Sunday, 20 September 2009

   

 

MEN LOOKING AT MEN

 

In 1975 the American critic Laura Mulvey published an article entitled “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. This has over the years been one of the most influential of all feminist texts. In it Mulvey made use of a version of Freudian theory, as reinterpreted by the French philosopher and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Freud referred to scopophilia – the pleasure of look at other people’s bodies as erotic objects. Mulvey applied this to the cinema. For her the spectator – paradigmatically male – turned the women he saw on the screen into passively erotic objects, while at the same time identifying himself with the ‘ideal ego’ [the hero of the story], also seen on the screen.

 

Obviously this interpretation runs into difficulty when applied to paintings, drawings and photographic images made by openly gay male artists, of the type included in this exhibition. The male homosexual sensibility is often perceived as being essentially passive – receptive rather than pro-active. If the gazer essentially controls what is being gazed at gay art featuring nude or semi-nude male bodies occupies a paradoxically position in both the psychological and the artistic spectrum.

 

In her classic book On Photography [1979], Susan Sontag remarked that “to photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed”. She also concluded that “the act of photographing is more than passive observing. Like sexual voyeurism, it is a way of at least tacitly, often explicitly, encouraging what is happening to go on happening.” It is easy to extend these observations to the work here which is the direct product of the artist’s hand. It obviously springs from an identical impulse.

 

In these images, the male body is presented for our inspection in a role that is simultaneously active and passive, potent and yet impotent. What is happening “keeps on happening”, as Sontag puts it, but it is at the same time divorced from the action of time.

 

Most of what is seen here springs from a well-established classic tradition. It looks back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, to the studio of Raphael, and after him to that of Annibale Carracci. It has particularly close and obvious links with the tradition founded by Jacques-Louis David and his students – in other words, to 19th century academic art, though the compliments it pays to this often take on the guise of parody.

 

Gay male art has an aptitude for subverting its own attempts at idealism – and, even more, perhaps, a gift for undermining idealization.

 

The great British aesthete and art historian Lord Clark remarked in his book The Nude [1956] that all representations of human nudity contained an element of eroticism. He nevertheless tried to create a distinction between the merely naked – people divested of their clothes – and the nude, which for him was nakedness imbued with social significance.

 

In fact, one might claim that in the present context, nakedness has achieved social significance in its own right, without the need for other, extraneous meanings.

 

In other words, contemporary gay male art is indeed essentially an expression of desire. A large part of its importance resides, not in this circumstance alone, but in the fact that desire is expressed openly. The art of the past that we now refer to as ‘gay’ was invariably clandestine in one way or another. Either it concealed desire within allegorical or religious subject matter [think, for example, of swooning baroque images of St Sebastian], or else it was pornographic – consciously ‘dirt’, consciously illicit.

 

Since the 1970s, when the texts by Mulvey and Susan Sontag that I have just cited were published, a curious transmutation of attitudes has taken place – one of a series of such transformations since the fall of the ancient world.

 

In the high Middle Ages nude representations of all kinds were for nearly all purposes forbidden, just as they are today in the Islamic world. They crept into view only when artists had to illustrate some central episode in the Christian myth – the fall of Adam and Eve at the beginning of the narrative, the crucifixion of Christ at the end of it. The nude was invariably associated with sin or with suffering, and often with both. And even at moments when the nude seemed unavoidable, artists were nervous about portraying it. Christ on the cross, for instance, would be portrayed with a voluminous loincloth, or even sometimes wearing a long robe.

 

During the Renaissance, the nude, especially the male nude, moved into a central position in western art. All artists had to study it. Very often, as we see from some of Raphael’s drawings, male studio apprentices posed nude or nearly nude for what would become images of clothed females – for example the Madonna.

 

Though the male nude retained an absolutely central place in the training of artists, as we can see from the survival of numerous so-called ‘academic’ studies – the work of students at institutions such as the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris – the female nude became more and more popular as a subject for finished paintings  and sculptures. To paint or even sculpt the male nude for its own sake became a somewhat suspect activity, though heroic male nudes continued to be acceptable if they were suitably sanitized by allegorical or historical subject-matter. Even in these circumstances, portrayal of male genitalia was generally taboo.

 

With the rise of feminist theory, the female nude was suddenly dethroned, and became suspect. Where it survived in high art, it survived, as it did in Tom Wesselman’s paintings, by referencing popular culture through the pin up. What was not ironic and distanced became unacceptable. It has taken the popular success of Lucian Freud and of Balthus to achieve a partial reversal of this trend, and for many people Bathus’ work remains suspect.

 

Openly erotic male nudes, of the sort made by an increasing number of homosexual artists and photographers, have inched towards the cultural centre as the portrayal of naked females has crept away from it The transgressive element in representations of this sort remains strong, but now in a context where transgression has become emblematic of both sexual and social liberation.

 

Edward Lucie-Smith

1016 words

 

 

 

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