Miss Moorman Article
By Clive Barnes
It was, if I remember rightly, Naunton Wayne, who used to sing a song in a pre-war London revue with the refrain: “If you move it’s rude when you’re in the nude, but if you’re standing still its art.” Rudeness and nudeness, to say nothing of art and movement, have become talking points in New York during the past few weeks.
The whole thing started on February 7 with a lady cellist named Charlotte Moorman, Miss Moorman is no ordinary lady cellist. I have never had the good fortune to hear her play, but I understand that a feature of her performance is that on occasion she plays her cello in a monokini-which is the technical term for a bikini that has blown its top.
Accounts are diffuse, and I am not certain whether she customarily wears what are known in America as “pasties,” which are small discs (often encrusted) covering what The New York Times tells me I cannot call “nipples,” but for which I know no substitute word. However on February 7 Miss Moorman played before a specially invited audience. Although Miss Moorman was at that time unknown to me, except by reputation, I was in fact invited to the performance. But other duties intervened preventing my attendance. In the course of the evening, I understand that Miss Moorman played Brahm’s Lullaby in a condition known in America as “topless.” It was
then that they arrested her-much to the evident annoyance of the audience.
I have no idea whatsoever of the laws, rules, regulations, whims, or whatever that govern nudity in New York City. Indeed I rather wonder whether anyone has. Certainly at night clubs, female chorus girls (even in New York there are comparatively few male chorus
girls) wear those undecorative, decorative “pasties,” which look obscene to me, but not to the police. I wonder about a nation’s youth, however, which is expected to accept that women have metal discs where nipples are meant to be. Anyway there are laws; and Miss Moorman, the intrepid cellist, was nabbed under them.
Now nudity in mixed media presentation is not at all rare. I don’t know the aesthetic reason, but the dramatic reason, even the dramatic justification, is clear enough. In the
present day it is hard enough to shock anyone dramatically. Bad taste, the flouting of taboos, is one of the few weapons left in a perhaps decadent but clearly sophisticated
society. Imagine a Hamlet who came on stage and during “To be or not to be” took off every shred of clothing. It would not be what Shakespeare intended, but it would have an effect.
In the avant-garde dance nudity is fairly conventional. I remember one in which a lady was totally divested of her clothing by a young man, who solemnly placed it on a tailor’s dummy. (As I recall, it looked better on the girl.) Again I have a clear recollection (in fairness it was the kind of thing one hardly ever forgets) of a young man, stark naked, encapsulated in a sort of plastic bag, bouncing up in down in pools of red, white and blue paint. They never arrested him. Perhaps they found the red, white and blue patriotic.
The case of The People v. Moorman was most illuminating reported by Carmen Moore for that fine New York institution, The Village Voice. A number of people, including Jack Kroll, of Newsweek, gave specialist evidence. He said that Moorman’s nudity was “no more than an attempt to contribute to the plastic situation.” I must say I concur.
Towards the end of this court drama I became personally involved. At the end
of April I found myself in the course of my normal duties as a dance critic at a place normally known as the Hunter College Playhouse. There I saw what I understood to be an accepted as such a performance by the Dancer’s Workshop of San Francisco.
During the course of this performance eight dancers came onstage and took off every stitch. Then they put their clothes back on. Then they took them off. They kept this up for some time. Then, as naked as newborn lambs they started rolling around in acres of brown paper, considerately provided by the management. It was all completely un-coy,
unselfconscious, and as they were very nice looking kids, it was very pleasant. Later they put their clothes on, kept them on, and the whole thing became boring.
However, of the first part of the programme, I find I wrote in my newspaper report; “The result is not only beautiful but somehow liberating as well.” Miss Moorman’s attorney perhaps incited by that word liberating called me to court to testify what I had seen which I did undeterred by the efforts of the People’s attorney who at that time seemed to be playing Perry Mason with less than finesse. Mr. Moore, reporting the occasion in the Village Voice referred to me as “suave, well spoken and very British” and no one has ever
written anything quite so civil about me before.
The mills of justice grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small. On May 9, Judge Shalleck delivered his verdict, finding Miss Moorman “guilty of performing a lewd act.” Her lawyer promptly said the conviction and suspended sentence would be appealed against.
Judge Shalleck gave his verdict, and appended to it a lengthy opinion in which he travelled far and wide in criticizing people he termed “bearded, bathless beats” and took a few swipes at fashion designers. “You have,” Judge Shalleck wrote “a Rudi Gernreich and an Yves St. Laurent who mock women by their design or garments which make women look like they are not women.” At least Miss Moorman left her audience in no