What does a reasonable person with a sense of social responsibility (RPSSP) expect from socially engaged artworks? What about artworks that appear to be miles away from social engagement, perhaps even socially irresponsible – I mean what does a RPSSP expect from them? The issue arose for me Saturday afternoon at a very enjoyable panel discussion among arts professionals that I was invited to join. The format was a slide show of recently (meaning within the past decade or so) significant artworks for the four of us to respond to. Each artist got one picture and usually four opinions. It was all fun and illuminating for most of us – panelists and audience alike.
Just to get things up and running, I suppose, the organizers began the event with The Bra Shop by John Currin. What’s an art critic to say about this embarrassing image? We were asked to give Currin a fast thumbs up or down with a quick rationale for the verdict. I jumped in: “Thumbs up because he creeps me out.” Well he does. There are a couple of pictures he made of middle-aged men in turtlenecks with buxom babes looking on adoringly that have made me resolve never, ever to wear a turtleneck again. Never. He’s created a club that I’ll never willingly join.
But two impossibly proportioned, wide eyed and dewy young women rendered in an archly retro cartoonish style, their faces splotchy with gobbed-on paint, their breasts considerably larger than their heads, their attention riveted to the task of measuring one sexpot’s boobage! How can this be anything of value? And what can an RPSSP make of it other than a thin, ridiculous parody?
One of the panelists said the painting offered little beyond parody. “The personal is political,” she said, a reprise of feminist analyses from my younger days. This got me thinking about the intersection of individuals and wider political movements, but my sluggish brain came up with nothing beyond saying Currin creeps me out during the discussion on Saturday.
Now comes a bit of l’esprit de l’escalier two days late and in the wrong place, to boot.
What follows from the utterance “the personal is political?” Which direction does the claim lead us? Somebody like James Dobson of Focus on the Family would certainly agree that our personal lives are political, and yet he follows a political line that works against feminist politics, against reproductive rights, against gay rights. The personal is political and therefore one’s sex life is subject to containment, especially when it deviates from the norm espoused by his political faction. He’s ground zero for a particular kind of patriarchy. And patriarchy is itself a highly personalized politics to the extent it is an internalized worldview, and one (I’d argue) that, as a force in American politics, is guilty of terrible things, up to and including the macho debacle of the Bush foreign policy. The personal is political and therefore my penis is the decider in matters of war.
Dobson’s politics are not congruent with my colleague’s line of reasoning, of course. And yet it is there in the political life of America. The intersection of gender identity and political identity, hugely complex though it may be, has been neatly determined by preachers and politicians and popular culture. When a panelist at an art event says the personal is political, it is likely an objection to the hegemony of patriarchy on the part of an RPSSP.
Popular culture is saturated in patriarchy, perhaps because of an anxiety about how vulnerable it is. Take the Discovery Channel’s lineup of macho programs, for example. I don’t think it’s still running in the regular schedule, but the series “American Chopper” with its relentless, bullying, alpha-male displays on the part of daddy Paul, Sr. was truly horrible to watch.
Desires and genders are complex, maybe even impossible to fathom. Patriarchy makes them simple, easy to understand. When women showed up on “American Chopper,” they were as physically different from men as imaginable. One might ask if they’re members of the same species.
Kind of like Currin’s girlie girls.
I have no idea whether Currin’s thinking goes this way, but I can imagine reading an image like his Bra Shop in terms of an excessively gendered culture, one in which desire has been deformed by hegemonic patriarchy. Deformed like those absurdly hyper-feminine bodies. But deformed as it may be, there is still the fact of desire. Bodies can be desired and are desired. Should Currin not desire his women? Should I not desire them? If the answer is yes, then how is this different from Dobson et al. forbidding other kinds of desire? How personal are politics?
So what ought an RPSSP expect from socially engaged artworks? Can artworks change patriarchy? Does the daddy on “American Chopper” attend panel discussions on contemporary art? Today, at least, it seems to me that looking at a painting and at a latent absurdity made obvious is good enough.
I want them and I’m ridiculous and I know it and I still want them. Little wonder I’m creeped out.