Tuesday, December 29, 2009

AIDS, Masculinity and the Representation of the (Gay) Body Part III: A Conversation with Jack Mackenroth

jack_mackenroth_200907_3Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Jack Mackenroth, fashion designer, Project Runway contestant, AIDS activist and medal winner in swimming at the 2009 Gay Games. He kindly reposted my article entitled AIDS, Masculinity and the (Gay) Body on his website and I wanted to hear about his reactions to the post.

In this earlier post, I had discussed Mackenroth and his physical prowess as emblematic of the new (gay) body paradigm which emerged after the rise of AIDS. I argued that in response to the sick body of the early days of the epidemic so prevalent within representations of the disease in popular culture that gay men on a cultural level wanted to instead display a body of health, strength and vitality.

Thus, the paradigm of the gym jock body became paramount within gay culture (and personal life) as exemplified by the Abercrombie & Fitch ads of the mid 1990’s. abercrombie_ad The appearance of this new body was also the result of the changing nature of the disease that not only allowed gay men with HIV/AIDS to live healthier and longer lives, but also employed the use of steroids to prevent muscle wasting which in turn transformed their physiques. And of course, this new (gay) body was not confined to only HIV+ men, but to all gay men as they sought to confront the challenges and representations of the disease.

Mackenroth found my analysis interesting. But he also wanted to share his own personal experience about the development of his own hyper masculine, extremely muscular body. On one level, it really had nothing to do with AIDS or his HIV+ status except a desire to live a healthy lifestyle. Actual lived experience is of course essential to a discussion of sexuality and its manifestations. In my earlier blog post, I was analyzing the new (gay) muscle body more on the level of representation and paradigm. The experience of each individual gay man may of course vary widely from that ideology, but I still think that those images have an effect whether it is a confirmation of one’s own body, a repudiation of that body, a desire for that body etc. I tried to speak about my own relationship to this somatic paradigm in a follow-up post entitled Postscript: AIDS, Masculinity and the (Gay) Body.

mollycoddlemarcel Effeminacy & homosexuality in popular culture, postcard circa 1910

For Mackenroth, producing a muscular body is essential to combating what he sees as not only his own effeminacy, but also the perceived effeminacy of gay men in the wider culture. Indeed, since the origin of the homosexual as a species circa 1870 as Foucault has stated, the paradigmatic definition of the homosexual was gender inversion, a woman trapped within the body of a man even though many types of same-sex identities existed- masculine, feminine, in-between in actual practice. With Stonewall and the emergence of the Gay Liberation Movement, the inversion definition although still pervasive was changing both within gay culture and outside it. Masculinity was no longer seen as just solely the object of gay male desire, but it could be his identity as well. (See my early post, AIDS, Masculinity and the (Gay) Body. for a discussion of gay “masculinity” in the 70’s and how its nature changed with the emergence of AIDS.)

tom_of_finland_example-thumb-400x288-232 Tom of Finland circa 1970’s- Masculinity as masquerade

Mackenroth talks about how he was perceived as effeminate growing up and candidly related a painful story about a teacher who thought that he was a girl for 2 days in high school. We all know and have experienced how the trauma and pain of childhood and adolescence to whatever degree often influences and directs our adult lives and experience. To create a exaggerated masculine and muscular body seems to me a valid response to such a situation where one’s sense of self is challenged and negated. Perhaps, muscles become an emotional armor against the past.

What is interesting is that Mackenroth himself realizes that while his body is meant to dispel his effeminacy, he simultaneously seems to display that effeminacy and is comfortable with that display. As he says, “As long as I don’t move, I’m perceived in a certain way (muscles, masculinity)”. He also said, “When I open my mouth a purse drops out.” And finally, “I think I developed a masculine body because I could change that part of myself rather easily by working out. Changing mannerisms and voice tone or inflection is possible (and I know some gay men who have gone to great lengths to achieve this) however, I either did not have the desire or the need to do so as I became comfortable in my new, muscular skin.” The muscles again could be conceptualized as a sort of metaphoric armor (my new muscular skin) that not only provides protection against a negative past, but as a new corporeal vessel which contains and transforms his effeminate gestures, mannerisms etc., so that they are not the whole story. This armor is also a part of a growing maturity. Mackenroth states,”I also think I developed my physique when I was young and insecure, and now I am not insecure at all so I have no problem ‘nellying it up’. I will never be Tom of Finland and I don't care to be. I couldn't keep up that charade for very long anyway so why bother?”

There is something of a disruption between Mackenroth’s corporeal image and his behavior, his “nellying it up” which I think can be seen as a critical response to traditional masculinity. In other words, he is not pretending to be other than he is and has been; straight-acting is not his game. As he said, his physique is a “fuck you” to all those straight boys who gave him grief in the past and a challenge to those in the present. Mackenroth can look like those straight boys (and even possess a bigger body and be better looking), adopt their somatic paradigm, but his same-sex desire and effeminate display disrupts the dominant culture’s sequence of sex/gender/desire. A biological display of masculinity through the muscle body does not, therefore, guarantee a heterosexual desire as the dominant culture continually asserts and needs to maintain a binary system of gender. This undermining of the sex/gender/desire sequence is problematic to the wider culture. Mackenroth’s honesty and awareness of himself is an example once again of how lived experience often differs from paradigm and representation.

Conversely, I think one could argue that Mackenroth is hailed in Louis Althusser’s sense by a dominant ideology that is already deeply homophobic and misogynistic. I am not saying that he is a misogynist or homophobe himself (indeed we all are to a degree having grown up in a homophobic and misogynistic culture)merely that in a way it makes sense that he chooses to adopt the hyper masculine, muscle body because masculinity is already valued and validated within our culture and gay culture in particular. This valuing and validation is performed in part through the constant negation of women and gay man and that must be problematic if you perceive yourself as effeminate. There is often a call within the gay community itself for its more flamboyant members to “tone it down” so as not to make it harder for the rest of the community. It is shameful that such a sentiment exists and points to the fictitious nature of the gay community itself which is often divided by race, class and even body type. The muscle body, then, is perhaps a defense against that which is already devalued both in gay culture and society in general.

However, this body type still troubles me both on the level of representation and everyday life because there are plenty of gay men who don’t express the insight that Mackenroth does about it nor do they display proudly his duality of body and personality. For me, this body paradigm does indeed have traces of homophobia and misogyny in its uncritical display of an ultra masculinity. Also, there is a sense that such a body is mandatory within gay culture. Mackenroth himself stated that in going to the Roxy nightclub in New York City in the 90’s, one needed this corporeal accessory or one was invisible to the other patrons. When I first moved to New York City in the early 90’s at the age of 22, I went to the Roxy once and indeed felt invisible and alienated. I learned though that there were other venues where my desire could flourish like the extraordinary club SqueezeBox where the other’s other reigned. And I realized that I wasn’t exactly gay, but queer and vext.

After reaching this point in the post, I emailed Mackenroth with 2 specific questions that were still on my mind. I am quoting his answers to each question in their entirety.

1. How do you or do you even feel the need to reconcile your appearance- muscles, masculine, handsome etc, with your personality which seems to express the effeminate nature you are trying to dispel or mitigate with that very appearance?

Mackenroth answers, “Well I think they offset one another. Honestly if I was still a skinny little man--which I still sometimes feel like inside--and still had the effeminate mannerisms I think I would be very insecure. I like the idea of muscles as armor. Becoming muscular in tandem with years of therapy has helped me become very secure about who I am. If you would have asked me about my perceived effeminacy 20 years ago, I would have been horrified and filled with shame. Now I am much older and evolved and I don't care if other people judge me because I am not the most masculine man skipping down the street. I value all aspects of who I am and I am no longer trying to mask or change them. We all adapt to social expectations all the time. I know it's not appropriate to walk into a business meeting and do a high kick, but it doesn't mean that I don't do them at home from time to time. And as I mentioned before--my personality is multi-faceted. I'm not always effeminate--not that I judge that part of me in any way.”

2. Have you ever been in a situation where that dichotomy of your appearance/personality has been negative or really positive because of it?

Mackenroth states, “Hmmmm--Interesting. I've met people before who had seen photos of me and when they met me said they expected me to be more masculine. I'm never sure how to respond to that. I think the mixture of the perceived and unexpected is perfect for my personality. Part of my humor is based on shock value or sarcasm and it suits me that as a 200 pound muscleboy I am comfortable vacuuming in high heels. Generally it's been beneficial. I also think there is an aspect of "acting gay" in certain situations, especially where straight men are involved, that helps alleviate any uncomfortable feelings a straight man might have. I think it is threatening to many straight men to have a big, muscular man in their comfort zone so I temper it with effeminacy so as to show "it's ok I may be big but I'm just a queen so socially I am less than so its all good." I have never analyzed this way. Very interesting.”

Mackenroth’s answers I believe exhibit a degree of maturity and self-awareness about his own relationship to his body and personality, how that relationship developed and where it came from in his own life. It has been fascinating for me to talk with this “muscleboy” because if nothing else it exemplifies how complicated we all are and how what we present to the world in appearance is not always the sole answer to who we are as individuals. Paradigm and representation cannot contend with the actual lived experiences of individuals although they do shape that experience and can cause as much joy as misery.

abercrombie_ad Abercrombie & Fitch Ad 1990’s- Masculinity as biology

However, I still feel uncomfortable with the (gay) body paradigm and that in part is because of my own history and past. But, it also stems from an understanding of the regime of sexuality and gender to which we are all subjects. The muscle paradigm still embodies for me a degree of homophobia and misogyny and it’s uncritical validation of (straight) masculinity does nothing to undermine this current regime, but rather supports it. There is also something about it that is not mature, that seems adolescent and obsessive. And while Mackenroth may embrace the pansy that is in all of us, there are those gay man that do not and who see muscles and masculinity as the natural, biological state for those creatures possessing a penis. In this regard, the penis is (mis)recognized as the Phallus and in the long run we all (gay men, lesbians, transsexuals, straight women) suffer for it.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Notes on a Painting: The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche

DelarocheLadyJaneGrey Paul Delaroche The Execution of Lady Jane Grey Salon of 1834

In 1988, I lived in London for about 3 months after having attended a spring semester abroad at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. For the summer I was lucky to secure an internship at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, a small and splendid museum with an exceptional collection of seventeenth and eighteenth century English and European painting. For my internship, I often travelled around London doing research for an upcoming exhibition on Gainsborough. I had to go to the library at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square several times where I would always first stop to contemplate French painter Paul Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. Even when I wasn’t at the National Galley as long as I was somewhat close to it, I would quickly go in to see the Delaroche painting.

I was a continual witness to this moment before an execution that summer. The painting measures 8’1”x 9’9”, so as a spectator,I am metaphorically within the scene and part of the audience participating in the almost grisly event. And despite the painting’s academic nature or perhaps because of it, I was repeatedly engaged with both its content- a moment of exquisite psychological tension arrested in paint and its form- its almost photographic quality, it’s licked surface in the parlance of the nineteenth century.

The painting depicts an actual historical event that occurred in the Tower of London on February 12, 1554. On the orders of Queen Mary, daughter of Henry VIII, sixteen year old Lady Jane Grey, a member of a minor branch of the Tudor family, was executed for treason. After the death of Edward VI, Lady Jane had reigned as a Protestant Queen of England for only nine days and due to the historical circumstances of the ongoing hostilities between Protestants and Catholics in England, she had been deposed by her cousin Mary and eventually sentenced to death.

The Delaroche painting of the coming execution is organized compositionally into 3 parts which emphasize the central moment of the work, the impending beheading of Lady Jane. On the left of work are 2 ladies-in-waiting who are convulsed with grief. DelarocheLadyJaneGrey They are passive, emotional and feminine and stand in contrast to right side of the painting which is masculine and full of potential action- the act of beheading. The male official helps Lady Jane find the block and at the far right stands in the elegant contraposto stance of a Greek statue, the executioner who leans on his long-handled axe. A glint of the metal of the blade is just visible in the shadows. The executioner wears red tights as if foreshadowing the blood which will soon be spilled on the straw surrounding the block and on the luminous creamy white satin dress of Lady Jane.

DelarocheLadyJaneGrey This academic composition of 3 parts organized into masculine and feminine poles serves to emphasis the central figure of the subject, Lady Jane. She is also given prominence by the light which illuminates her against the dark gloom of the Tower of London. Her pale skin and creamy white satin dress seem to both reflect and emit light. This luminosity is further enhanced by the contrast of the black cloak of the official who maneuvers her hand. As the viewer, I am entranced by the beautiful smooth, liquid texture and brightness of of her satin dress and the pale, porcelain nature of her skin. I notice the other elements in the painting, but I continually return to this luminous figure and her impending fate.

Specifically, I focus on the essential and eternal act of the central figure of Lady Jane. The action in the painting is not the DelarocheLadyJaneGrey execution itself, but a moment or two before the act of beheading and it is a moment of quiet, yet extremely emotional movement- a simple and tentative gesture of the hand. A blindfolded Lady Jane reaches out her right hand in confusion in an attempt to find the wooden block on which she will place her head. But, she cannot do it alone. In order to find the block, she is assisted by the official who leans over and guides her hand.

It is this gesture of the hand that so arrests me when I look at this painting. It is a pathetic movement full of anxiety, fear, terror and bewilderment. It is a representation of the unknown. As a viewer, I see what Lady Jane who is blindfolded cannot see: the block, the straw, the grieving ladies-in-waiting, the silent executioner ready with his axe, the helpful official. She knows and does not know what is about to happen, but as the spectator I know and simultaneously I feel her terror. While I witness what is about to unfold, I also inhabit her blindfolded body ( I was 20 at the time I first saw the painting, so close to her age of 16) and experience the unknown and the blackness (metaphorically the official’s cloak) as she does: Where is the block? I cannot find it. Where is the executioner? When will his axe fall? Will I die swiftly? Will I feel pain? Will God save my soul? Why is this happening to me? I am only sixteen.

The tense, emotional and psychological nature of the painting is accompanied by its form which is a sumptuous display for the eye despite the horrifying subject. The subject of the painting is as much a historically accurate event as it is a feast of textures and colors rendered in paint. There is the smooth, luscious creamy white satin of Lady Jane’s gown, made even more so, since I, as the viewer, know it will soon be stained with blood. There is the grain of the block’s wood, the traces of its use, the hard iron rings on its side and the pale blue velvet of the cushion on which Lady Jane kneels. There is the crispness of the pale yellow straw surrounding the block and the soft fur of the official’s cloak and the fur sleeves of the dress worn by the seated lady-in-waiting.

The beautiful rendering of fabric, wood, metal and straw are almost photographic in their effect. There are no visual brushstrokes as if the painting just magically appeared. The Delaroche embodies what was called the licked surface in French academic painting. The brushstroke needed to be invisible in order to confirm the talent and work of the artist who produced it above a mere craftsman. A smooth surface while it physically hides the efforts of the artist was needed to paradoxically signify that the work was indeed full of work, toil and exertion as opposed to a work of rapid brushstroke exemplified by the later Impressionists.

In a sense, the licked surface is an anti-style as if the painting is a spontaneously produced illusion. A notion heightened by its life-size scale. The position of the straw and what is perhaps the executioner’s greenish cloak seem to extend beyond the picture plane or at the very least the stone box stage set in which the figures are set. These 2 elements, the straw and cloak, invite me the viewer in and connect the painting to my space making me a visceral witness to the scene. This connection serves to further hide the style of the painting and mask the visceral nature of its medium.

DelarocheLadyJaneGreyIt is a work that is not idealized, but a historically correct vision of both clothing and architecture and a visually accurate rendering of texture and color that produces a scene which is supposedly neutral without comment, alteration or rhetoric. It magically and spontaneously materializes before the viewer. This argument, of course, is a false one, but it’s ideology is part of French academic painting. The painting with its issues of royal legitimacy, treason and punishment correlates with French history at the time of its rendering. In 1830, Charles X was deposed in favor of his Orléans cousin, Louis-Philippe and the painting could be further examined within this social and historical context.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey is a good example of French academic painting because its visual feast in paint is supported and expanded by the exquisite and tense psychological moment of the scene. It is this correlation of form and content which I find so riveting and which continually prompted me to view this painting whenever I could. I have not seen this painting except in reproductions for over 20 years. I am returning to London this spring with great joy and I hope to find in the Delaroche what I saw then and enjoy a unique and rich visual and emotional experience. Perhaps, I will learn something new about Lady Jane and her impending fate.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Wear the Pants: Be a Man at Penn Station


Recently, when I entered Penn Station to take my daily train to work, I noticed an advertisement while riding the down escalator. The ad has no images, only a logo; the text reads “It’s never too late to be a man.” As I read the ad, I felt annoyed, uncomfortable and puzzled. What is this ad all about and how does it relate to the binary gender regime under which we all live? When I disembarked from the escalator, I saw that this small ad was part of a larger campaign that blanketed the entire train station. The campaign is for Dockers, specifically their khaki pants.


As I read the other text advertisements that appeared throughout the Amtrak area of the station, I realized that this campaign to sell Dockers khakis was meant to be half serious and half funny, but I wasn’t laughing. Now, before anyone thinks I am humorless and can’t take a joke or that I am a bit esoteric (this is of course partly true), I am also witty and sarcastic and I would never call myself “politically correct.” However, something about the Dockers’ ad campaign in Penn Station troubles and intrigues me because of its deployment of orthodox masculinity in order to sell khaki pants to (real) men.

Like the first ad I saw, “It’s never too late to be a man”, some of the ads are in the form of admonishments or directives in which the (male) speaker of the ad tells the (male) spectator/c0nsumer that masculinity can be achieved with one pair of khaki pants. Throughout the station, the command “Wear the Pants” is repeated often. dockers1 And this achievement is only a block away: “Purchase a one way ticket to manhood, Macy’s Herald Square, Lower Level.” Within the system of consumerism, gender is a commodity that can be bought and sold as long as the purchaser buys the appropriate item for the correct gender. The other parts of the Penn Station advertising blitz further address the male viewer with a command: “You put the man in Manhattan.” and “Face it you’re a man.” or with an authoritative statement: “Gender has a dress code” and “Mankind has arrived at the station.

This Dockers’ campaign needs to be seen, I believe, in the context of the rise of the metrosexual as a new male subject position. The term was first coined in 1994 by Mark Simpson and gained popularity with Simpson’s 2002 article on Salon.com, "Meet the Metrosexual" In the article, Simpson writes:

The typical metrosexual is a young man with money to spend, living in or within easy reach of a metropolis – because that's where all the best shops, clubs, gyms and hairdressers are. He might be officially gay, straight or bisexual, but this is utterly immaterial because he has clearly taken himself as his own love object and pleasure as his sexual preference. Particular professions, such as modeling, waiting tables, media, pop music and, nowadays, sport, seem to attract them but, truth be told, like male vanity products and herpes, they're pretty much everywhere.

For some time now, old-fashioned (re)productive, repressed, unmoisturized heterosexuality has been given the pink slip by consumer capitalism. The stoic, self-denying, modest straight male didn't shop enough (his role was to earn money for his wife to spend), and so he had to be replaced by a new kind of man, one less certain of his identity and much more interested in his image – that's to say, one who was much more interested in being looked at (because that's the only way you can be certain you actually exist). A man, in other words, who is an advertiser's walking wet dream.

The metrosexual despite his sexual preference is in one sense a challenge to the traditional male heterosexual. He pampers himself physically and sartorially and allows himself to be an object of a desiring gaze. In fact, he seeks out this gaze and displays himself for all to see within the urban megalopolis. And what is even more interesting, the metrosexual is both the product and the need of consumerism- a new capitalist class who wants to spend their money on grooming products and designer clothes.

The Dockers campaign is in part a critical response to the metrosexual and his gender undermining consumerism. Dockers still want men to be consumers of course, but rather their advertising campaign seeks to promote the act of buying khaki pants as a means to reconfirm and redeploy an orthodox masculinity. It is a codification of the retrosexual as their own consumer class. (The term, retrosexual, was also coined by Simpson to denote a traditionally masculine man who was uninterested in or unnerved by the metrosexual’s self-involvement.) As the ad states, “It’s never too late to be a man” and discard and reject the foolish primping of the metrosexual.

This celebration of the retrosexual is further underlined by the advertisement which states, “Gender has a dress code.” While at first glance, this statement could suggest gender as performative, as a masquerade in which donning particular clothes expresses a certain gender despite biological sex, the use of the word “code” implies regulation and containment rather than an unending chain of sartorial signifiers. As Judith Butler states the initiatory performative of gender, “It’s a girl” or “It’s a boy” begins:

the process by which a certain girling (or boying) is compelled, the term or rather, its symbolic power governs the formation of a corporeally enacted femininity (or masculinity). This is a “girl” (or a “boy”), however, who is compelled to “cite” the norm in order to qualify and remain a viable subject. Femininity (or masculinity) is the forcible citation of a norm, one whose complex historicity is indissociable from relations of discipline, regulation and punishment…this citation of the gender norms is necessary to qualify as a “one” where subject-formation is dependent on the prior operation of legitimating gender norms.

Clothing is one of the norms which a male individual must cite from in order to be understood as a “viable (masculine) subject.” The Dockers statement “Gender has a dress code” is an attempt to reassert the significance of clothing and khakis in particular in the production of a proper gender identity for men, but not in the terms of the metrosexual. Rather khakis are positioned as signifiers of traditional masculinity.

It is partly in reaction to the blurring of sartorial boundaries by the metrosexual in which clothing is meant to signify more than just utility and masculinity, but rather it is also a display, a signifier of wealth and good taste and an expression of the wearer’s objectness. In a sense, the metrosexual gives too much importance to his clothing. His relation to it is too feminine. Within the Dockers gender code, clothing is meant to blend in, to be functional. practical and sturdy, to express gender without feminine display and taste and to exude an male realness.


This notion is again emphasized by the advertising line, “Face it, you’re a man.” as if having a penis is the only needed confirmation of one’s (traditional) masculinity (and heterosexuality). There is no nuance or subtly here. If you have a penis you must live according to the rules and boundaries that began with “It’s a boy” at the moment of your birth. You have to “face” it. It is undeniable and you can further achieve and display your manhood by wearing Dockers khakis.

“Face it, you’re a man” is also, I believe, a homophobic statement. It implies a chain of sex/gender/desire in which a male sex produces a masculine gender with a proper heterosexual desire. Such a system precludes same-sex desire as a viable expression of an individual by asserting heterosexuality as natural and mandatory. Butler states, “The institution of a complusory and naturalized heterosexuality requires and regulates gender as a binary relation in which the masculine term is differentiated from a feminine term, and this differentiation is accomplished through the practice of heterosexual desire.” Therefore, gender is a system based upon and confirmed by heterosexuality. A gay man is unintelligible within this system because he does not fulfill the proper sequence of sex/gender/desire. Likewise, the metrosexual could also be seen as outside this chain of sex/gender/desire as well because he cites from a norm usually associated with femininity. He does not successfully differentiate the terms, but blurs them.

The Penn Station Dockers advertising campaign participates in and asserts the current gender regime by securing gender as a binary relation in which the masculine term is secured, differentiated from, and privileged over the feminine term. “Face it you’re a man” calls upon the male viewer to live up to the rules of this ideological structure and in turn negates gay men (and women, both gay and straight).

The further line “You put the man in Manhattan” continues this homophobic tone. In the campaign, Manhattan can be understood as a space of metrosexuality and gayness and the ad calls for the potential wearers of Dockers to “put the man in Manhattan”, a traditionally masculine man, a retrosexual, in contrast to all the metrosexuals and homos who inhabit the city. In this regard it is interesting that this Dockers campaign is within Penn Station where men from the suburbs enter the city everyday for work. Perhaps, they are the target audience for these advertisements by playing on their own fears and fantasies about the city as a place of metrosexuals and gays, of men who are not like them. Perhaps, therefore, my unease on seeing these ads is in part because as a urban queer/vext man I am not their target audience. Indeed, one of the ads reads, “Mankind has arrived at the station” as if traditional masculinity must come from outside the urban space of New York City, a space defined by metrosexuality and homosexuality.


On the Dockers website, there is a so-called Man-ifesto which additionally signals this ad campaign as reactionary, homophobic and a response to the rise of the metrosexual:


The Man-ifesto alludes to metrosexuality and homosexuality through the use of words such as disco, non-fat latte, androgyny, salad bar etc. Society has become genderless and is in peril of collapse because of it. Little old ladies have no one to help them cross the street. The use of this image intrigues me the most. It reminds me of an image of the Boy Scout helping an old woman across the street. The Boy Scouts are a training ground for traditional masculinity and are one of the most homophobic organizations in the United States. And indeed, I think the inclusion of the little old lady image is not by chance in the Man-ifesto, but a direct allusion to homosexuality. The Dockers campaign states, “little old ladies remain on one side of the street” because of in a sense the presence of gay men and metrosexuals. Their presence within the urban space are undermining orthodox masculinity and causing cities to “crumble”. Again the salvation and rebirth of orthodox masculinity remains outside the urban sphere. “Mankind has arrived at the station.

In response to this world in gender turmoil, people with a penis are asked “to get your hands dirty”, “to answer the call of manhood” and to reassert traditional masculinity with the simple act: Wear the Pants. The entire Dockers campaign may seem harmless in its use of gender. Surely, we are not meant to take its brand of masculinity seriously. Surely, we are meant to laugh at its reactionary nature. According to the campaigns’ creator, Draft FCB of San Francisco, the “Dockers brand of masculinity is less about ‘Don’t eat quiche’ and more about being chivalrous and mature.” The campaign was also supposedly tested with women “to make sure it’s not sexist.” “It’s not about men taking over again” nor is about whether men are “gay, straight or whatever,” says Julie Scelzo, creative director of Draft FCB.

Yet, for me the Dockers ads hide behind this humorous and tongue-in-cheek approach. It is not mature or chivalrous, but rather it plays to the fears and prejudices of (straight) men. (Straight) men are its audience. It hails the retrosexual as a new consumer class in opposition to the ambiguous metrosexual. In this regard, the Dockers advertisement blitz at Penn Station speaks to, acknowledges, participates in and uses the homophobia so prevalent in our society to sell khaki pants. Perhaps I should have been in a test group.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Postscript: AIDS, Masculinity and the Representation of the (Gay) Body

Part I: Babes in Boyland by Guy Trebay

When I was thinking about my recent blog post, AIDS, Masculinity and the Representation of the (Gay) Body, I was reminded of an article I had read many years ago that discussed how the use of steroids to prevent muscle wasting by some HIV+ gay men had given these men extremely muscular bodies. I could not remember the title or author of this article, but I knew that it had appeared in the Village Voice. Luckily, a Voice staffer named Lily responded to my general query and found the exact article, Babes in Boyland by Guy Trebay. The article appeared in the August 17, 1999 edition of the Voice.

The article details the change in the bodies of (s0me) HIV+ gay men who began in the 90’s to become more muscular. The article addresses this change through a discussion of the “muscle scene” in The Pines on Fire Island. As I also stated in my post, Trebay contends that this corporeal change was in part precipitated by the advent of AIDS in which gay men sought to replace the disease ridden (gay) body prevalent in the early days of the epidemic with a body of health, vigor and action on both the level of representation and actuality. But in a perverse sense, this new muscular (gay) body was not just a reaction to AIDS, but its by-product. Trebay quotes journalist Steve Bolerjack, a seasonal Pines resident: “The fact is that a high percentage of guys here are [HIV] positive and able to get steroids easily. For some of us, it's a medical and not a vanity issue; I'm on testosterone therapy myself." But among the unanticipated side effects of combination therapies for HIV and AIDS, Bolerjack says, "is that protease inhibitors can increase your vascularity and testosterone and steroids can increase muscle mass. So, if you work out, you can really get so pumped up you wind up looking better than you ever have in your life.” I would argue that this development did not just occur with gay men who were HIV+. This group is just an example of a wider paradigmatic shift in which the muscle jock body became the new gay archetype in the realm of representation and for some in lived experience in the 1990’s.

The question now is whether or not this (gay) body is still the dominant representation and if it continues to exert meaning in the real lives of men who desire other men. In my earlier post, I argued that indeed this muscle body within (white) gay culture still prevails despite challenges and was concerned that no one asks what it means to have and display these muscles and how this display relates to whatever degree to masculinity, homophobia and misogyny.

Moreover, what is The Pines on Fire Island like today? Is it still the “muscle scene” that Trebay describes or has it changed? If anyone has stories to contribute about The Pines today or in 1999, please share them so that this body knot can be further unraveled.

Finally, Trebay’s article garnered a tremendous reaction when it was published. The responses were gathered in an article called Pec'ing Ardor. They range from agreement to sour grapes.

Part II: Jack Mackenroth

In my earlier post, I mentioned AIDS activist, athlete and fashion designer Jack Mackenroth as perhaps emblematic of the new (gay) body with(out) HIV. Mackenroth kindly reposted my blog on his website. I still hope to talk with him in the near future about his reactions to the post.

So far one comment has been left on Mackenroth’s site and I would like to respond to it here. The comment reads:

The article is interesting. I would be interested to know the age of the author. How much is this based on personal experience and how much in research into a time not personally experienced? Having lived through nearly three decades with HIV I’ve seen the history of HIV/AIDS as a participant.

I suspect the increased gym attendance among gay men in the late 80’s had more to do with how they wanted to be perceived by other gay men than by how they wanted to be perceived by the larger culture. Bluntly put, looking “healthy” meant getting laid a lot more. My recollection is that the majority of the activists involved in ACT UP and other AIDS activists (people who were consciously attempting to change the larger culture’s views on gay men and HIV/AIDS) were not gym bunnies. I remember lots of skinny, intense, angry, determined men changing the world with their intelligence and words, not with their appearance.

I found the reference to recent articles about bellies being “in” amusing, in that the same “new” trend among gay men was widely reported in the mid-90s. “Buddha Bellies” were reportedly the new essential body requirement for cool, young, gay men. If memory serves, that “trend” lasted for about three months and then the media was back to focusing on six pack abs.

Overall, my general observation on gay men's body image over the last 30 years is that we’ve worked our asses off to achieve whatever we believed would attract the most positive attention from other gay men without a whole lot of thought about what the rest of the world thought of us. That may not be so very different from what gay men did for the 30 years before AIDS…

First, it is intriguing to me that the comment’s author wonders about my age. Perhaps he thinks I am in my twenties and thus, have limited experience with HIV/AIDS. Well, I am 42 and have lived in New York City for the last 20+ years. Like every gay man in that time, I have had to contend with HIV/AIDS through an effort to practice safer sex, being tested, dating and having sex with positive men and so on. Perhaps my post seemed a little obtuse because in part I was discussing the (gay) body on the level of representation and not just in everyday life.

Indeed, the commenter is correct that (some) gay men want a more muscular body in order to get laid more, to be more attractive and desirable to themselves and other gay men. However, I would argue that this meaning is not the exclusive or only one, nor does it preclude my consideration of this (gay) body as a reaction to AIDS. These somatic meanings are also not confined to gay culture; we all, gay or straight, live under the same ideological regime. Just consider the rise of the metrosexual which in part must be seen as a reaction and emulation of certain (c0rporeal) aspects of gay culture by straight men.

And whether AIDS activists were gym bunnies or skinny guys is of no consequence. All gay men, activists and muscle boys, had to contend with the reality of HIV and AIDS. Again I would say that I was talking about the (gay) body on the level of representation which in turn does exert an influence on the actual lives of gay men no matter their body type or personal preference. Not all gay men respond to the muscle body as an expression of their desire. For me, that body produces a kneejerk reaction; a desire that lasts until the cumshot, but it does not endure. I understand my personal relationship to the muscle body as the difference that Roland Barthes notes between the pornographic and the erotic photograph. For a discussion of this difference see my post Notes on a Photograph. And while this statement may seem esoteric, it does accurately convey my lived experience in terms of my own desire and sexual history.

I have to thank the commenter for reminding me of the “Buddha Belly” moment in the mid-1990’s. It does seem strangely similar to the recent Times article on Brooklyn Bellies and equally amusing. More importantly, it reminds us how capitalism continually recycles stories and trends as if they are something new and different. It seems to me that these so-called fads while perhaps speaking to the actual lived experience of gay men are in fact used in the long run to confirm the dominant representation of the muscular (gay) body.

Conclusion: The Pansies in All of Us

But what does it mean when mainstream gay white culture fetishizes the straight male jock, his body, his clothes, his masculinity? What does it mean when gay men want to adopt this body and its trappings and see this somatic paradigm as a natural and direct expression of their masculine gender? No one seems to ask what it means, what it does, how it constructs and limits our identities as men who desire men, how it bears traces of homophobia and misogyny and how it makes us uncomfortable with the pansies in all of us.

Monday, December 7, 2009

On Collecting

Every passion borders on chaos, that of the collector on the chaos of memory- Walter Benjamin, Illuminations

(Collecting) is a “strategy of desire” whose task is the ever-impossible effort to bridge the gap between expression and experience- Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection

Readers of this blog and the people in my life know that I am a collector. Mainly, I collect late 19th century aesthetic transferware pottery in brown and black which displays a strong Japanese influence as exemplified by a 9.5” soup plate in the Nipon pattern by Doulton-Burslem circa 1888.

nipongeesesoupThis Japanese influence occurs on the level of style such as in the Doulton soup plate pictured as well as subject matter as seen in this small 8.25” platter in the Jeddo pattern by Brown-Westhead, Moore & Co., 1872.


jeddoplatter3 I also have a few mid-century pieces with chinoiserie subjects and influence as exemplified by a 8.5” plate in the Hong pattern by Thomas Walker circa 1845-51.

hong2In the last few years, I have started to modestly collect silver both plate and sterling. My first interest in silver paralleled in form and content my interest in Aesthetic transferware pottery. While it is English pottery that excelled in Aesthetic styles, it is American silver manufacturers who produced really wonderful Aesthetic patterns in both plate and sterling. For example, a teaspoon in the rare Japanese pattern was introduced by Gorham in 1871.

gorhamjaptsp2Or a late silverplate pastry fork by Kann & Sons from Baltimore in a fairly standard Aesthetic pattern from 1892 and engraved Perkins ‘92.


Lately, I have also begun to collect patterns which feature handles with rounded medallions featuring Roman/Greek heads in profile. These patterns are from the 1860’s. Here is a teaspoon in J. R. Wendt’s Medallion pattern introduced in 1864.

wendtmedalliontspMedallion patterns were also made in silverplate. Roman Medallion by Reed & Barton was introduced in 1868 and is a multi-motif pattern. Here is a salt spoon and a pie server. I love the broken nose of the soldier on the spoon medallion and the plumed helmet of the soldier on the pie server.


r&bromanmedallionpie2I also have a great love of what I would call classic, heavily ornate late 19th, early 20th century patterns that feature a shell motif. Of course, the use of the shell references the Rococo and earlier Kings patterns. I look for patterns such as Whiting’s Imperial Queen introduced in 1893, Gorham’s King George introduced in 1894 and Whiting’s King Edward introduced in 1901 for the coronation of Edward VII of the United Kingdom. Here is a pair of forks in this pattern.


This love of ornate flatware also manifests itself in my interest in Art Nouveau inspired patterns that feature chrysanthemums which are one of my favorite flowers. Here is a teaspoon by Durgin in its Chrysanthemum pattern introduced in 1893.

durginchrysanthemumteasp2The beautiful and intricate design of this pattern extends to the back of the spoon bowl.


And a piece of sterling holloware, a small 6” dish circa 1900 made by Gorham with a chrysanthemum rim.


gorhamchrysanthemumbowl3 Finally, my interest in classic flatware patterns has led me to acquire a small collection of English sterling mostly small table pieces made in the Edwardian period and up until the end of the Great War in 1918. For example, a salt cauldron by Horace Woodward & Co. hallmarked London 1912.

englishsaltIt is a pristine piece with an almost magical gold washed interior, beautiful shell feet and a crinkled, undulating edge. This salt is perhaps the piece I love the most in my collection.

But what does it mean to collect? How does it relate to nostalgia, memory and desire? In Illuminations, the German philosopher Walter Benjamin writes, “Every passion borders on chaos, that of the collector on the chaos of memory…” There is truly a sense of disorder to collecting. The act of collecting resonates with strong emotion; it is not just a routine or mundane activity. A collector must collect on some level. There is something essential to it for him or her and there is an accompanying feeling that at any moment collecting and the collection could tip over into the abyss of confusion.

There is also chaos in the sense of the myriad of objects that remain to be acquired. A collector can be confronted with an endless inventory of objects (especially true with the advent of the Internet) that is dizzying and there is a constant need to make order out of one’s collection, to refine and define it, to select with care. When I first began to collect silver, I focused on the Aesthetic period, but as I learned more and saw more, I was drawn to other periods and styles such as medallion flatware and my collection expanded and would continue to grow if I did not set limits and try to focus on just a few styles and periods to avoid falling into the abyss.

This need for order or limits to my collection is an attempt to tame the chaos. There is a constant striving for this order through an understanding of the object in terms of style, maker, date etc., so that the object can be positioned within the totality of the collection and more simply to prove the authenticity of the object, so that it can attain its place in the collection. Also, I have written inventories of both the English pottery and the silver as a means (however futile) to make sense of what I possess and what I ultimately want to discover in the future.

But what does Benjamin mean by the “chaos of memory”? Memory of course is never always accurate. Bits go missing and bits are sometimes given new meanings depending upon circumstance, context and time.wendtmedalliontsp The objects I collect also possess memory. It is visible in the physical traces of the item’s use: knife marks on a plate, scratches on a sterling spoon or spots of plate loss on a silverplate coffeepot.

There is memory in the engraved initials on silver flatware and holloware. For example, on the back of a Wendt Medallion teaspoon is engraved FPK from WKP. The spoon was obviously given as a gift from one person to another, but I do not know their names, or relationship or the occasion for which the spoon was given. Nor do I know if this teaspoon was part of a larger set, now dispersed. So, the memory that inhabits these objects of silver and pottery is vague, undefined, unknowable and in a sense chaotic. I feel and see traces of their past, but I can never really know the whole story.

In her book, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Susan Stewart states, “(Collecting) is a “strategy of desire” whose task is the ever-impossible effort to bridge the gap between expression and experience.” This is an intriguing quote. At first Stewart defines collecting as carefully considered plan or method which is designed specifically to achieve a goal. Yet, on the other hand, this “strategy” is one of desire. Desire is never careful or well thought out or contained or reduced to a few considered moves to attain a goal. To need, to want, to covet is to a degree not restricted within boundaries or limits. To desire is to be unbound. Yet, a collector does need a strategy, a plan to avoid the utter chaos which Benjamin considered to be at least in part an aspect of collecting.

The conflict within the Stewart quote continues. She states that the strategy is itself “the ever-impossible effort to bridge the gap between expression and experience.” So, there is a careful plan that is “ever-impossible” and that cannot “bridge the gap between” knowledge and symbolism. The experience of the object in a collection is what can be learned through direct observation.whitimpqueberry4 For a piece of silver, I am usually able to discern the maker, sometimes a retailer, style, date, engraving, weight, composition, value and condition in terms of damage, crispness of the pattern, etc. The discovery of this information is readily available in books and on the Internet.

But, this knowledge does not explain the “expression” of the piece, its symbolism, its meaning, its emotion in a general sense as well as in terms of myself the collector. For example, here is a large berry spoon in the Imperial Queen pattern by Whiting.whitimpqueberry2 I know the maker Whiting, the retailer Frank Herschede of Columbus, Ohio, the pattern name, its Rococo inspired style, the relative date: the pattern was introduced 1893, it has an engraved S on the front of the handle, it is of medium weight, it is made of sterling with a gold washed bowl, I paid a fair price for it and it is in very good condition.

But why did I need/want/covet this spoon? What does it symbolize and express in general and for me in particular? It is evocative of the Gilded Age in its ornate and elaborate shell motif. I am attracted to its form. As I stated above, I like shell motifs in flatware especially the over the top patterns of the late 19th century like Imperial Queen.


Yet, what this berry spoon means to me is more ineffable beyond my attraction to its form and content. In part, my own desire to collect is a vital need to connect to the past, to concrete objects that have an aura. These items of silver and pottery were all previously owned and witnessed the lives of the people who owned them. Who was S? These objects were invested with love or not, memories, utility, a need to showoff and keep up with the neighbors. They are imbued with something I cannot name or quite discern, but it speaks to me and gladdens my heart beyond just its knowledge/appearance/information/value.

For me, the things I gather also stand against a ever-expanding technology which has continually effaced the body and to a degree isolated people from one another. In contrast, these items are a source of permanence and resistance in our transitory culture in which capitalism is always offering us new things to buy and encourages us to simply throw away what is old, unfashionable and outdated. These objects are of course part of their own capitalist moment, (for example the absolute infinity of specialized silver utensils for almost every food was in itself a marketing strategy: dinner fork, luncheon fork, pastry fork, cake fork, ramekin fork, strawberry fork, terrapin fork, oyster fork), but they have survived and endured.

I think of this survival every time I use a piece of my silver or a pottery plate or bowl at a dinner, brunch or dessert soiree. It gives me great pleasure to use these items and share them with my guests. These objects with a past, a memory are being now imbued with new memories, new desire, new use and I hope that long after I am dead, these items of silver and pottery will find themselves in another collection and my traces on or in them will prevail and their adventure will continue.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

AIDS, Masculinity and the Representation of the (Gay) Body

Aids is not only a medical crisis on an unparalleled scale, it involves a crisis of representation itself, a crisis over the entire framing knowledge about the human body and its capacities for sexual pleasure.- Simon Watney

The body is…directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out certain tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs.-Michel Foucault

In a recent blog post entitled, The Absent Body: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, AIDS, Homosexuality and Representation, I discussed a black and white photograph by the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres called Untitled from 1991. The image depicts an empty bed consisting of 2 pillows, a sheet and rumpled top sheet torres1 For Gonzalez-Torres, me and many others, this image is a depiction of AIDS that at first glance expressed simply and strongly mourning, loss and death. The image is a memorial to those who have died in the AIDS epidemic and indeed the work was a personal memorial to Gonzalez-Torres’ lover, Ross Laycock, who died of AIDS in 1991.

But, this photograph is more than just an elegy to Ross and the many others who have died. By not actually depicting a body within the work, (it is merely indicated by the depressions in the 2 pillows) I argued that the Gonzalez-Torres photograph was in the words of art historian and critic Douglas Crimp not only an act of mourning, but also militancy. A4 This simple, quiet image challenges, resists, subverts and exposes the paradigmatic representation of AIDS in the early days of the epidemic when homosexuality and AIDS was routinely and viciously conflated within culture. The dominant image of the disease at that time was a homosexual man, alone, gaunt, covered with Kaposi sarcoma lesions, a victim of his own perverted desires. A photograph of Donald Perlman from 1988 by Nicholas Nixon exemplifies this prevailing depiction. In contrast, the Gonzalez-Torres photograph, by refusing to represent the body or bodies with AIDS is a work of cultural activism which engaged and undermined the authoritative AIDS discourse operative at the moment of its production.

Yet, much has changed since the early days of the epidemic and 1991 when the Gonzalez-Torres photograph was created. Changing medical treatments have allowed those with HIV/AIDS to live longer, more healthier lives. Also, a grass roots movement of people with the disease has struggled and to a great degree succeeded in changing the definition and representation of the disease. The previous paradigm of depicting AIDS such as the Nixon photograph is no longer valid. It can no longer function as the dominant imagistic discourse about the disease even though the conflation of homosexuality and AIDS is still actively in operation.

In this regard, how has AIDS and its evolving nature changed the relationship between gay men, masculinity and the (gay) body? Trevor Hoppe in his blog post, From "Tom of Finland" to "Abercrombie and Fitch" -- Or, Did AIDS Radically Restructure Gay Masculinity? argues that AIDS precipitated a change in the relationship of gay men to masculinity. Before the epidemic in the 1970’s, gay masculinity operated on the level of the performative and the masquerade. tom_of_finland_example-thumb-400x288-232 It was self-reflexive and self-conscious. Hoppe cites the work of Tom of Finland in its combination of hyperbole and eroticism as an example of this performative impulse. He writes, “(Tom of Finland) was both clearly hilarious in its outrageous spectacle, and at the same time extremely sexy for the way it exacerbated what gay men love about masculinity in men. It makes you both want to laugh and jerk off when you look at it.”

With the advent of AIDS, there was a shift in the relationship of gay men to masculinity. In the face of the epidemic, gayness for political reasons needed to be seen as biological in order to foster a new movement for equal rights. As Hoppe writes, “We needed heterosexuals to believe that we did not choose our sexual predilections, because if we did then AIDS was our punishment…(and) if being gay was the result of some biological origin, then perhaps we deserved legal equality and some protection under the law.” Within this new context, the masculine masquerade of the 1970’s could no longer function because it signaled and heralded gender as performance rather than biological.*

*Of course, this notion of gender is/was already predominant within our culture. I , however, do not want to suggest that I believe gender is natural or that there is an orderly chain of sex/gender/desire in which male sex=masculine=heterosexual. Gender is a social construction. It is not prediscursive; it gains and deploys its meaning within culture.

Instead of the exaggeration and masquerade of Tom of Finland, the Abercrombie and Fitch jock model of masculinity became the new gay paradigm of the (gay) body and (gay) gender. This shift emerged in the 1990’s. The masculinity of this model provided gay men with a representation which was already naturalized (through heterosexuality) and eroticized within culture.abercrombie_ad

I agree with Hoppe generally, but I would also add that the rise of the muscular jock body was also a visceral somatic reaction to the paradigmatic depiction of the AIDS body in the early days of the epidemic. To become muscular, cut, buff and hairless was in part a rejection and transformation of that diseased body which was gaunt, marked with lesions and waiting for death. Muscles became a metaphoric armor against the disease. They signified health, strength and vitality while simultaneously projecting the new (gay) masculinity as exemplified by the Abercrombie and Fitch jock.

This new (gay) body can also be seen in the context of the campaign to end the military ban on gays which gained prominence as an issue when President Clinton entered the White House (and still is today). Besides being a call for equality, the focus on the military ban was also an attempt to replace the (homosexual) body of AIDS with a body of strength, action, patriotism and masculinity. The desire to end the military ban must be seen as a need to overcome images of the sick (homosexual) body that had prevailed since the early days of the AIDS epidemic.

But this somatic reaction was also perhaps a result of the disease itself. In order to prevent muscle wasting, many HIV+ men take steroids which have transformed their bodies. In a perverse sense, AIDS has created the new (gay) body archetype, the muscle jock. This new corporeal paradigm works in tandem with what Hoppe sees as the current (gay) masculinity precipitated by the epidemic. Muscles are seen to confirm and display the individual’s masculinity within a biological conception of gender. The muscular body becomes metaphorically an hard, erect penis that believes it possesses the Phallus. This understanding is troubling.

So, is the new paradigm of the (gay) body with(out) AIDS/HIV someone like Jack Mackenroth, openly HIV+, a fashion designer, Project Runway contestant, athlete, Gay Games gold medal winner in swimming and AIDS activist?293_mackenroth_jack_111507 I am not here making any assumptions about the personal or medical life of Mackenroth. Nor am I suggesting that Mackenroth is uncritical about his own muscular body and its relationship to masculinity. He is, however, a fairly visible public figure who is open about his HIV status and has photographically displayed his physique to a great degree. On the level of representation rather than lived experience he could be considered emblematic of this (gay) somatic paradigm which has jack_mackenroth_200907_3continued to be authoritative from its emergence in the 1990’s. His physical display (and accomplishments) are a strong rejection of the (homosexual) AIDS body of the early epidemic and a testament of how people with the disease have changed the definition and understanding of AIDS. Although I would note that AIDS and homosexuality are still intrinsically linked within culture.

But is this (gay) body type still the prevailing one in 2009? This past August, the New York Times published an article entitled "It's Hip to Be Round". The article claimed that bellies were now fashionable among the hipsters of Brooklyn and perhaps among gay men as well. Alan Hicklin, the editor of Out, was quoted in the article, stating, “I sort of think the six-pack abs obsession got so prissy it stopped being masculine. It’s not cool to be seen spending so much time fussing around about your body.” Indeed, Lacan said that bodybuilding is the most feminine of arts, but I find the claims of this article to be a bit incredulous as any gay man with(out) “a body” can probably attest to both in the realm of lived experience and images. On the other hand, although paradigms may reign within representation, actual lived experience differs in terms of who we desire and what we find sexy and erotic, but the archetype still exerts its influence to varying degrees.

The muscle body remains preeminent in mainstream gay culture. Perhaps there has been some shift with the advent of the bear and bear culture. Body hair and facial hair appear to be more popular now, but the emergence and distinction of the “muscle bear” seems to be the same paradigm, just a bit hairier and beefier than the Abercrombie and Fitch model. But, no matter, there is still value placed on muscles as a natural expression and confirmation of its wearer’s masculinity.

But what does it mean when mainstream gay culture fetishizes the straight male jock, his body, his clothes, his masculinity? What does it mean when gay men want to adopt this body and its trappings and see this somatic paradigm as a natural and direct expression of their masculine gender? No one seems to ask what it means, what it does, how it constructs and limits our identities as men who desire men, how it bears traces of homophobia and misogyny and how it makes us uncomfortable with the pansies in all of us.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Tracey Emin: Handwork

The feminine occurs only within models and laws devised by male subjects. Which implies that there are not really two sexes, but only one. A single practice and representation of the sexual. With its history, its requirements, reverses, lacks, negative(s)…of which the female sex is the mainstay- Luce Irigaray, The Sex Which Is Not One, 1975

This profound observation by the French feminist Luce Irigaray is, I believe, essential to any discussion of the work of female artists particularly those cultural producers like the British artist Tracey Emin who represent the female body. In this post, I will be examining 2 recent 2009 works by Emin entitled Just Like Nothing and Why Be Afraid which are now on display in her solo show, Only God Knows I’m Good, at the Lehmann Maupin gallery at 201 Chrystie Street on the Lower East Side of New York City until December 19, 2009. (This link will take you to the Lehmann Maupin site where you can see all the varied works in the exhibition. You will need to look for the 2 pieces I am specifically discussing in this post as there is no direct link to them.) This work like some of her other pieces depict Emin’s own naked body and are an attempt to chronicle and examine her own sex life through the continuing themes of love, sex and lust.

But how does a (female) artist like Emin in her representation of the naked female body depict her own desire and sexuality in the context of Irigaray’s observation. Irigaray’s comments signal the position of women as having been for centuries objects of male theorizing, male desires, male fears, male looks in both the realm of art and later psychoanalysis. How then can women reconstitute themselves as subjects if they have historically been denied this position? How can women represent and what does it mean for a women to create, to speak when as Irigaray states, all “models and laws (are) devised by male subjects”? In other words, how are women represented by women? How do women represent their own desire, a desire outside of male hegemony? And how is that representation different than representations produced by men?

With these questions in mind I want to first discuss a work by Emin entitled Just Like Nothing. At first glance the work appears to be a rapid charcoal or ink sketch of a female nude body who boldly displays her genitals to the viewer. The legs of the figure are widely spread and the right arm is behind the figure’s head further exposing the body. The left arm of the figure is at the side of the body. The face of the model is blacked out. Underneath the figure a caption reads: “You make me feel like nothing

The line of the figure is jagged, rough and accentuated. It is not a smooth or fluid line, but one with interruptions, off shoots and seeming mistakes. When one looks closer at the work, the line which produces the body is in actuality black thread, not ink or charcoal. The figure has been embroidered onto an actual blanket. There exists a duality between the rapid look of the piece as a sketch and the labored and time consuming embroidery which purposefully created it.

This duality, I believe, produces a disjuncture between form and content which does not allow the figure to be apprehended and possessed by the (male) viewer like a traditional female nude in the history of Western art such as in Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus or Alexandre Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus. In these paradigmatic examples, the female nude is positioned and presented for the gaze and delectation of the (male) spectator. She invites his look and accepts her position readily and easily as a desirable and compliant object for male visual consumption.

800px-Giorgione_Venus_sleeping Giorgione Sleeping Venus c.1510

cabanelvenusAlexandre Cabanel The Birth of Venus 1863

In contrast, the embroidery of the Just Like Nothing produces a disconnect, a moment of interruption, in the viewing subject which does not allow the figure to become a male fantasy as in the Giorgione and Cabanel. The female nude in Emin’s work becomes in a sense a real and actual woman, visceral and physical, who confronts the spectator with her own desire and sexuality, her own subjecthood.

This resistance to objectness is carried out by the extreme and vigorous stitched line which makes the female nude in Just Like Nothing. It interrupts visually (male) possession. Emin’s embroidered line stands in contrast to the smooth, accessible and passive contours of the traditional female nude which allows an ease of visual apprehension for the (male) viewer, what in the nineteenth century was called “the licked surface”. Emin’s line is active, jagged, interrupted, full of (painful?) emotion; it is not easily followed and controlled by the (male) spectator. It is a line of denial and an expression of (female) subjecthood.

Moreover, in reclaiming the traditional female needlework practice of embroidery and elevating its original use to create (high) art, Emin is producing a work of female centered desire in both form and content. Form (the embroidery) serves to transform the content (female nude) of the work and differentiate it from the paradigmatic female nude of Western Art.

There is a rawness to the (female) subjecthood in Just Like Nothing which is not only the result of the form, but also the content. For example, the blacked out face of the figure stands in contrast to the accessible face of a traditional nude which is either asleep, unseen or demure and inviting. The (male) viewer cannot effortlessly ignore or seize the face of the female figure as in the Cabanel or Giorgione. The blackened face commands attention and implicates the (male) viewer in the traditional ideology of the dominant female nude.

Also, the fully and defiantly displayed vagina is visceral in its expression of sexuality and desire, a realness which would never be seen in the traditional nude where often the genitals are elided and hidden. The combination of the displayed vagina and blacked out face serve to resist and deny the (male) gaze. It signals a level of actuality (not the idealization in the traditional female nude) in which the female body fully wields her own sexuality and desire. The vagina of the figure is like a great female eye defiantly staring out at the (male) viewer, strongly returning his look and not allowing possession by that viewer.

There is, however, an element of shame evoked by the crossed out face. But this shame is imposed by the outside, by culture in which a sexually active female body must be denigrated and denied for its actions. Indeed, the caption of the work states: “You make me feel like nothing.” It is an acknowledgement of how the dominant culture seeks to subsume female desire to male needs and is also a challenge to the (male) viewer. Emin’s piece displays female sexuality and desire and simultaneously realizes the shame often imposed on women for that display within male culture, how it must be “nothing”.

Yet, it challenges this shame, this nothingness by not allowing the (male) viewer to seize the figure in the manner of a traditional nude. The female nude in Just Like Nothing controls and to a degree celebrates her own female sexuality and desire just as it deploys and elevates the traditional feminine practice of embroidery.

In her work Why Be Afraid Emin again creates the female nude through embroidery on an actual blanket to produce an interruption between form and content which forestalls the figure being objectified like a traditional nude. Why Be Afraid depicts a female figure riding what appears to be dog as it bounds up a stairway. Above the scene of the riding nude, a caption reads: “Why be afraid”. Below the scene a caption reads: “When I will be the one who carry’s you to heaven”.

The imagery of Why Be Afraid, I believe, is a further comment on the paradigm of the Western female nude, specifically the representation of the rape of Europa from Greek mythology. This subject has been depicted in various forms and mediums since ancient times. Here are 2 examples:

690px-Tizian_085 Titian Rape of Europa 1562

478px-Moreau%2C_Europa_and_the_Bull Gustav Moreau The Rape of Europa c.1869

Europa was the daughter of Agenor, the King of Tyre. She was abducted by Zeus who assumed the form of a white bull. As a bull, Zeus swam with her to Crete where he seduced her. Within Western art the motif of Europa (exemplified here by a work by Titian and Moreau) was an opportunity to depict the female nude, a figure who was an object of not only male desire but also male control in the figure of the bull.

In Why Be Afraid, the bull becomes a dog and the reference to heaven (stairway to heaven) suggests the position of Zeus as a god. But instead of being carried away by the dog, the female nude in Emin’s embroidery controls the animal. She tightly grips the dog with her legs around its abdomen and her arms are firmly around its neck. She is riding the dog; he is not carrying her away as Zeus in the form of a bull took Europa. Perhaps Emin is saying that all men are dogs.

And indeed, there is an air falsity to the work suggested by the caption: “When I will be the one who carry’s you to heaven”. The grammatical error of “carry’s” perhaps implies that the female nude can never really get to heaven especially on the back of a dog. Like Just Like Nothing, there is an evocation of emotional pain in this embroidery. A hope to go to heaven, but a feeling that it will never really happen. Still, the work expresses a female desire and sexuality that denies the controlling (male) gaze. In both Just Like Nothing and Why Be Afraid a female voice is allowed to speak its existence and truth.

Having discussed these 2 works by Emin on the level of paradigm, I want to briefly talk about them in relation to actual lived experience. Speaking of her work, Emin states, “Through my embroideries, the line I draw is accentuated and extreme, which complements the way I think. I’m on a constant search for clarity. The title of the show ‘Only God Knows I Am Good’ references David Bowie lyrics ‘God knows I’m good, God knows I’m good, surely God will look the other way today’, Life is complicated sometimes.”

Emin’s work is in part an emotional and gritty chronicle of her own life of sex, love and lust. Her work is a testament to the fact that we all fail ourselves and others, we make mistakes, we have sex with the wrong people sometimes, we love the wrong people sometimes, we desire the wrong people sometimes, we fail to live up to our potential sometimes, but in the end we continue, we endure, we hope and we should believe that “God knows I’m good, surely God will look the other way today…”