The theme is female beauty and nudity.
The reasons I have not discussed it much are, roughly:
• I don't feel very authoritative on the matter. Which is to say that I feel I have more questions than answers... and maybe some tentative observations...
• It's an issue which I think can be quite sensitive and polarizing. Just like religion and politics, one tends not to discuss beauty and nudity much unless one knows they are safely in the midst of like-minded company.
Well, here goes, tentatively dipping a toe into turbid waters...
As a heterosexual male, I enjoy looking at beautiful women, and typically speaking, the less clothing they are wearing, the better.
You see, I'm already making some of you readers alarmed, and others offended!
But well, it's true. And I'm not alone. And you.. reader.. you know I'm not alone. You might even be like me. Our culture is rife with it. But why? (Here come the questions... mostly without answers...)
Why do people (men??) enjoy looking at beautiful/naked women?
And do women also enjoy it? Do straight women enjoy it? Do straight women enjoy it on a level to which they won't admit for fear of being identified (or self-identifying) as either lesbian or aligned with the patriarchy? These are questions to which I have no answers. (But Cardiff University believes it does...)
There is of course the evolutionary approach to answering this question, which goes something like: Beautiful women convey through their shape and features a "readiness," or "suitability" to bear children, and this is unconsciously internalized as a valuable or attractive feature by men. Seems reasonable, and in fact it is widely accepted as true.
But the effects and the power of beauty are really something to marvel at. My friend Michael Lujan calls it "cute privilege." Cute privilege is something the viewer bestows upon the (beautiful) viewed. The "Effects on Society" section of the Wikipedia page on "Beauty" gives a short but alarming summary of the topic. Beautiful people make more money, get loans more easily, marry more advantageously, and are less likely to be convicted by juries of crimes. Ugly people get the short end of all those sticks, and are also more likely to be involved in crime. That's crazy... and yet not really that surprising somehow.
But why? Why do we bestow such privilege on the beautiful?
Again, Wikipedia gives a curt but interesting fragment of an answer when they say "The experience of beauty often involves an interpretation of some entity as being in balance and harmony with nature, which may lead to feelings of attraction and emotional well-being."
There could not be a better segue to one of the more personal things I have to say on the matter, which is that looking at beautiful and/or naked women gives me a profound sense of emotional well-being. In a sense, this simple fact is the core of why I felt like it might be worth actually writing on this topic... of why it might actually be worth upsetting a reader or two. The thing is... it's true. And that makes it worth writing about.
I want to flesh the point out a little bit. (Sorry for that). I'm not talking about pornography. Pornography serves a different part of the brain, I think. I'm talking about the simple act of looking at a beautiful woman, or an artistic representation of one. For me, this act of looking is calming. It is soothing. I am not a religious person but there is a religious quality to the experience. It is as if, in a world which so often seems random and senseless and occasionally even malevolent, there still exists this one perfect, beautiful, elegant, balanced thing, and that is women. I am reminded of the title of Garry Winogrand's photography book from the 1960's, "Women are Beautiful." I couldn't have said it better myself, Garry... and I think those three words to myself all the time. Women are beautiful.
I started to discover this calming effect while in Barcelona. After having visited a few other cities in Europe now, I can say that Barcelona is in fact quite well endowed with a lovely coterie of public sculpture which glorifies the female form. Simply walking through the center of town and encountering one of these was a real gift.
(Barcelona has such wealth in this regard; believe me when I say that these three photos are but a small sample)
My favorite museum in Barcelona, the MEAM, also helped me discover this simple pleasure, not least of all through it's wonderful exhibition of the work of Jassans. And as I spend time thinking about this topic, Jassans comes right back to the forefront. As long-time readers of this blog might remember (and for those that missed it, my blog posts on Jassans are HERE and HERE), Josep Salvadó Jassans was a Catalan sculptor with a religious-like reverence for the female figure. He was in fact religious, and he did in fact see the female form as a kind of pinnacle of God's creation. His figures are, in my opinion, strong and balanced and his respect and reverence shines through.
Grella, by Jassans
On first glance, the museum certainly seemed to fill the void left by the other museums' relative paucity of the female form; the Helmut Newton Foundation is packed to the rafters with images of naked and beautiful women.
(Sorry for the rather poor composition of this photo... cameras are not allowed in the museum, so I had to position myself behind a pillar where I could not be seen by guards!)
I was immediately seduced and happy to be there.
After not all that long I began to feel that something, some small thing, was amiss. Slowly the thoughts started creeping in: "How can someone get away with such unsophisticated objectification of the female body?" "Is this OK?" "Why, exactly, did he get so famous for this?" "Is this actually any different from pornography?" Some of his images, especially those of famous people, are very respectful while still being sexy, but many of them betray something else, something slightly more... sinister?
I myself am not a brilliant critical thinker, one of those people well-versed on the connections between different modes of modern thought, popular culture, identity politics, gender norms, semiotics, and all that. (I don't even really know what "semiotics" means, although I suppose I could look it up!) So I sought help from the internet. I looked up "Helmut Newton," imagining I would find plenty of insightful criticism. But no, that search gets you nothing but hagiographical paeans. I had to go with "Helmut Newton criticism" before Google gave me something to work with. I read a few good articles, but I thought this one was the best. It introduced me to the idea of The Male Gaze, an interesting concept which posits that the default perspective/viewpoint from which the dominant western culture is "produced" and is thereby made normative is that of the heterosexual male. It follows then that looking at sexy women is OK, and the sexier and more boobs and butt, the better. But if I'm reading this right, I think the Male Gaze is about more than just looking. I think it has the goal of commodification, objectification, and control of women through the use of framing, posture, props, narrative, and other sorts of editorializing. (And to the degree that it really is about control, what interesting things does this say about the secret fear that men have of women, of their emotion, of their power?)
Helmut Newton's work is a great place to see this, and it's easy to see in two of his most iconic images.
This is one of his "Big Nudes," seen also in the lobby photo above.
And this is "Tied Up Torso, Ramatuelle."
I guess what I'm saying is that it's not my thing. So much of what makes or breaks images like these for an INDIVIDUAL is their personal psychology (and lord knows that is a wide-open and varied field). Perhaps these simple props, which for me undermine the images, were in fact the indispensable elements for Newton. Different psychologies. I would like the "Big Nude 1" a lot more, I think, if she were flat-footed on the ground, and I like this version of "Tied-Up Torso," in which the rope has been removed, much better.
(There are so many tangential off-shoots which arise from this topic, which would make this post way too long, and about which I'm just not well-versed enough to discuss. One, though, which I find interesting is this idea that women willingly adopt elements of the Male Gaze, or self-objectify, presumably in the service of attracting male attention. Of course it happens all the time. But then, in the words of Hadley Freeman, "What is one person's embrace of their sexuality is another person's patriarchal oppression.")
Anyway, I know this is all very sensitive territory and I'm sure my arguments could be ripped apart by anyone with a sharp wit and a different viewpoint. These are just my opinions and observations.
I hadn't really intended to bring Jassans into this discussion when I started, but he poked his head in. Both Jassans and Newton present their subjects very dispassionately, without a lot of undue emotion. But, for their naturalism and their lack of props and art-direction, Jassans' work is much more powerful, to me, anyway.
3 sculptures by Jassans
Is Jassans' work free of the trappings and traps of "the Male Gaze?" Can a man appreciate the female form without objectifying it? Can this appreciation be "simple"? Can it be "innocent"?
Jassans makes me think the answer is probably yes, but...
I don't really know.