Posts Tagged ‘Man as object’

Coming up in London this week is an exhibition called The Naked Muse.  Pictures of naked men are usually of interest to me, so I thought I’d find out a bit more about it.

Full details of the exhibition, featuring black and white photos of men poets in the nuddy, and the calendar to go with it are available here:

As regular QRG -ites will know, I am a bit sceptical about projects that seek to ‘reverse’ the  objectification of women and men. Mainly because, influenced by the work of [redacted], I am aware that men, to use the technical term, are just as tarty as women these days, if not more so!

I have argued against the myth of the female gaze and taken the perspective,  that really, in metrosexual times, the gaze, (including the ‘gayze’) is polymorphously perverse. It will fix on anything or anyone, so long as they are hot.

HOWEVER! after recently previewing the American Man As Object  exhibition, quite critically I may add, I got talking to one of the women who runs it. Conversations with her  have persuaded me that in these metrosexy times, whilst men are the objects of many a picture, it is probably worth examining this subject matter closely. Because metrosexual imagery is often very bland and samey. To be considered ‘objects of desire’ men have to have big tits and nice hair and svelt figures – oh, pretty much like women then.

And, even in the 21st century, there are still not enough women working as photographers and film directors, making the images of men and women and people who identify as neither, that saturate our culture.

So back to the Naked Muse project.

The thing I like about it most is how it is questioning the gendered relationship between the ‘poet’ or ‘artist’  and the ‘muse’.  Historically, women have been muses, and sometimes quite famously, for artists and poets. Elizabeth Siddal is one of the most famous muses I know of. Here she poses as Ophelia for Millais:

Victoria Bennett, whose brainchild The Naked Muse is, commented on this complex dynamic. She said:
‘As a female poet, I have noticed over the years that male poets are often described in terms of being the romantic hero, dark, handsome, wild, notoriously philandering and accompanied by beautiful (young) female muses to “inspire” his creativity; the same “rule” does not apply to women. So, what if one is a female creator? If desire, and the object of desire and beauty are creative catalysts, then why do we not see that same poetic stereotype?
Instead, the woman poet tends to just have the “mad” bit stuck to her rather than bad or dangerous to know! What is the relationship between creator and muse? And what is the relationship between the observer and the object?’
This reminded me of a post by Elise Moore where she explored the construction of the woman artist figure as ‘witch’. It also made me think of the poetry of Carol Ann Duffy, especially her series ‘The World’s Wife’. These poems take the artist/muse dynamic one step further and conjur up the inner lives of women who might, with a bit of imagination, have been connected to (in)famous men in history and mythology.
The Naked Muse then, is not just an exhibition and a calendar; it is also some real relationships between men and women which focus on art, creation, and objectification. As Victoria puts it:
‘I wanted to explore it I guess through a collaborative process, subvert that idea of the male poet, or artist and female muse. So, I approached women poets and photographers whom I respected and admired in terms of their creative work, with the loose theme of the male muse, to which they responded (some with poems already published, some with specially written ones for the calendar), and I approached women photographers whose work I felt explored the territory of the portrait, in all guises, and I approached male poets that I regarded as being quality poets, engaged in inspiring creative work and possessing “beauty”, and I partnered up these collaborations.
1 photographer, 1 poem, 1 male poet and let them have free expression within that response. I wanted to make sure that the male poets showed as deep and wide a range of beauty and the male body as the poems themselves, which is why they range in ages from 21 to 67. I also wanted to include a range of poets and photographers in terms of the writing and approaches, background and experience.’

I have written before about my frustration with The Myth of the Female Gaze.  And it seems to be rearing its ugly head again. According to the organisers of this forthcoming exhibition – Man As OBject, the female gaze is alive and well and – shock! – turning the tables on men and looking at them. They say:

‘I’ts man as object – reversing the gaze. So the male gaze is about active men looking at objectified women. We’re reversing that gaze, it’s women artists portraying men in exactly the same way as has been done throughout history.’

We all know of course that Mark Simpson has been demonstrating for years, how men have become ubiquitously objectified in our culture, for the pleasure of men, women and everyone in between. So, I am wary of the premise of this exhibition for a number of reasons.

1) It reinforces the idea that it is women, not men, who are mainly ‘objectified’ in culture. I note how the blurb on the exhibition states that the ‘male gaze’ is about ‘active’ men looking at ‘objectified’ women. It does not use the word ‘passive’ because to draw attention to the dynamic between ‘passive’ and ‘active’ aspects of gender/looking/sex, we might end up, as Freud did, and as Simpson has done, considering how men too can be ‘passive’. What about homos? What about gay porn? What about metrosexuality? etc etc.

2) It reinforces the gender binary, the idea that the complex act of looking and taking pleasure in looking can be reduced to two poles – man/woman, male gaze/female gaze. As I said to the lovely Matt Lodder, art historian and self-objecitifier extraordinaire who sent me the link, ‘the gaze is not a truck that goes into reverse, it is panoptic’. So the exhibition does not consider groups looking at groups, or men looking at themselves or each other. I doubt it would include images such as this 1966 Japanese photo, of men voyeurs ‘gazing’ at couples making out in a Tokyo park for example, because it is too ‘complicated’:

3) It ignores bisexuality and how bisexuality proves the ‘panoptic’ nature of looking. As I said in a previous post about the myths of the male v female gaze:

‘Simpson’s writing also brings into focus how we forget, when talking about looking, and desire, the existence of ‘bisexuality’. If some people are attracted to both men and women, surely ‘all’ porn is for them? And if some people are able to watch all kinds of porn, surely … er… anyone can?’

I have had this argument too many times now. I have had it with the editors of a magazine including ‘porn for women’, I have had it with the kinkster and feminist Kitty Stryker. I am a bit bored of it to be honest.

I am sure there will be some nice pictures in the exhibition but my response to ‘Man As Object’ is a shrug, and a slightly dismissive ‘ORLY’?

Thanks to @mattlodder for the tip.