two years ago, says some students dropped the class throughout the semester, and that one student decided against being physically naked for religious reasons.
Mok completed the assignment, and said she felt “great” about it. “After a semester together, I felt comfortable with the students and the professor, and it was a really open and safe environment,” she says of the class, which she says was made up of mostly art majors.
For the assignment, students strip down, as does Dominguez. “The lights were dark, which did help comfort me,” Mok says. “The assignment helped me explore my own art.”
Today, Mok is an art teacher in Redwood City, California. She says she’s not surprised by the controversy surrounding the assignment. “I know that Professor Dominguez has had controversial art, which a lot of students do,” she says. “I understand the mother’s concern, but if the student had asked more questions, she probably would have understood more.”
On the 10News Facebook page, the reaction to the assignment is mixed. “I think it is sexual harassment and he should be stopped,” writes Susan Davis. Adds Kristine Tendvahl, “As a teacher, I’m appalled that this professor is doing this in the name of teaching art. There are many other ways to get students to dig deeper into themselves to learn, grow, and experience.” Still, others point out that the students know what they are getting into. “I had to take this final a couple years back for an upper division art class at UCSD,” writes Michelle Currier. “We had a choice between being nude or doing something emotionally ‘naked’ and every student but one chose to do the nude performance. It was uncomfortable for some of us but we were adults and knew what we were getting ourselves into from day 1 of the class.”
In a statement provided to Yahoo Parenting, Professor Jordan Crandall, Chair of UC San Diego’s Department of Visual Arts, supported Dominguez, and said the comfort of students is the department’s first priority. “Removing your clothes is not required in this class. The course is not required for graduation,” he said.
Dominguez says participation in this form of performance art is critical to the understanding of the medium. “Nudity has been and is a core part of the history of performance art/body art from the 20th century to now. … If students are to learn about performance art as practitioners, this history of the medium is crucial for them to experience in a direct way. It is not just a matter of reading about it or viewing slides.”