Friday, August 22, 2008

Cherry Chapstick

I did not join the protesters who marched ahead of the Boobs on Bikes parade. Nor was I among the throng of spectators who came to watch Mr Steve Crow's annual display. Instead, I attended a rather good seminar, given by one of my fellow PhD students, about Manet – an artist who once scandalised Paris by painting two implausibly naked women not eating lunch with two implausibly nonchalant men.

My preference for Manet over mammaries or marching was not prompted by ethical concerns but by aesthetic ones. I fully expected Mr Crow's event to be tacky. I am sure I was not wrong. I understand that it involved disproportionate women seated on Mr Crow's Bentley (which he has had painted in the style of a boy racer's Honda Civic), on an AFV and on the pillions of oversized motorcycles driven by grizzly old men. I doubt I would find any erotic interest in such a combination.

It is all a matter of taste. Mr Crow's idea of sexuality shows that he and his audience have none. Everything he does, from shaving his head to producing his magazines and films, makes me feely vaguely queasy. His notion of the erotic involves big things: big breasts on big vehicles. It is all too loud.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (whose own sexual taste, for those who are prurient about philosophers, apparently was for rough trade with toughs) once wrote (gnomically, in the opinion of one of his commentators) that "ethics and aesthetics are one." I think I know what he meant and I don't think he was right, entirely. I think there are purely ethical considerations and purely aesthetic ones; but the two values meet somewhere in the middle. In the case of pornography, the purely ethical concerns include the possible exploitation of performers, the possible debasement of sexuality and the possible link between porn and sexual violence (feel free to subtract from or add to these categories, according to your ethical tastes). The purely aesthetic concerns involve the lamentably poor qualities of porn: bad photography, bad film and the endless repetition of a handful of jaded characterisations: schoolgirls, secretaries, cheerleaders and so on. Somewhere in between is the uncomfortable notion that we don't like porn because it reflects the tastes of the lower orders.

Pornography, of the kind that Steve Crow produces, is vulgar: hugely breasted bottle-blondes on top of a Bentley Cialis Turbo, a Harley Davidson Viagra or any other mechanical admission of erectile dysfunction. We do not want such vehicles or such women. We want a Prius and a Vespa; and we want to share them with women who went to art school. Porn is proletarian; we are not.

At this point, someone will object that what I am describing is bad porn and that there is good porn. If you are that someone, you have a point. There is good porn; it is the porn we like. By we, I mean us: educated, middle-class liberals. The porn we like, we call erotica. We like erotica because it is tasteful. Erotica is middle-class porn.

By which I mean to say (before you tell me to Foucault) is that we, being the ruling class, determine what is tasteful, in matters of aesthetics as well as ethics. We want images of sexual interest to be artistic – which usually means serious-looking women photographed in black and white and lots of shadow. Erotica is a serious business. Porn involves too much glossy colour and too much common pleasure: porn people seem to be enjoying themselves far too much.

Of course, it might be objected (by some of us, because we are nothing if we are not self-reflecting) that we are attempting to disguise our sexual interest behind an apparent artistic taste – that we want to pretend (to ourselves as much as to others) that we are appreciating art, not looking at dirty pictures. Maybe so, although I think such a pretence is self-defeating: it would be difficult to look at any image involving nudity without some element of sexual interest; we are hard-wired to respond to naked flesh in that way. Some have tried to make nude images that are not sexual: Stanley Spencer was one, Robert Mapplethorpe another. They both got into trouble for their efforts: funnily enough, people thought they were making porn.

But even if we admit that our erotica is primarily of sexual, not artistic interest, we should acknowledge that it is a very nice kind of sexuality; quite genteel, in fact. It has none of the sweaty heaving of porn, or of sex (although porn's relationship to sex is equally tangential; but on another tangent).

But then, you might object, there are Suicide Girls. One might say that Suicide Girls are good porn but they are not erotica. They are Alt Porn. You might say they are ethically good porn because they are not shopgirls being exploited but Sociology Majors expressing their sexuality. You might also say they are aesthetically good porn but not erotica – good photography, in colour and the Sociology Majors seem to be enjoying themselves. I think you would be wrong; I think Alt Porn is a new flavour of erotica in the making. Although it does not pretend to be artistic, it does pretend to another virtue: authenticity.

Suicide Girls are real women: they are not acting, they are comfortable with their sexuality (and we all like a woman who is comfortable with her sexuality). Although they are not that far away from the sex-crazed co-eds of dirty old porn, they have the justification (and the added erotic appeal) that they are doing it for real. Authenticity is a capricious value, a mixture of the the ethical and the aesthetic which might just prove Ludwig right. It is real; therefore it is good, both ethically and aesthetically speaking.

Likewise, the cosy Australian suburbia that is Abby Winters: fewer tats, but just as many tits and just as real. These are indy chicks getting naked. Likewise Nekkid Nerds: girls in glasses who listen to Sebadoh and take off their clothes, for pleasure and profit. And an added bonus: all college-educated women under Thirty are bisexual (this is probably a result of all the soy milk they drink).

Not that I object to such follies. I would much rather see a woman in knitwear than leather. But that is a reflection of my middle-class tastes. Our erotica is tasteful and authentic; their porn is vulgar and false. Of course, it may be true that girls who like Yo La Tengo do not wear cherry chapstick and nothing more. It may be true that our erotica is just as false as their porn. And it may not be artistic at all (Pro Tip: it isn't). But it is probably best not to admit that to ourselves. We don't like it when our high-minded erotica is exposed as mere porn.

Which brings me back to Manet. One of Edouard's stunts was to put vulgar imagery (street musicians, working girls) into high Art. And he did the opposite trick: taking the nudes out of classical mythology and putting them into the here and now, enjoying their lunch break with a couple of dandies. In doing so, he made them naked rather than nude. But that is another story, perhaps.


s said...

Knitwear is too warm for Auckland, even in winter.

Josh said...

I don't know if it was pornographic or erotic, but the Olympic women's volleyball final in the rain was among the more arousing things I've seen in the media lately (not just lithe, athletic bodies in small bikinis, but lithe, athletic, glistening wet bodies in small bikinis). If I wasn't already slumped on the sofa, I'd have needed a lie down.

Lyndon said...

porn people seem to be enjoying themselves far too much

Yet so often with such a shallow pretense of enjoyment that I ...uh... a hypothetical observer might find off-putting.

There's a book of essays by a guy David Foster Wallace - one where he covers a porn convention. It has any number of thoroughly intellectualised observations on the business. He reports some who maintain that every once in a while in porn there's an accidental unguarded moment which is more sincere and human than anything actors do (the guy in question maintained this to explain the way they watch LOTS of porn).

Much as I approve of authenticity I saw a hamfisted suicide girl airbrushing effort on PhotoshopDisasters the other day.

And now to do some work. Rather than start thinking about ethics and aesthetics...

(Interesting I prioritsed think about teh pron)

harvestbird said...

There is a short volume that I would recommend called Alias Olypmia, by Eunice Lipton, about the young model who featured in both the eponymous portrait and Dejeuner sur L'Herbe. She was an artist herself and seems to have been supportive of the kind of major shifts in the treatment of the female subject that Manet was all about. To tie it into some other themes of your post, the record (if I recall correctly) suggests that she also preferred teh wimmins for her intimate company. One could infer from that the source of her bemused disengagement from those two men opining in Dejeuner, if one were that kind of biographical critic.

Paul said...

Thanks, H. Alias Olympia apparently is subtitled: "a woman’s search for Manet’s notorious model & her own desire." Sounds erudite and dirty; I shall read.