The Porter Zone

Philosophical musings and more

Category Archives: Art

The new objectification

Introduction

It is scarcely news that objectification is rampant in our culture.  The treatment of women as sexual objects has become so commonplace that it is now scarcely even worth noting any more when yet another ’empowering’ film or book or TV show turns out to just be an excuse for wall to wall tits and ass.  This piece by Maureen Dowd in the New York Times manages to be both hilarious and depressing at the same time in that it shows that the (generally male) creators of these shows tend to claim that they are depicting strong female characters, and yet what those female characters spend their time doing is, well, giving us as much jiggle and joggle as possible.  And though it is mildly comforting to learn that the proposed Wonder Woman show never actually got aired, because it was too bosom-fixated even for TV executives, it is not at all comforting that now an empowered woman is defined as being one who goes out of her way to become a sexual object.

Now, I could go on about what this says about male attitudes to women, and male attitudes to sex, but I have covered those subjects before, and at some length, most recently and comprehensively in my piece Rita Hayworth, the Male Gaze and the Unconscious Mind.  What I propose to do here is to discuss the more complex question of women’s attitudes to this objectification.  This is a complex topic, as the standard myth of our time is that men sexually objectify women, while women object like anything, but cannot do anything about it due to the dead weight of the patriarchy.  This is, in bare bones, the base of Laura Mulvey‘s ‘male gaze‘ theory, that is to say, that men objectify women and women suffer objectification.  The reality is more complex.  First of all, to say that women do not sexually objectify men is nonsense.  However, there are a number of pointers to something deeper and more disturbing.

First look at the strange world of the modern romantic comedy.  As I noted in a piece I wrote some time ago, the standard current romantic movie portrays women as helpless things who are basically miserable until they find a good manly man who will make them his sex-toy and absolve them from having to think, ever, ever again.  This might be taken as being pure male chauvinistic fantasy about what unrepentantly sexist men would like women to be, only these films depend on a largely female audience, and surely if they didn’t like the message they wouldn’t go to see them?  In answer one only has to cross media and look at the amazing success of the Twilight franchise, which proposes that the correct role for a modern woman is gazing adoringly at her perfect man, while doing whatever he says and showing no independence of spirit or mind.  Again, it is women who consume (and produce) this pabulum, so it can scarcely be the case that they object to being objectified.

Therefore the Mulvey theory, and the myth are false: at least some women seem to embrace being treated as sexual playthings.  This seems inherently wrong: why would any woman want to be reduced to a mere breast-transportation device when she has the chance to go out there and have a life not at all dependent on her sexual attractiveness?  The rather frightening conclusion that I work out over the remainder of this piece is that any marginalised group is likely to end up embracing precisely the stigmata of its marginalisation as a part of its identity, and this positively welcome and encourage its marginal status, leading to an unholy feedback loop.  Thus Christina Hendricks turns herself into little better than a walking bosom, Amanda Conner cheerfully produces quantities of grossly objectifying comic book art, and Stephenie Meyer tells young women that they just want to be door-mats.  They would all be interpreted, according to the myth, as being dupes or agents of the patriarchy, but the awful truth is that they are not, and probably seriously believe that they are doing their bit for women everywhere.  For by the lights of the group of women who have come to identify with that which is used to marginalise them, they are.

About objectification

Though is common currency to use the words ‘objectification’ and ‘objectify’ as meaning ‘bad’, in fact objectification is not only a very natural thing to do, it is a very necessary part of human intercourse.  When you or I interact with anything – your computer, a pet or another person – the interaction is mediated by a mental model that we have of that thing.  That is to say, when I interact with someone I know, I do not approach the interaction as if it were our first.  Instead I bring with my my mental model of that person based on all our previous interactions, and I am liable to interpret everything they say and do in terms of that model.  So if someone has a particular verbal tick, or has a tendency to express themselves somewhat gloomily, then I will respond to their statements differently than I would to someone who could announce their impending demise as if it were good news.  This model is therefore an extremely valuable thing, as it allows me to take short-cuts, and use previously acquired knowledge to gain a better understanding of what is going on than I would if I were to be ‘unprejudiced’.  But this means that in fact I am interacting with the model rather than the person, because I say what the model tells me I should say in order to make my point, and interpret what they say based on the model.  In other words, I interact directly with the model and only indirectly with the person, so I have objectified them, in that I am replacing them with my model.

Now it could be argued that this is not quite the same kind of objectification as is treating a woman as nothing but a sex object, but a little thought shows that in fact they are exactly the same thing.  If I treat a woman in a way that represents her purely as an object of sexual desire, then that means that the model which intermediates all of my interactions with her is based purely on her sexual allure and my reaction to it.  So when I turn a woman into a sexual object I am merely applying the same mechanism whereby in all interactions we represent people as private models which become, for us, those people, and taking an extreme approach in terms of those of her characteristics that I consider memorable.  Viewing a woman as nothing but a mind, and ignoring her sexual nature would be just as much a distortion.  So objectification itself is not a bad thing.  Problems arise only when we do not allow our model to reflect all the information we have about the person, but choose only to represent certain characteristics.  Again, we all do this to some extent, but the greater the mismatch between our representation of the person and the actual person, the larger the problem, and the greater the extent to which we do indeed negate their personhood and make them into an object purely of our own construction.

The problem we face then is this: many men, for one reason or another, find it hard to treat women as their coequals, and prefer to model them purely as sex on legs.  The curious thing is this: we would always expect a small number of women to play along with this (there have been gold-diggers down the ages), but we seem to find large numbers of women who enthusiastically embrace the role of man’s brainless sexual object.  Simple logic says that this should not be so, but it manifestly is so, and the reason why is my next topic.

Embracing the oppressor

As I said above, one only has to look at the utterly mystifying enthusiasm with which large numbers of women of all ages have embraced the Twilight phenomenon to see that the role of being an object of the male gaze and no more is actually quite attractive to women.  It is worth observing that the reasons aficionados give for this (in so far as they do articulate them) appear to be something along the lines that it would be so wonderful to be so desired, to be loved by so wonderful a man, and that that is enough.  In other words, becoming a sexual object is not a problem so long as one receives the tribute of the whole-hearted adoration of a good, or exemplary, man.  That this is wish fulfilment is obvious, but it is a very strange kind of wish to have.  Obviously being in a position to have somebody else take over managing all of life’s little inconveniences for one is superficially attractive, for who has not felt the urge to just let go and have everything done for one, but to extend this from a passing hankering into a permanent end state of pure passivity, in which one only has to be in such a way as to satisfy the male gaze’s requirement for sexual excitement, is not so obvious a goal.

Moving on, the modern movie romantic comedy preaches a basically anti-feminist message, telling us that what women really want, if only they can be honest with themselves, is to forget career self and any form of ambition other than the ambition to find a real manly man who will give them so many orgasms that they need never care for anything again.  It is fashionable to explain this as the back-lash of the misogynists who run movie studios against uppity women, but this explanation forgets one basic fact: if the men who run movie studios go so far as to have an agenda, it is that making money is good.  If there was a market for intelligent films about women, then Lars von Trier’s Melancholia would have been one of the biggest grossing films of 2011, whereas in fact it failed to recoup its extremely modest production expenses.  The simple truth is that many women choose of their own free will to go and watch sexist drivel for the same reason that they choose of their own free will to read Twilight.  Clearly the idea of being a woman who has nothing to do but be a sexual object is attractive.

As evidence for this hypothesis that the attraction lies in being able to merely be, that being a sexual object is better than being an active agent, here are some examples from the world of comics.  Now, comics are generally a male preserve, but there are a few characters and comic series that have appealed to women.  Let us start with Harley Quinn, about whom I have written in this piece.  All that we need to know is that Miss Quinn started out as a villain’s girlfriend, in a highly abusive relationship, but eventually she went independent.  Now I observed in the referenced piece that there are essentially two versions of Miss Quinn: the utterly dependent girlfriend who sticks by her man no matter how much he abuses her, and the forceful (if deranged) woman who runs her own life.  What I found strange was that observation of comments by woman fans showed that they largely preferred the abused girlfriend version, the reason given (indeed, given in some comments on my essay) being that that relationship involves a great love, and that being with such a great man she had to expect that her ego would be destroyed and that she would be dependent, and that his trying to kill her from time to time was just something she should tolerate, because she had found true love.  So, once again, but now in even more extreme form, we find women actively preferring what they should recoil from, because a great love, and becoming the lover’s object of affection, is the best thing a woman can have, and compensates for all else.

Objects by their own will

We see a theme emerging here.  It is that there is a clear belief among a large number of women that being a man’s sexual object, and being utterly dependent on him, is life’s only legitimate career goal.  Now, we could see this as a form of Stockholm syndrome, with the oppressed woman identifying with her oppressor’s view of her, much in the way that (say) many Saudi women seem to have convinced themselves that the fact that their lives are utterly circumscribed shows how special they are, because they have to be looked after at all times.  However, Stockholm syndrome only works as an explanation if the sufferer has no option but to go along with an imposed reality.  In spite of the dire warnings of those feminist critics who see oppositionism as an end in itself (which is, dare I suggest, just as much a distortion and a form of objectification as is seeing being a man’s sex toy as an end in itself), the cultures of Western Europe and North America do not on the whole prevent women from exercising basic freedoms.  What we see here is not conditioned adoption of an enforce abnormality, but deliberate retreat from reality into the self-created abnormality of desiring to become a sexual object.

To see why this might be the case, let us look at one last example.  The character of Lois Lane, Superman’s girlfriend, needs no introduction.  From 1958 to 1974 she had her own comic, titled Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane (note that her name comes second).  The stories are largely light froth, but, as I discussed in this piece, they are notable for their extremely misogynistic tone.  They read as if they were written by a typical chauvinistic 1950s man, which was in fact the case.  And yet women bought the comics in sufficient numbers for the series to last sixteen years.  What I concluded was happening was that women were saying to themselves: ‘Look at that, Lois Lane has everything, but even she has to put up with stuff from men that I do; obviously my life isn’t that bad after all.’  Now, that might sound just like a natural precondition for Stockholm syndrome, but what comes next is the distinguishing factor.  If a group has been socially excluded on some grounds or other, then the only way its members can achieve any form of social stability is for the group itself to cohere.  But now, the only factor that its members have in common, the only thing that makes the group make any sense, is precisely the factor that led to its exclusion.  So, American women in the late 1950s were a hugely diverse lot: scientists, secretaries, housewives, actors, writers, academics, politicians, musicians, etc.  The only things they had in common were the stigmata of misogyny: the idea that women were silly, childish and frivolous, and obsessed with getting their man.  And so, the one factor promoting cohesion, the cause of the exclusion, becomes not just a factor imposed from outside, but a way of defining the group.  Women, in order to define their own in-group ended up embracing the 1950s male idea of women as their banner, and could then look down on those women who refused to play with any categorisation and insisted on being themselves.

My thesis is, then, that what we are seeing in the curious embrace of sexual objecthood is simply the definition of an in-group of women who obtain social cohesion from maintaining and emphasising outmoded traditions, and who look on those who do not play along as being some kind of enemy of stability.  For being a sexual object is the great leveller: anyone can do it.  All one needs to be a sexual object is to have a body and to be prepared to allow men to use it.  Making ones own path is much harder and requires work and talent.  So young women queue up to prostitute themselves to unpleasant young men on television programmes, and others flock to absorb regressive piffle, not because of a conspiracy of men, but because of a conspiracy of women.

Paradigm shifts, perspective, impressionism, epistemology

Introduction

What I want to talk about today is Kuhn’s concept of paradigms and paradigm shifts.  This much-misunderstood theory of science is often popularised as claiming that science progresses not by orderly development and deduction from evidence, but rather as a form of beauty contest, with current orthodoxy being that which happens to be most popular.  It need hardly be said that this view is rather popular with those who wish to claim that science is merely another form of culturally-derived dogma, and has no special epistemological status.  However, it is entirely at variance with Kuhn’s position.

Kuhn claimed that the paradigm at any moment is the world-view that scientists use when attempting to understand the universe around them.  At intervals that paradigm shifts and a whole new world-view arises, which supersedes the old one by being better at describing the universe.  But this new world-view requires a new set of conceptual apparatus; in Kuhn’s, again often-misunderstood, words, it is incommensurable with the old world-view, in that there is no easy mapping between its world of ideas and that of the old.  And so its acceptance is not an immediate process, as there is a need for familiarisation with and translation to the new way of seeing things.  Thus the sociological aspect of the theory does not question the nature of scientific truth, but is about how people react when their world-view shifts, forcibly or otherwise.

This set of ideas, particularly the notion of incommensurable paradigms, is rather tricky (which is why it is so widely misunderstood), but it is very reminiscent of  my concept of epistemic barriers, for they too describe world-views which are so different in the way they describe the universe that there is an effective barrier to communication between them.  So my goal in this essay is to explore this relationship with a view to providing a clear statement of what it means to say that there is, has been, or is about to be a paradigm shift.

I am aware that part of the problem with popularisation of Kuhn’s theory is that it is not clear to the lay-person why (say) the shift from pre-relativistic to relativistic physics was such a jolt, and little attempt has been made to explain it.  Therefore, my discussion will take examples from the history of art, specifically two major changes, that is the introduction of perspective and impressionist approaches to colour.  Both of these are paradigm shifts, and both can be described very naturally as sudden expansions of the formal language of art.  So once again we will see a link between paradigm shifts and epistemic barriers.

So this essay is organised as follows: first I will talk about my two examples, giving the art-historic background.  Then moving to looking at them in terms of the flow of ideas, I will draw out the key features of the transitions that they embody in order to arrive at a model for what a paradigm, and a paradigm shift might look like, and what incommensurability might mean.  Having established Kuhn’s terms, I will then look at them in terms of the theory of information flow provided by the concept of the epistemic barrier, with a view to reformulating Kuhn’s terms within its epistemological language and thus making a precise definition possible.

Paradigms shifts in the plastic arts

Example 1: perspective

Egyptian HuntingIf we look at early art, though there are occasional attempts at creating a three-dimensional effect, the artists generally seem intent on communicating an idea that on producing a perfect reproduction of things as they are (or, rather, as we perceive them to be).  The goal was a poetic truth rather than the literal truth of the senses, so art was not a scene, but rather a collection of image that conveyed the ideas that the artist considered important.

For example, consider the fine piece of Egyptian art reproduced here.  At first it looks like a typical hunting scene.  But then, why are the three figures of wildly varying size?  And why is the lady wearing the Egyptian equivalent of evening dress while on a hunting trip?  And what sort of person takes his pet duck with him when he’s going out to hunt – other ducks?  And, of course, the answer to all these questions is that if you even ask any of those questions you are looking it the image with the wrong mind-set.  In this case, we’re lucky in that the image comes (as you can see) with commentary, so we know the artist’s intent.  However, be reassured that this is not an exception; rather the, to us, unconventional conventions it displays are the norm across Egyptian art (and yes, it does say that the duck is a pet).  So, the piece is intended to show how manly and generally spiffing is the man who is the central figure, what a fine man he is, as shown by his vigour in hunting.  It’s his tomb and his afterlife, so he’s bigger than his wife, not because she was a midget, but because he is the subject of the piece, and therefore the most important object in it.  Now she’s all dressed up because obviously you want to look your best in the afterlife, don’t you?  This is an art of idealisation, not representation.  And as for the duck: well, obviously he was fond of it and wanted it to be with him in eternity.  All of which means that the image is not a picture of a real event; it represents the hero’s aspirations for the kind of afterlife he wants to live.  Hunting (in the form depicted here) was, of course, a pastime of the upper classes, so it is very clear that he has no intention of being a mere labourer in the land of the dead; he will live the life of the elite, as an obvious corollary of which he has a sexy trophy wife  and a duck he loves very much.  Note that, by Egyptian ways of thinking, even if his wife was not, in reality, a sex-bomb, the mere fact of her depiction as one within the tomb would make her one in the land of the dead.  So the image is not just a statement of desire; it is a magical machine that makes that desire a reality.  The image contains a wealth of information that our mind-set puts us in danger of losing, leaving only incomprehension.

Alfred WallisAs a second example, consider this piece by Alfred Wallis, the famed naive painter of St Ives, discovered by Ben Nicholson.  Naive art is another field where perspective is used only rarely, but it is a grave mistake to think, as do some of the more patronising among us, that this stems from technical incapability.  In the case of Wallis, as with le Douanier Rousseau, ability was not an issue because perspective was not a part of the world view they presented.  They did not represent things as they were, they presented them as the ideas they embodied.

Looking at the painting, to our eyes, accustomed as they are to art which simulates the third dimension, there is something weirdly wrong with Wallis’ composition.  If we take it at face value, we have a number of normal-sized houses in the midst of which is a positively Brobdingnagian building.  Vertically above this a giant thing that can only be a headland, only we are seeing it from above, which is impossible, juts out into a strange sea, a sea which embraces the roof of the mansion and has waves whose swell is larger than the boat which appears to be suspended in mid air.  Now, I am not satirising Wallis here; rather, I am trying to represent in words just how unsettling his image appears if one approaches it from within a mind set that expects to see correctly worked-out perspective everywhere.  But now we need to consider not how this looks to us, but how it looked to Wallis.  Start with the headland: this is a feature of St Ives known as ‘the Island’; Wallis knew what shape it was, and what mattered was showing it in its true nature.  In this he followed the same principle as the Egyptians and much pre-modern art: what mattered was presenting the essence of the thing rather than the way the thing looked.  The giant house is a real building in St Ives that Wallis often painted; again, as with the Egyptian piece, its size is exaggerated because it is the focus of the piece, and it has to be large so we can see all the fine detail that makes up its essence.  In addition, Wallis has conflated the topography of St Ives so as to bring together a house and a headland that are actually separated by a length of beach, but that is no matter, because the painting is about the Island and the house, and not the beach, so the beach is reduced to a bare minimum.  What matters is that the two key ideas are seen together, associated, as they clearly were, in Wallis’ mind.  And finally, the other houses, less significant, are real houses near the central house, but rearranged (and they are arranged differently in each painting featuring the central house) so as to create specific emphases and structures around the focus.  Therefore, for Wallis the space of the image is not simply a replica or simulacrum of the three dimensional space of St Ives; rather it is a conceptual space, in which he arranges ideas of things, rather than the things themselves, so as to create the overarching idea that constituted his vision for the piece.  In this, his approach is almost identical to that of the Egyptians: art communicates an idea by showing things as they should be, or need to be, rather than as they are.  Space is the servant of the artist, not the master.

Dora MaarAs a final example I want to look at the process of unlearning perspective that occurred in the twentieth century.  This is one of Picasso’s many portraits of Dora Maar, and it is immediately apparent that though perspective is present, in that there are some three dimensional effects, each segment of the image has its own vanishing point, its own rules, its own three dimensional space, and these spaces are related only by the image’s internal logic; there is no over-riding reality, at least not in any photographic sense, though one can (and I will) argue that there is a higher reality at work.

The key to understanding this painting is the realisation that Picasso was not painting a woman badly, or deliberately distorting her.  He did not start from her face and say to himself ‘how can I make a funny shape out of that?’  Instead he saw her head and upper body artistically as a number of geometric units, each of which has three-dimensional form, but existing distinctly from one another.  As an analogy to aid understanding, consider Quine’s famous example of the rabbit.  You and I see a rabbit run past and I say ‘gavagai’.  You naturally assume that when I say ‘gavagai’ I mean ‘rabbit’, but in fact, I might mean by it ‘an assembled collection of specific body parts’, and you would have no way of knowing that my meaning was different to yours, because whenever I say ‘gavagai’ you will say ‘rabbit’ and vice versa.  Likewise, you or I might see a woman as a single three-dimensional object, but to Picasso, looking at her as an artist, she was a toolkit, a menu of individual three-dimensional components that he could turn into an artistic object.  But, unlike the case of the rabbit, we can see into Picasso’s world via the images he made for us, even though they present us with a grave conceptual challenge.

And so, Picasso takes this ensemble of components, each independently having three-dimensional form, and has then attempted to represent them as he seems them in a two-dimensional medium, in the hope of communicating to the rest of us something of his vision.  But now, as each component is an individual, they have their own three-dimensional structure, and their own perspective when rendered into two dimensions, and so there is no unified perspective or view-point.  This means that we seem to see a congeries of units of the woman, each seen from its own view-point and with its own perspective, but that was not necessarily part of Picasso’s intention.  The intension of this painting is the vision of Picasso’s artistic eye, that vision of a form of forms, each a living thing in its own right, and how those forms interact to create what the rest of us see as only one form.  It gives us a glimpse into Picasso’s reality, showing the form behind the outward appearance.  And so, again, it is more than just a woman, it represents the complex of ideas created in Picasso’s mind by gazing on that woman, the execution of which requires a move away from traditional perspective-based art.

Example 2: impressionism

Cezanne Bathers

Another convention of modern Western art has been the use of colour in a ‘naturalistic’ way, representing things as having the colours we see when we look at them, so skies are blue, grass is green and dandelions are yellow.  Like perspective, the whole purpose is to give art a greater realism, so its business is clearly that of representing objects as accurately as possible in just the way that the eye would see them, so as to leave no ambiguity about what it is that the viewer is looking at.  And just as the cubists smashed perspective, aiming to represent the idea of the thing, rather than the outer form of the thing, so the impressionists smashed the tyranny of chocolate-box colour.

As my first example, I want to look at Cezanne’s Bathers.  One thing is obviously missing from this piece: perspective; depth is created by masses of colour lying in superimposed planes rather than by any formalistic use of vanishing points.  As a result, a ‘normal’ sense of depth is missing, instead we feel the image as hanging in a space of its own creation where form is defined by colour rather than any conventional geometry.  And looking again, we see that even forms have severed their link with the objects they represent; the three foreground women have utterly unrealistic shapes, as does the woman standing at the left, but their point is not to create photorealistic images of naked woman.  Anyone could do that.  What Cezanne did was to use paint and colour to show the mass and the depth of bodies as things seen in light, with their exoteric or real form only the starting point of his attempt to portray their sheer physicality.

GainsboroughBut now look at the use of colour, especially in the sky and the trees on the left-hand side.  In the trees we see something quite revolutionary: colour is no longer a decoration or property of the forms depicted, it is the forms.  The forms and shapes of the trees have dissolved, leaving behind only patches of colour, and yet in this totally non-realistic depiction we sense the depth, the mystery of the woods and feel an emotional effect far greater than anything a strictly realist depiction could achieve.  As an experiment, look at the picture of Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews which I have deliberately rendered in greyscale.  Something is lost, but the composition and its structure and out knowledge of its forms remain intact, as does the interesting contrast between the general pastoral tone and Mrs Andrews’ manner of comporting herself.  Now try to imagine the Cezanne in greyscale; instead of a complex of emotions and ideas, the greenery would evince only muddle.  So Cezanne has achieved a breakthrough in that now colour and form are one and the same.  And, even more importantly, paint and form are one and the same.  Cezanne’s colours are not applied in naturalistic shapes, they are applied in the shape of his brush.  The medium, the technique, the artist, the idea and the content are merging into one another.  The same, of course, is true of the sky.  Those extraordinary dark blue blobs have no ‘real’ function, but they create a sense of the depth and emotional complexity to be found even in a clear sky that no photographic or ‘accurate’ depiction could.  Art has shifted from simple representation to being a way of communicating ideas that could never put put into words.

MatisseNext I want to look at one of Matisse’s portraits of his wife, noting that we are now squarely into neo-impressionist territory.  As with the previous example, colour has become almost entirely non-functional; it is plausible that Mme Matisse was wearing a green blouse, but it is not at all plausible that the green of the blouse should spill across onto part of her neck.  And looking closer at the greens, on the blouse and the chair-back we see that there are two groups of green – strong and weak – and Matisse moves between them in a way that makes no sense at all in terms of the play of light or shadow, but which creates a kind of depth without actual physical depth, for of perspective there is not a trace.  Also worth noticing is the way that on the left hand side the chair-back is solid, in that there is a mass of white-green between the spokes of the chair, while on the right hand side we see straight through to the mysterious blue background.  So while the left hand part of the chair is  massive block that seems to cohere with the background, the right hand part floats serenely in a mysterious space that seems to have dimensions completely unlike the three we are used to.  This dichotomy is, of course, paralleled in the depiction of Mme Matisse’s body, where the left side is dark and heavy and seems rooted in the chair, while the right side is lighter and floats in front of the chair, it’s lightness emphasised by the massive black triangle of the collar.

And between these two mysterious spaces, one earthbound and unified, the other light and clearly separated into distinct things, lies the face.  Passing over the fact that it is grey, the key thing here is that Matisse has made no effort to actually portray his wife.  What we see is, instead an idealisation of femininity, a Platonic essence of woman, created from a minimal structure of lines and curves, with no detail or redundancy.  The face could never be that of a real woman, and yet in it we see all real women, rendered with a serene beauty that any degree of realism could only spoil.  And so we see this face, reminiscent perhaps of the strangely inhuman sculptures of the Cyclades, unifying weight and lightness, darkness and light, mass and space in one perfect expression of what it is to be human.  No representational painting, let alone do it without use of allegory or imagery: Matisse creates his luminous image purely out of masses of colour, and thus stands at the ne plus ultra of Impressionism, the last point at which any vestige of representation was possible.

Once again, therefore, we see that by passing beyond simple realism the artist can convey sophisticated concepts without the need for labels or subtexts.  Matisse was not painting his wife, but the idea that the image of his wife created in his mind, and doing that required going one step beyond the conceptual realm of the artistic conventions of his day.  To those versed only in those conventions, his work must seem mysterious, even nonsensical, but once one accepts that he has no ambition to realism, and thus that his painting is not a failed photographic portrait but a successful conceptual portrait, meaning and ideas become available that one could, before that acceptance, not even know were there.

Gwen John

As my last example, I want to take Gwen John’s Terrace in Moonlight, Meudon.  This is at the opposite extreme of impressionism to the Matisse, in the here, rather than colour crystallising into forms, forms dissolve into mark on canvas.  We can see the painting in three ways.

First there is, indeed, the view of a terrace, with a mysterious sky against which rise stones on the horizon.  This image is deeply puzzling because the objects we think we see – the tree, the stones, the path trees, seem to exist in isolation from one another.  Rather than being unified to form a field of view, they hang, suspended in no-space and apparently superimposed with no concern for order or realism.  Indeed, they seem to have even something of the Egyptian approach to depicting objects, each seen face on, so as to emphasise its individual nature, and coexisting only by virtue of those relations which the artist decides to imbue them with, rather than those forced on her by mundane reality.  So, on this level, where on the right hand side we see what we could take as two trees, one passing in front of the other.  But that is not what we see: we see a single entity that bifurcates, standing proud above the plane of the wall and ground, while other ‘trees’ lie within that plane.

Second, we see forms, limned by black lines which fade in and out of existence.  So there is a horizon, there are the blobs that may be rocks, the wall and the massive triangle of the central tree.  These seem to begin to make an effort at breaking up the unity that is the mass of colour, and turning it into what we might perceive as recognisable objects, as if the true reality is the colour, and the forms are that which our minds, schooled in thinking of solid three-dimensional objects, try to impose on it by way of structure.  And yet, as I noted, the lines are not uniform.  In places they almost vanish, and at times they become huge swathes of black.  As a result, none of the forms of the imposed order have any deep reality.  They merge into one another in an endlessly shifting symphony of colour where form leaches into form, one moment of which John has captured for us.  Therefore the painting, in spite of being a representation of a wholly static subject, is dynamic in the extreme, being but one glimpse of an ongoing conceptual process.

Third, we see the mass of colour, no longer the subtle gradations of representational art, or even the complexes of colour of Cezanne and Matisse.  Rather we see colour at its most elemental, reduced to brush-strokes, each of which conveys nothing in itself.  So in one instant we see hundreds of isolated, meaningless brush-strokes, but in the next we see them come together to makes those forms that we, with the guidance of John, discover within them.  We see an emergent structure that is not present in its parts, and yet is present in their totality, just as there is nothing in any one cell that can be seen as being human, and yet in their communion humanity is born.  John has emancipated colour, so now her message lies not in the way that colour serves the forms, but lies in individual marks on canvas, each clearly identifiable as a mark on canvas, and the ‘subject’ of the painting is not the ostensible subject, but rather the way that John uses it to create near abstract structures that play off our ideas of reality in order to help us take the plunge into the deeper realities lying in the gaps between the marks.  One might say that whereas the surrealists tried to use photo-realism to depict the results of their  delvings in the unconscious, John shows us the royal road to understanding the unconscious and making it part of ourselves.  Realism is left far behind.

Paradigms, paradigm shifts, incommensurability

What is a paradigm?

Rather than state Kuhn’s definition and then try to force my examples to fit it, what I want to do is explore the artistic examples described above and look at them for something that one might call a paradigm.  This approach has to dual advantage of both validating Kuhn’s approach, by showing that unprejudiced examination of art history can reconstruct it, and critiquing it, by indicating places where it needs to be sharpened or modified.

In the cases I have described there are clearly several views as to how one should look at art and what the function of art is.  For example, you could look at the Matisse portrait and observe that people don’t have grey faces, dismissing it is obviously not being a good portrait.  Likewise you could look at the Wallis piece and complain on any number of grounds: that the scales of things are wrong, that the land is hanging in mid-air about the house, that boats tend to be larger than waves.  And so on for each of the paintings I have discussed.  In each case you would be missing what I have claimed is the true content and intent of the painting, but that’s not what matters here.  I am not claiming divine revelation, so your objections on grounds of irrealism are just as valid as observations about the paintings as are my rhapsodies to irrealism.  You would have a valid, consistent, coherent world-view according to which the only piece of art that I have discussed that is successful is Mr and Mrs Andrews, just as I have mine, in which all of the pieces are successul in their own way.

So it seems there is not one overarching theory of aesthetics: we seem to have three:

  1. Realism.  Art is an attempt to render the world as we perceive it in as precise a way as is possible given the constraints of the medium.  Certain artifices (e.g. perspective) are agreed on as tools that are used to achieve this.  Art is judged based on its ability to do this, as well as by qualities that the artist conveys by their arrangement of the objects depicted.
  2. Formal irrealism.  Art is an attempt to render the ‘thing in itself’, the reality underlying the outward appearance of objects.  The objects are arranged and portrayed in such a way as to represent those of their features that the artist wishes to emphasise, and their relations to one another.  Art is judged based on its ability to connect to the viewer at a visceral level, creating a vision of the thing in itself.
  3. Structural irrealism.  Again, art is an attempt to render the ‘thing in itself’, but now objects lose their individual status, merging together to form larger structures, and are portrayed in such a way as to make those structures emerge.  Art is judged based on its ability to show the wider reality that underlies the thing in itself.

The key point here is that each of these theories is quite sound in itself.  It is not that realism is right and formal irrealism wrong, or vice versa.  Rather, each provides a valid way of looking at and understanding art.  Call such a body of theory a paradigm.

What is a paradigm shift?

So we now know what a paradigm is: it is a way of looking at something, art in our case, but it could be physics or theology or whatever, that makes sense, is internally consistent, and provides a comprehensive model for understanding what you see.  So what happens when the world changes, when a Cezanne starts to paint masses of colour rather than things, or you first discover a Wallis?  The realist paradigm worked pretty well until the final decades of the twentieth century, but then it began to break down as more and more painters started to reach beyond its bounds in the attempt to represent a message that no longer lay in the interaction between the viewer’s cultural apparatus and the way the things depicted were shown relating to one another, but in the things themselves.

Mr and Mrs AndrewsGo back to Mr and Mrs Andrews.  His carefree posture with gun and dog shows that he is trying, perhaps a bit too hard, to be at ease as a member of the landed gentry, but the slight, but definite, dissonance between the countrified setting and her dress raises a question about how successful this is, a question reinforced by the slight, but definite, ‘come hither’ quality in her expression.  Gainsborough quite neatly fulfils his commission and lampoons pretension at the same time.  But none of this is really inherent in the image itself.  The painting tells us a story, but it does this by making us think about things outside of it: our expectations for country gentlemen, for well-mannered wives and so on.

A Battery Shelled

Compare this with Wyndham Lewis’ A Battery Shelled.  Now the painting exists in and of itself: it represents a mysterious world with a crumpled ground in which part-human figures labour while super-sized humans look on while the cosmos exists as mighty structures in the sky, if it is a sky, indifferent to the insects beneath.  Lewis is not interested in showing us some things and then pointing out to us some of their more interesting features.  He has captured a moment and is trying to convey to us the emotional content of that moment directly from his painting.

What then is to be done?  There are three possibilities for dealing with this defection of artists from the established paradigm.

  1. Ignore them.  This is very, very easy to do, but helpful only if the movement away from the established view is brief and a return quickly follows.  All that happens as a result of ignoring them is that those doing the ignoring end up in their own little ghetto, isolated from future developments and unable to comprehend them.  And this is, to be honest, exactly what we have seen in some cultural conservative circles in art, with the likes of the ludicrous Alfred Munnings bravely proclaiming that post-realism was just a passing fad.  It also happens in, say, physics, where there are still cranks who proclaim that Einsteinian relativity is all wrong.
  2. Try to accomodate both points of view.  This seems very tempting, but it is doomed to fail.  The reason is fairly easy to see: what kind of aesthetic theory is there that can simultaneously embrace Gainsborough, Wallis and John, all of whom have their own great merits?  How can one reconcile commentary through accurate depiction with blazing a way to the immanent other?  Any such theory would end up being so general and so attenuated that either it would be useless, or else it would, by force majeure turn into several separate theories masquerading as one, in which case we are in the third scenario.
  3.  Accept that the paradigms are both equally valid.  In this case we accept that Gainsborough, Picasso, Matisse and all the others are great artists, but no one body of theory can be used to approach all of them.  We need a new paradigm to understand the new art, different from the old one.  That does not make the old one invalid, as it works perfectly for realist art, but it fails to work for the new art, and that is where we need a new paradigm.  In fact, if we look at option 1, it is clear that it is just a special case of this option, consisting of those individuals (of whom there will always be some) who refuse to acknowledge the new paradigm.

Looking at the process that has occurred, what happens is something like this.  We started in the realist paradigm and carried along, most of the time able to exercise option 2, extending the paradigm to incorporate new developments.  But there came a point where artists, in their quest to represent their vision, moved so far away from the realist model that option 2 was no longer available: the disparity between what they painted and what the paradigm expected was just too great to be accommodated.  And at this point a paradigm shift happened: the only way to describe the new art sensibly was to create an entire new paradigm that acknowledged that it was separate, and was a new kind of art, different from realist art.  The paradigm shifts when facts on the ground force the acknowledgement that existing descriptions no longer work, and that a whole new way of looking at things is required.

What is incommensurability?

So, let us say a paradigm shift has occurred, so I now have two paradigms (for sake of argument): realism and formal irrealism.  Above I wrote some words about three formal irrealist pieces; the question is, are my words meaningful within the realist paradigm?  Well, obviously their semantic content remains, but the answer has to be no: the criteria I am using to make my judgements simply have no meaning within the realist paradigm.  Viewed from within realism, Wallis’ paining is simply bad, and everything I have to say in its defence is simply meaningless.  Indeed, following up on that point, it’s not just critical language that becomes meaningless when we switch paradigm; the art itself becomes meaningless.  Without the irrealist concern for the thing in itself, the Egyptian tomb painting is incomprehensible.

It’s not hard to see why this happened.  Remember that I said that a paradigm shift happens when the existing paradigm is stretched to the point where it can no longer contain everything within it and yet remain coherent, so all it can do is split asunder.  So a paradigm shift occurs precisely when it is no longer possible to present a single viewpoint within which everything we are looking at is comprehensible.  Which, inevitably, means that after the paradigm shift, one of the paradigms cannot comprehend the other, for if each can comprehend the other then there would have been no reason for the shift to occur.  So a paradigm shift creates a barrier to comprehension in at least one direction.

This makes sense.  If I a come to a gallery with a conception of art based on Gainsborough, and find myself confronted with Picasso’s portrait of Dora Maar, then it will indeed be incomprehensible to me.  Now note that I am not saying that this means I will inevitably dislike it.  No, the point is that it will be something entirely outside of my current conception of art.  That doesn’t mean that I cannot feel the shock of the new and discover the new paradigm within myself, merely that I will have to do so, that or decide that I want no part in it.  What I cannot do is look at it and appreciate it on the same terms that I would appreciate Mr and Mrs Andrews.  So the realist and formal irrealist paradigms are incommensurable.

In this case we have concluded that it is impossible to describe or appreciate art of the new paradigm from within the old paradigm.  The obvious question is, is this always the case?  What (if any) are the rules governing incommensurability?  Well, say we have two paradigms, A, which is the parent, and B, which is the child.  Clearly each can comprehend itself.  Also we have seen that at least either A cannot comprehend B or B cannot comprehend A.  Can we say any more?

It turns out we cannot.  There are three possible cases:

  1. A fails to comprehend BB comprehends A.  The process of forming a new paradigm certainly involves additions to the vocabulary, whether of art or science: new tools, techniques, concepts.  However it is not so clear that it requires one to reject what one already knew before the paradigm shift.  It is entirely possible to view realist art from, say, a cubist perspective, looking beneath the surface to the work of art as a thing.  It can bring fresh insights and fresh ways of executing realist art.
  2. A comprehends B; B fails to comprehend A.  Once the perspective paradigm shift had occurred, earlier art, like our Egyptian example, would be more or less incomprehensible: certainly much of its meaning would have been lost, because its notion of art as symbol of deep reality would have been incommensurable with the realist paradigm.  However, there is no obvious reason why realist art should not be comprehensible from within the older paradigm.
  3. A fails to comprehend BB fails to comprehend A.  In this case that comprehended both of them but which they could not comprehend.  There is some evidence suggesting that such situations can occur; I will discuss some possible examples below.

Therefore it seems that all cases are possible, and so the concept of incommensurability needs to be refined to take account of information flows.

Paradigms and epistemic barriers

Epistemic barriers demarcate paradigms

I discussed the concept of an epistemic barrier at length in another essay, but for convenience I will recapitulate the key notions here.  An epistemic barrier arises between two communities when their conceptual schemes are so much at variance with one another that reliable communication between the two communities becomes an impossibility.  Note that this is nothing to do with the language used to communicate, but is about the concepts that are being communicated.  Indeed, it is entirely possible for an epistemic barrier to exist where no linguistic barrier exists.  Community A might have within its group world-view concepts that simply don’t exist in community B‘s world-view and which therefore could not be communicated to community B in any language.  It is not so much a matter of only being able to know things you have a word for, as of only being able to know things that you are prepared to know about.  That is to say, you need, as it were, a mental pigeon-hole of the right shape to fit an idea if it is to be successfully communicated to you.

Now this is not to say that any new idea creates a barrier.  Obviously many new facts exist that fit entirely within our conceptual framework and do not require a major change in the way we ourselves conceive of knowledge.  As above, the barrier arises precisely when the new ideas are so far from those we are used to that they simply cannot be expressed in terms of those that we are used to, and so cannot be communicated using existing terms.  What is required to comprehend them is a substantive conceptual shift, a deliberative act of extending the world-view.  Our usual, incremental process of assimilating new information will not work.

All of this will look very familiar, for the good reason that this is just a slightly more abstract way of looking at the ideas we’ve gone over above.  The merit of this approach, however is that it lets us study more precisely what happens at the points of intersection, where paradigms abut one another, and how information does and does not flow between them.  Moreover, the definition of an epistemic barrier is, in philosophical terms at least, reasonably precise, in that it can be modelled quite precisely, whereas that of a paradigm is, perforce, somewhat woolly, as it ends up having to assert, more or less, that we know a paradigm shift when we see one.  In fact, as I will show below, this is not necessarily true.

So we can (at last) define a paradigm more or less rigorously, by saying that it is a region in epistemic space, that is to say a collection of ideas and concepts, and its boundaries, that is to say, the points beyond which one cannot go without a change of world-view, are defined by epistemic barriers.  Of course, this definition is complicated by the impossibility of firmly locating a barrier.  For if one could say where the barrier was, that means one could tell precisely how far one could go conceptually, which means one would then know precisely what one couldn’t know, which is impossible.

This systemic vagueness is actually quite reasonable in terms of what we know about paradigms in real life.  For example, Mr and Mrs Andrews is clearly realist, the Picasso portrait is clearly irrealist, but what about this Cezanne landscape?  Is it realist or cubist?  It seems to be one of those liminal cases that could be claimed as either.  In general we can tell which paradigm most art belongs to, but there will be a group of works that could be in one or the other, and it is impossible to come up with a consistent classification.  This well-known vagueness, which applies in all fields, not just art, this difficulty of classifying the liminal cases, is precisely the real-world evidence of the philosophical claim that the location of an epistemic barrier is unknowable.

The anatomy of a paradigm shift

One advantage of the epistemic barrier approach is that instead of seeing a process where paradigm B replaces paradigm A, we can look at paradigms as areas of epistemic space separated from one another by epistemic barriers, seeing them in the round, so a paradigm shift is less about creating something new than about finding a way to explore a region of epistemic space that was previously accessible.

So, the starting condition, before the paradigm shift occurs, is that I am sitting in some region of epistemic space, which is to say that I have a collection of thoughts and concepts that I am able to frame in my mind and communicate with others who are in (roughly) the same place.  Now, as we’re discussing the case in which a paradigm shift occurs, that means that somewhere in my neighbourhood there is an epistemic barrier, though I can’t say precisely where, as described above.  Of course, nobody stays in the same place epistemically; we learn and think and expand our knowledge and the range of concepts within our world-view, and this means that my location in epistemic space shifts.  Now say I happen to shift towards the barrier.  At some unknowable point I will cross the barrier.  This is important, so it’s worth considering in detail.  The epistemic analysis allows us to understand what happens in much greater detail than the simply binary apposition of the paradigm approach.

Initially I am safely within the same world-view as my peers: I am in paradigm A.  Now, as I extend myself, gradually I will find myself entertaining more and more concepts that I cannot share with my peers, and I may start having difficulty understanding them, because my new thought-patterns render theirs increasingly incomprehensible.  So a conversation with one of my erstwhile peers may be like talking on a noisy phone line, with more and more noise occurring, until eventually mutual comprehension breaks down, at which point the paradigm shift has occurred, and I am now in paradigm B.  But the point to note is that there is no clear dividing-line, no clear point at which I can say ‘there we became incommensurable’.  Rather, in one or both directions, communication degrades gracefully from perfect to non-existent.  And likewise, mutual communication with those already on the other side of the barrier now becomes possible.

That’s what it looks like to me.  What does it look like to those I have left behind?  There are two cases, depending on whether the barrier is total or partial.  The distinction is based on whether the barrier applies to all or part of one’s world view, and hence affects all or part of communication with those in paradigm A.  The point here is that in some cases, for example artistic judgement, the fact that I and you are now separated by an epistemic barrier on matters relating to art does not force us to be separated when discussing, say, physics.  The barrier in this case affects only those parts of our common epistemic space that deal with art, and does not impede communication on other subjects, and so it is partial.  Based on day-to-day experience, where most people share a common core epistemic space, but otherwise sit one one side or another of various partial barriers in a mix-and-match kind of way, we would expect this to be perhaps the norm.  And yet consider the apparent total disconnect that seems to exist between majoritarian culture and, say, adherents of all-embracing belief systems that aspire to cultural isolation, or the gap between the majoritarian world-view and that of those suffering from extremely severe mental illness.  Here we seem to be close to finding a total barrier, which precludes any meaningful communication.

So, in the case of a partial barrier, what happens when I cross it is simply that, on topics that the barrier controls, I become incomprehensible, but on other topics you can still understand me.  This raises the interesting possibility that I may, therefore, be able to help you to, as it were, peek around the edge of the barrier, by using whatever analogical or metaphorical language I can to describe the other side.  This is, in a sense, how education works.

In the case of a total barrier, something much stranger happens.  As I cross the barrier, I will, like a station on a wandering radio receiver, tune out until, epistemically speaking, I vanish: all possibility of communication with me from your side of the barrier is at an end.  In this context, note that friends and family of those who adopt exclusionist belief systems or suffer from extreme mental illness often talk of their loved one being ‘taken away’.  Very often this is put down to the ill intentions of those with whom the individual now aligns themselves, and many in the ‘anti-cult’ movement claim that those they oppose deliberately separate their ‘victims’ in order to increase power over them.  In fact, a more plausible explanation may be simply that the ‘taking away’ is just the natural consequence of passing beyond a total epistemic barrier: where no communication is possible, none will occur.

Rita Hayworth, the male gaze and the unconscious mind

Introduction

A few days ago, I wrote more a squib than an essay, a piece that attempted to clarify my assertion (in Less is More and The Male Gaze Gone Wrong) that in the world of cinema, the male gaze has shifted in the last-half century, that shift having involved a passage from male gazers entering into a relationship with the gazed at of transformational devotion to one of simple sexual attraction.  Using Rita Hayworth as an example, I argued that in fact the simple selling of sex appeal is not, after all new.  Scarcely a novel assertion, I know.  The novelty came in the principle I adopted to explain why it is that though the movies have always sold sex, it appears to be so much more prevalent now.

So far so good.  Where the previous piece fell down somewhat was in that it skated around the whole question of the way in which sex is sold, and how that has changed over the half-century, for there there really is a significant shift, towards a greater commoditisation, and away from (hypothetically) mutually rewarding eroticism to the clinical isolation of masturbatory fantasy.  We can explain away the ‘there’s a lot more of it about’ phenomenon, but we cannot explain away this.  Instead we need to explain it, and that is what I intend to do.

Therefore, in this essay I will start by recapitulating, more formally, the argument of the former piece as to why the appearance that there is more selling of sex now is just that, an appearance.  Then I will proceed to analyse the underlying shift in approches to sex that the removal of the bias caused by time’s censorship makes clear.  In the process I shall correct some errors that crept into the earlier piece, particularly the assumption that because with Rita Hayworth the emphasis was very much on the ‘sex’ part of sex goddess, that meant her passionate eroticism was on a par with the lifeless sexualism of a modern starlet.

Sex is always with us

My original hypothesis

The hypothesis put forward in the pieces linked to above, is that screen goddesses were arousing, yes, but what one felt one seeing them wasn’t simply erotic arousal.  Rather there was some kind of pull, an attraction, a shock, similar to that created by experiencing great art, that created a space between them and the viewer that could then be filled, by the viewer, with new material derived from the devotion thus formed.  Like any good work of art, they offered the viewer the possibility of a transformative experience which the viewer can then make use of to develop, to change, to transcend themselves.

On the other hand, looking at the cinema today, one finds innumerable more or less identical young women who pose in various stages of undress, and who are treated in movies purely as sexual objects.  They do not send the message ‘ don’t I make you want to develop yourself?’, they send the message ‘don’t you wish you could have sex with me?’  And so they are offering not a transformational and ongoing mental journey, but a simple act of physical satisfaction.  But maybe not even that, for they are objects of lust rather than promises of the satisfaction of lust.

This is not a false analysis.  These two categories exist, and it is clear that the goddesses of today are thin on the ground.  My error lay in thinking that there was no equivalent in the past to the sexual offer of today’s starlets.  It turns out that there was, though different in kind.  Enter Miss Hayworth.

Miss Hayworth puts the ‘sex’ in sex goddess

Rita Hayworth Rita Hayworth
1 2
Rita Hayworth Rita Hayworth
3 4

So, here we have four images of Miss Hayworth.  I deliberately chose ‘glamour’ pictures as opposed to cheesecake shots, as I was trying to get her as close as possible to the style of the goddesses.  Shot number two is more or less unique in entering true goddess territory, the others being much more representative.

And what do these pictures say? I think it’s fair to say that pictures one, three and four are all focussed on one, or rather two, things. And it’s not her face.  And the message is pretty clear.  Miss Hayworth is not offering an experience akin to that of first reading Devils, which may end with the viewer a quite different person.  She is offering herself, as a (quite remarkable) subject of sexual desire.  So clearly, sex was being sold in the past, just as now.

Before I move on, it is worth noting some further points about these images.  For one thing, though pictures one and three may be focussed on Miss Hayworth’s breasts, there is a considerable subtlety about it.  Clearly she and her couturier knew that eroticism is all about what is revealed, and that in order to reveal one must first conceal.  The modern variety (I shall illustrate below) have nothing of the subtlety of, say a dress with a gauze over-dress and a fabric under-dress with the fabric colour precisely matched to skin-tone.  But, passing over that level of detail, this is a sexuality that works by suggestion rather than by plonking assertion, so it is eroticism rather than sexualism.

Note also Miss Hayworth’s expression.  This is not merely a matter of saying ‘look at me, I’m sexy, I bet you want me’.  There is definite longing, desire.  Though she is not offering the transcendance offered by the true goddesses, she is still selling more than mere gratification.  Instead she is selling desirability and desire: a mutual experience not a solitary one.

I will return to those points.  For now note that we have found that half a century ago there were pure goddesses and sex goddesses; there were actresses whose sole selling point was their body (Jane Russell springs to mind) and there were actresses so transcendant that their body was entirely incidental (Katharine Hepburn, for example).  The oddity is surely that while now I can point at any number of sex kittens, it’s not entirely clear what has happened to the goddesses (of either description).

Time’s censor

In an essay called The Censorship of Time I attempted to explain the phenomenon that art from the past seems to consist solely of masterpieces, while modern art seems to be predominantly of a very low quality.  The argument, simply told, is that art from any period is winnowed, so the great and lasting endures, while the ephemeral ends up being consigned to history’s archives (until dug up by some over-zealous cultural antiquary).  And so, for all periods of time but one we see only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to artistic production, the winnowed out wheat.  The one exception is the present, when we cannot help but see the tares, simply because the winnowing process has not yet happened.  And thus, modern art is predominantly dreadful, but then so was what constituted modern art in 1911, 1811 and so on.  Art on the whole is predominantly dreadful, but the dreadful works of former years now languish in deserved obscurity, and we can guarantee that in 2111 people will look back on our time and see it as just as artistically golden as we see any past era as being.

So, we can adapt this thesis to explain a number of things.  For example, there is a definite shift in the nature of mainstream movies over the past half-century, but before simply saying that cinema now is worse that (as opposed to different from) that of old, we need to remember that it is highly unlikely that any of the current slew of superhero pictures will stand the test of time as has The Day the Earth Stood Still, and that therefore a reliable analysis of changes in the moves needs to deal with thematic and technical trends (such as my analysis of creeping over-reliance on realism in The Tyranny of Realism)  rather than at attempt at measuring changes in quality.  Thus I still stand by my analysis in Whither the Movies? because it is thematic and not based on quality.

Censoring Miss Hayworth

So, let us apply the notion of the temporal censor to the cinema and sex.  Well, it seems fairly reasonable to say that selling pure sex, be it erotic or sexualist, is an ephemeral thing.  Yes, Miss Hayworth was extremely beautiful and highly concupiscent, but being a sex goddess is not a life-long activity: there will always be newer, younger women to appeal to the sexual urges of the male gaze.  In other words, sexual allure is a relatively commonplace commodity, so there’s no real need for the targets of desire in one generation to be remembered by the next.  Being a goddess is different.  Obviously it is a much rarer commodity, and as such it is worth preserving, for things that can offer the transcendant experience, whether they be pinups, pictures or symphonies, are clearly of great worth.  And thus goddesses will survive the winnowing process whereas only the most exceptional of sex goddesses will.

The consequence of this is that the censorship effect means that we would expect the sirens and sex goddesses of yesteryear to be largely forgotten, while the goddesses are remembered.  As a neat example, consider the three leads of How to Marry a Millionaire. Miss Bacall is a goddess pure and simple and is still considered one of Hollywood’s greats.  Miss Monroe is that rare thing, a sex goddess so supernal that she has survived (though that may be in part because she was a fine actress who deliberately adopted the persona of a sex goddess who didn’t know that she was one).  Miss Grable, who was a sex goddess at the time, has suffered more than a little diminution in her image, and seems well on the way to obscurity.

Ginger Rogers Ginger Rogers
5 6

What this means is that the censorship effect predicts that we will appear to see sex by the bucketful in modern cinema, and, apparently, little in the past.  And that is precisely what we do see.  Everywhere we look we see modern starlets showing of almost literally their all, but we tend not to remember Ginger Rogers giving us a good look straight down her cleavage while wearing her most inviting smile, or sitting on top of a piano wearing a see-through dress.

The wider picture

From eroticism to sexualism

I have written about this before, but it is worth discussing again.  As I noted above, these older examples of selling sex, where what matters is basically the woman’s body and her sex appeal rather than anything else, are of considerable subtlety.  I noted the way that Miss Hayworth’s dress, though exposing (and forming, there appears to be some subte corsetry at work, as one can see by comparing her waist in images 3 and 4) her bosom in a most admirable way, is even more admirable in that it appears to be exposing much more than it really is.  Again, there is just a touch of room for the imagination to enter.  Likewise, Miss Rogers’ dresses in the two pictures advertise her charms most effectively, but they merely advertise them; they do not demonstrate them.

Now part of this is, obviously, a consequence of censorship of another kind, and the need to encode rather than state explicitly, but it is more than that.  It is this allowance of the imagination into the picture that raises these images above the level of fodder for masturbatory fantasies and turns them into a source of erotic reverie.  And before I am accused of playing semantic games, my point is that in all of these older cases the male gazer sees a highly sexually attractive woman, but his sexual fantasy has to engage imagination.  He is not just looking at a body, it is a body that he has to relate to, that he has to get to know, that has an owner, who is saying, by her manner, that she wants him.  And who, by virtue of that, is a person and not an object.

As a somewhat more modern example, consider this short scene from Don Levy’s great film Herostratus, where the (very) young Dame Helen Mirren flings herself into the part of a woman who is quite literally selling herself, or rather using herself to sell rubber gloves.  The scene is overpoweringly erotic, but though Dame Helen’s undoubted physical charms play a part in that, more of it comes from her acting.  From her very first ‘Do you want me?’ we see a woman filled with desire, looking only for someone who can satisfy it.  The image she creates is that of a very sexy woman who wants to give herself to the male gazer, but as a whole, not as just a body.  And of course, it is testament to both the film’s and Dame Helen’s greatness that whereas Miss Hayworth was a sex goddess, here Dame Helen is a professional actress playing the part of a professional actress playing the part of a sex goddess.  In fact, it is arguable that Dame Helen is that rarest of things, a true goddess who is also a sex goddess.

katherine heigl Katherine Heigl
7 8

Now let us look at the modern alternative.  We have here two posed shots of the leading actress Katherine Heigl, who would appear, judging from her extreme popularity, a good candidate for modern-day sex goddess status.

There are two things to note.  First of all, there is no longer any pretence at subtlety (it is hard to imagine how much less subtle than image 8 one could be), and these images do indeed demonstrate as opposed to merely advertise the wares.  So eroticism is gone, and we are firmly into the territory of the male gaze objectifying that at which it gazes.

Second look at Miss Heigl’s expression.  Or, rather, lack of it.  There is no allure, nothing.  She is making no effort to engage, even at a remove, with the viewer of the image.  She knows perfectly well that she is an object pure and simple, and so she is acting as one.  All in all looking at these images is a rather depressing experience, and one feels rather sorry for Miss Heigl (the alternative, of course being that she is not being exploited, but is a willing conspirator in her objectification, in which case one should be sorry about her).

Forms of the male gaze

To summarise what has happened, it seems worth trying to fit what we have seen into a more general model.  As so often, ideas from medieval philosophy turn out to be quite useful; I am referring to the theories of different styles of love, from the spiritual, via courtly down to physical love and then base lust at the bottom.  So I shall, translating this into more modern language, define three forms of male gazing: the creative form (corresponding to courtly or spiritual love), the erotic form (physical love) and finally the sexual form (lust).

Some psychology

Before I go any further, let me expose a simple psychological model.  In Jungian psychology, the mind has two main parts: the conscious and the unconscious.  We all know more or less what the conscious is, but the unconscious is a bit of a mystery.  What we think of as intellectual pursuits are largely conscious, but they are generally driven by deep roots in the unconscious, which provides the energy and source that drives them.  In particular, creativity involves considerable conscious work, but is driven from the unconscious.

The unconscious also has some structure.  In fact there are two distinct divisions.  One is into the human unconscious and the reptilian unconscious.  We all have, within our brains, a fully functioning reptilian brain, parts of which are constantly suppressed so we do not, in fact, act like crocodiles.  And with that brain, we all have the basic animal urges of lust, fear, aggression and hunger, which are pure, simple and primal, with nothing of the human about them.  The human unconscious deals with more complex, nuanced emotions and so, in our particular area of enquiry, it is the locus of eroticism and sexual desire (as opposed to sexual lust).

The other division is into the visible unconscious and the shadow.  Basically the shadow constitutes those parts of our minds that we have pushed away from ourselves and are dissociated from, either by desire or by force.  So those aspects of the personality that we do not wish to express or even to admit to having will end up in the shadow.  So, positive creative behaviour and thinking are driven from the visible unconscious, from the well-integrated parts of our personality.  Uncharacteristic behaviour comes from the shadow.

Kinds of gazing

Lauren Bacall
9

So, I see a clear distinction between male gazing which is primarily sexually driven and that which is driven by something else, such as the urge for self-transformation.  I spoke before of a shock, as of that of experiencing great art, or religious revelation, or some great insight, as it were the ‘wow’ factor.   Now, Lauren Bacall is quite capable of inducing that simply by staring rather severely at the camera while giving no hint at all as to what shape her body might be (image 9), and that is what makes her a goddess proper.  Here thoughts of sex are irrelevant, or else so transformed as to scarcely be describable as sexual.

So this is the abstract, non-sexual form of the gaze.  It speaks to those parts of the mind that make us truly human, the intellect and non-sexual passions, such as passion for justice, or truth, or beauty (including creativity).

Now, moving on to the sex goddesses of the past, this form of male gazing is driven by eroticism or sexual desire, which is the humanised form of the basic animal sexual urge.  This humanisation is seen in the way that there is still room for the human attribute of imagination, and that the gaze speaks of desire for a person rather than for satiation.

Finally, today we see the animal lust of the reptilian unconscious, without any embroidery.  The images 7 and 8 of Miss Heigl, and innumerable even more blatant images of other starlets, make it quite clear that we have moved beyond desire and on to the simple urge to satisfy sexual need.

So what happened?

So, what I believe has happened in the transition from Miss Hayworth’s erotic allure to Miss Heigl’s impersonal sexualism is as follows.  The reptilian unconscious has, for much of human history, been very firmly embedded within the shadow.  That is why, though abominations happened, and animalistic behaviour happened, it occurs as a sudden eruption from the shadow, and is contrary to the trend of society (and even, quite often, the individuals in question) as a whole.  And so, with the reptilian unconscious hidden away, the outlet for sexual feeling has been erotic desire.

It would appear that, at some time in the last half-century, the reptilian unconscious has started to emerge from the collective shadow, and so now naked lust, naked greed and so on are becoming more acceptable as people begin to integrate those urges directly into their personality, rather than going via the intermediation of some other more complex emotion.  And so the sexual male gaze has shifted simply because, distressing though it may be, pure lust is a more efficient way of getting what you want than the perfumed garden of eroticism.

Rita Hayworth shows up the temporal censor

Introduction

Some of you may recall that in essays too numerous to contemplate (like, say, these: Less is More and The Male Gaze Gone Wrong) I cast a number of aspersions at the male gaze, suggesting that something had gone seriously wrong with it in the last half-century or so.  It is, after all, a long journey from being dazzled by Lauren Bacall to being filled with lust by Megan Fox, and it’s downhill most of the way.

However, I did, I now discover, make a slight mistake in this argument.  That is to say, I cheerfully assumed that this shift from eroticism to out and out soft porn in the way we males interact with female movie stars was an entirely modern phenomenon.  And I still maintain that, by and large, my thesis is correct.  But I had failed to take full account of Rita Hayworth, and on this rock the simple Manichean duality of the thesis founders.

Why Rita Hayworth?

You see, I had assumed that the screen goddesses of old were objects of erotic allure, creating that open space into which the viewer’s imagination could fall and emerge enriched.  Rather than (as do the majority of the starlets of today) saying ‘don’t you want to have sex with me’, which is a question answered with a quick surge of lust and then done and dusted, a neat, hygienic, disposable experience, they offered, or so I thought, a complex world of longing and unspecified promise, something that can lead to a transformational experience.

And then I came across Miss Hayworth.  Feast your eyes on these:

Rita Hayworth Rita Hayworth
1. Take a look at these! 2. Let’s be classy
Rita Hayworth Rita Hayworth
3. Or not 4. Wow, I’m sexy

Now, let me make two points clear right at the outset. First, these were the most glamorous shots of Miss Hayworth that I could find. Many were much more, shall I say, explicit in their intent. Second shot number two is more or less unique in being a proper attempt at creating allure. Interestingly, it’s copied all over the internet, but there aren’t any others (there is a small variation, but that’s it). So this is the pick of what’s out there.

And what do these pictures say? I think it’s fair to say that pictures one, three and four are all focussed on one, or rather two, things. And it’s not her face. And the clear message is not ‘I am full of mysterious allure, which you must quest to understand’. No, it’s more along the lines of ‘I am sexy as hell; want a piece?’ In other words, the only real difference between Miss Hayworth and the starlets of today is that in her day selling sex was not quite so unsubtle as it has now become. It was all still about tits and ass, but the purveyors of tits and ass had not yet forgotten that subtle revelation is more arousing than crude exposure.

That’s a point to come back to, but the real point is this: sure the goddesses of yesteryear were light-years from the starlets of today, but they were equally light-years away from those starlets’ equivalent in their own era. In other words, in the second tier, just as there are actresses today whose career is predicated solely on their body, so there were fifty years ago. So there are two questions. First, why does it seem as if things were different back then? And second, where are the goddesses of today?

Censorship in action

Some of you may recall that a while back I wrote an essay called The Censorship of Time.  It was an attempt to explain the well-known phenomenon that art from the past seems to consist solely of masterpieces, while much of what we see produced today frankly sucks.  Cultural conservatives gleefully claim this as evidence of a decline in civilisation.  I don’t.

Instead, I observed that if you look at art from any period, it has undergone a form of winnowing process, whereby the vast majority of bad or just mediocre art (which can, quite often, be that which was most popular at the time) is gradually set aside, and what remains are the gems.  So nearly all of the art ever produced is forgotten save by desperate graduate students in search of a thesis topic, or those who live in the past (parenthetically, I find it amusing that the latest fad in classical music is for ‘contemporaries of Mozart’, as if merely to have lived at the same time as dear Wolfgang is enough to confer some unusual merit).  And this is absolutely true and effective for all periods in history save one: the present.  Because we live in the present, the winnowing process hasn’t happened, and so the wheat is swamped by the chaff, especially as the chaff is more likely than not to be what sells.  And the consequence of this is that, yes, modern art appears to be worse than the art of the past, but that is only because we are seeing all of it, and not just selected highlights.

If you think about it, this is pretty obvious.  Think of popular music in the 1960’s and it’s The Who and The Rolling Stones and so on.  It’s not Engelbert Humperdinck, and yet he was more popular than they.  We remember the pinnacles of noir like The Big Sleep, but we don’t remember the vast numbers of absolutely dreadful noir movies that it spawned.  While now, films that will last, like Synecdoche New York are swamped by instantly forgettable dreck like Transformers, while a fine actress like Maggie Gyllenhaal is criminally under-utilised, while Katherine Heigl seems to be in every romantic comedy made.

Not even close
Not even close

So, what was my mistake?  Well, it’s quite clear that, though popular taste has unquestionably degenerated in the last few decades, the main reason why the movies seem so awful is simply that, well, most of them are.  It didn’t occur to me that the same might be true when it came to sexual gratification.  Part of the problem is that, as noted above, there has been a general shift towards greater explicitness.  The picture of Miss Heigl makes the point for me: by the standards of modern starlet pinups this actually quite sophisticated, and yet, when compared with Miss Hayworth, it really is quite lacking in subtlety.  And so it is entirely possible to miss the equation.  Miss Hayworth was selling her body, as is Miss Heigl.  And just as Miss Heigl is everywhere, while Miss Gyllenhaal is hardly anywhere, Miss Hayworth reigned supreme while the more beautiful, more intelligent, more sophisticated, more alluring, infinitely more talented Miss Bacall made only a handful of movies.

So the conclusion from all this is as follows: popular taste sucks.  Both artistically and in terms of its preference for the surgically applied arousal of pornography to the complexities of erotica.  But it always has sucked.  We’re just unlucky that it’s busy sucking at us right now, and it’s hard to avoid.

And so?

Well, we have the obvious question of where this takes us?  Are all of my previous arguments that movies and the male sex are going to hell in a hand-cart mistaken?  No.  Movies that used to be mainstream now would not get made, because the prime audience has shifted from being adults to teenaged males.  And, for the same reason, the manner of sexual arousal has shifted so as to be more simple and direct.  Gone are even the subtleties of Miss Hayworth’s dress, with its careful gradation from flesh-coloured fabric to flesh, the edge being artfully hidden.  The feedback loop I have noted before means that audiences demand more, quicker, and so that’s what they get, which habituates them to need even more, and so on.  So heaven only knows where things will go next.

And as for who are the goddesses of today: well, you tell me.

Conceptual art is when . . .

Introduction

We all know them when we see them.  Works of art then when you look at them create a kind of inner ‘what the?’ question, and which only begin to make sense when you read the little essay provided by the artist.  Or worse yet, where one comes away with the distinct impression that the whole purpose of the exercise was not to create an arresting image or object, but to let you know just how clever the artist was in coming up with that essay.

The thing is, we know it when we see it, but apart from applying the rather vague catch all of ‘conceptual art’ we often can’t work out what exactly it is that would make one want to say that Michael Craig-Martin’s oak tree is not good art, whereas Marcel Duchamp’s readymades are.  There is a terrible risk of falling into the ‘I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like’ trap, and arbitrarily consigning whole movements to the dustbin without justification.

So, in this essay I’m going to have a go at defining a fragment of an aesthetic theory in the hope that it might be able to disinguish good conceptual art which I see as pieces where a concept is used to create good art, and bad conceptual art, where the art itself is incidental to the concept.  My approach is going to be first, to put together a tentative definition, and then to explore it using a highly selective and random selection of pieces.

Aesthetics for conceptual art

Definitions

What is conceptual art?  This question is surprisingly hard to answer.  Dictionary and encyclopedia definitions are far from helpful.  Wikipedia defines it as art in which the concepts or ideas involved in the work take precedence over traditional aesthetic and material concerns.  That sounds good, but there’s the problem that in fact it could be taken as applying to quite a lot of art that is definitely not considered to be conceptual.  So, for example Kasimir Malevich’s suprematist works are actually the working out on canvas of a very sophisticated theory, and the theory drove the composition, not notions of aesthetics.  So is this conceptual?

Malevich Yellow and Black

The obvious answers are yes, by the definition, and no, because it is traditional painterly art and, moreover, it stands alone: one does not need to know anything about suprematist theory to appreciate it.

And this is the problem.  Even naive art, indeed, especially naive art, has a concept that over-rides traditional concepts of aesthetics.  For example, what distinguishes Alfred Wallis from the endless bad seascapes painted by enthusiastic amateurs is that his vision, his determination to represent the reality of his inner eye rather than the mundane reality of the empirical world, is communicated so vividly in his work.

Wallis St Ives

So, once again, according to the definition, Wallis is a conceptual artist, but in any other sense he is a very traditional artist, who represents the world as he sees it, that not necessarily being the same as how we would see it.  And carrying on along these lines, we might as well say that Goya was a conceptualist, for often it seems that traditional aesthetics were the last thing on his mind:

Goya Saturn  

So that definition doesn’t work very well.  I am going to try to replace it with a definition which will, I hope be a bit more precise, even if it cannot be expressed so succinctly.  

It seems that the key point should be that the artist has an idea or concept.  This idea may be formal, in the sense of being a way of mustering materials to create a thing, or it may be expressive, in the sense of being an idea that the artist wishes to use art to illustrate.  But in either case, the idea drove the creation of the art; the artist followed the idea wherever it led, even if the result was not conventionally beautiful.  So, while traditional art may be driven by the urge to express an idea, more often than not the artist will force the idea to accommodate to conventional ideas of aesthetics, that does not happen here.  

In other words the art is theory-laden, in that it is the working out of a theoretical idea, whether that be formal or expressive.  So, in a sense, there is an element of detachment of the artist from the work, in that it is not an immediate outflowing of the unconscious mind, but a result of deliberate artifice, knowingly constructing the art work according to theoretical principles.

This is, I believe, a reasonable definition.  Clearly Goya and Wallis painted straight from the unconscious, unfettered by theory.  Malevich is more difficult, and I suspect that it may be impossible to rule his suprematist work out from any reasonable definition of conceptual art.  But that is not necessarily a problem, and so, having now a reasonable understanding of what conceptual art might be said to be, let us move on to constructing aesthetics for it. 

Conceptual aesthetics

Art does not work by appealing to the intellect.  Good art is art which speaks directly to the viewer’s unconscious mind in a way that makes them see the world in a new way.  Going back to Alfred Wallis, he makes the viewer see houses and ships not as nicely laid out items with proper perspective, but as complex things, whose features he sets out in detail, which interact with each other and the world as wholes, and so buildings are not partially hidden or distorted with perspective, but are set out as the forms of buildings, and one perceives St Ives as more than just a place, but as a community.  So he expands reality and changes our view on it.

But this is, I think, a critical point.  If one has to look at a piece of art, then ask oneself ‘but what does it mean?’, that is to say, if one has to engage with it intellectually, can it be said to have succeeded?  I think the answer is no.  If there is no unconscious, visceral factor to the piece, so the only engagement is intellectual, then it is essentially either a technical demonstration of the means of production, in which case it is no different from a technical drawing, or it is pure narrative, in which the use of a visual form to convey it is purely incidental.  In other words, the means of production, or the intended message, obtrudes between the art and the viewer.  Instead of a process of self-discovery resulting from communion with the art work, the viewer finds themself being told what to think by the artist. 

And so I propose this form of aesthetics for conceptual art.  The key to whether it is successful as a piece of art (no qualifying adjective) is that it succeeds on its own.  The viewer does not need to understand the concept (formal or expressive) to appreciate the piece.  In other words, the artist may have been driven by the concept when creating the art, but the end goal was to create a work of art, not to illustrate an idea.  And that is a crucial idea, so I will say it slightly differently: great art uses an idea, bad art illustrates an idea.   

Applying the theory

Let us see how this theory works out in practice.  I’ll start out with some examples of good conceptual art, and then progress to what one might term the ‘silly’ examples, the things that we recognise as being bad, but can’t quite say why.

Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’

The obvious starting point is with Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, which are about as conceptual as you can get.  Now the reading of these that one hears too often is that Duchamp was essentially playing a game, whereby he found random objects and put them in galleries with the intention of saying, as it were, ‘Oh aren’t I clever for telling you that a urinal is art?’

Duchamp Fountain

But Duchamp’s motivation was more complex.  It was well put by Beatrice Wood:

Whether Mr Mutt (Duchamp originally submitted the piece under the pseudonym ‘Mutt’) made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object

Duchamp was interested in showing that ordinary objects could be objects of aesthetic value in themselves; that even the mundane things could be art.  So we are not meant to look at the urinal and see Duchamp, we are meant to look at it and see a thing of interest and beauty in its own right.  It stands alone, independent of the viewer’s knowledge of Duchamp or his aesthetic theories.  All it asks, indeed all that Duchamp asked, is that one views it without preconceptions.

Bridget Riley

Bridget Riley’s work (especially her early work) has to be labelled as conceptual, as very often an entire piece emerges from rigorous working out of one or more formal ideas involving (nearly) repeating geometrical structures.  And yet they have an impact far in excess of what would be expected if that was all they were:

Riley Cataract 3

There is an almost vertiginous feeling to her work, making one, as it were, fall into the painting and creating the illusion of structure that simply isn’t on the canvas, but is created by our unconscious minds.  So Riley’s art is very much more than just the formal idea she used to create it, and indeed, by virtue of the way reaction to it is caused by how it interacts with our brains, our reactions are entirely outside of her control.  She provided the conduit, but the message is entirely our own.

‘Silly’ conceptual art

Here I’ll mention two fairly controversial examples.  First one that can be dismissed very quickly.  Michael Craig-Martin’s ‘An Oak Tree’ constitutes a half-full glass of water.  To quote from the Tate Gallery description of the piece:

 While this appears to be a glass of water on a shelf, the artist states that it is in fact an oak tree. Craig-Martin’s assertion addresses fundamental questions about what we understand to be art and our faith in the power of the artist. The work can be seen as an exploration of Marcel Duchamp’s declaration that any existing object can be declared a work of art. In his accompanying text, Craig-Martin provides the questions as well as the answers, allowing the simultaneous expression of scepticism and belief regarding the transformative power of art. 

Oak Tree

This is the artist obtruding between the piece and the viewer with a vengeance.  Without the explanation, the piece is meaningless.  One is tempted to suggest that the purpose of the exercise is not to create a sense of discovery in the viewer but rather to create the idea that Michael Craig-Martin is very clever.

Now on to an even more controversial piece, the infamous ‘Piss Christ’.  To summarise, Andres Serrano photographed a small crucifix submerged in a yellow fluid; the controversial bit was thay the yellow fluid was his own urine.

Piss Christ

Over the years artists have used any number of strange and often unpleasant media to create their work, so if Serrano had used urine because he wanted that precise visual effect that only it could provide, then that would have been fine.  But instead he decided to share the fact with the world, and at that point, inevitably, the artist and his technical means took centre stage.

Now, what makes this different from ‘An Oak Tree’ is that actually the image is visually interesting.  The play of light across the cross, combined with its penetration into the fluid creates a curious lambency that is artistically effective.  And so, ‘Piss Christ’ could stand on its own as a viable piece of art.  Unfortunately, the artist chose to turn it into an example of the ‘look at me’ school of conceptualism, and as such ensured that his artistry will forever be hidden behind his technical means.

Patronising nonsense

1 Introduction

Something that vexes me – one of the many things that vex me – is that so often those who take it on themselves to speak out on behalf of various oppressed or minority groups often seem to espouse positions that, had they been expressed by one of the oppressors or majority they would have instantly labelled (and rightly) as being part of the problem.  And yet when they express them, they are the solution.  How can this be?

Think about it.  We have anti-racists who inform us that those of non-European heritage should not be expected to comprehend, say, higher mathematics because it is not part of their culture.  We have self-proclaimed anti-fascists who announce that, in the interests of liberal values, everything they disapprove of should be banned.  And – and this is my subject – we have feminists who assert that women are built to be nurturing mothers, not senior executives, and who don’t seem to appreciate that it is highly unlikely that any male chauvinist pig would disagree with them.

Now, I’ve written a fair amount in these pages on the ‘Male Gaze’, but so far I have chipped away at the foundations of the theory rather than confronting the theory itself.  It is time to do so, for it is awe-inspiring in its combination of inanity, logical incoherence and offensiveness.  To women, that is.  And moreover, examining what it is about it that is so patronising, so offensive, leads on to one of the favourite notions of all the theorists I have grouped together, but especially feminist intellectuals, that is to say the notion of power relations between in-groups and out-groups.  Which also, on inspection, turns out to be quite offensive to the out-group it claims to defend.

So, what I’m going to do is talk about male gaze theory, dissect it, broaden the discussion to other favourite feminist theories and end up showing that though the language may have changed, the sentiments are those of a Victorian patriarch.  Now, this isn’t very satisfactory, as it seems that women are being told by their self-proclaimed leaders that they should get back to the nursery, which offends against my idea of feminism, if not theirs.  So I’ll conclude by making some only slightly tongue-in-cheek suggestions for appropriate modern roles for women, based on that fount of all knowledge, The Powerpuff Girls

2 Feminist neo-Victorianism

2.1 Male gaze theory

Stated baldly, it’s hard to see why anyone cares about male gaze theory.  The idea is as follows: men like to look at women; womanly beauty is defined in terms of what men like to look at; the idea that womanly bodies are inherently more beautiful than manly bodies is a consequence of the fact that, until very recently, men dominated the marketplace of ideas.  Now, this rests on a number of extremely questionable assumptions (as I have discussed in my piece The Gendered Gaze), but if we set definitional worries aside for one moment, the actual thesis as stated here is trivial beyond belief.

It begins to get more interesting when we see what Laura Mulvey (who came up with the idea) does with it next.  She says that ‘gaze’ as defined has the effect of objectifying that which is gazed upon.  So when I gaze, awestruck, at (say) Carole Lombard, I am not actually thinking about Carole Lombard, but am turning her into a depersonalised body.  Well, I think that’s questionable, but it’s not too contentious as assertions go.  Unlike what comes next.  Mulvey then says that only men are capable of expressing gaze, therefore women cannot objectify men, therefore gaze establishes a power relationship, because men make women into objects, but women cannot reciprocate. 

This extraordinary statement is, of course, unsupported, as it must be, because it is unsupportable.  The idea that women are somehow prevented from forming their own notions of male beauty, and from objectifying men is simply ludicrous.  Looking at Mulvey’s own field of film, the otherwise entirely inexplicable career of Keanu Reeves is testament not only to the existence of the female gaze, but of its acknowledged power and commercial significance. 

It gets better.  In some variants of the theory, women can gaze, but they do so only by sacrificing their female nature and acting as men.  Or, in other words, a woman cannot have feelings, sexual or purely aesthetic, about the image of a man, that is if she is being true to herself.  She can only have such feelings if she compromises herself by somehow becoming like a man.  And thus, she gives in to the power of the patriarchy, by accepting their notion of having feelings based on images of others (presumably we should have feelings only for specific individuals of our acquaintance, and the whole eyes meeting across a crowded room thing is an invention of the maleocracy).

2.2 The ‘power’ theory

Now, that may have seemed pretty barking mad, but we’ve only just started.  I mentioned several times the idea that the gaze is an expression of power, so if I see a woman in the street and think ‘she looks sexy’ then I am somehow asserting my power over her (one would have thought it was the other way round, but no matter).  This concept of everyday acts carrying hidden messages of power and oppression is not unique to gaze theory.

Now, it is entirely true that unspoken, and even unthought-of, assumptions about the world can influence the way we act.  However, there is a long way from that trivial observation (notice once again, as with male gaze theory, we start from a statement of the obvious and end somewhere quite startling) to some of the assertions that we see, such as, for example, that any sexual coupling of man and woman is an expression of the power of the man over the woman (woman-on-top strikes me as a fairly strong expression of the opposite, but perhaps I’m just unusual).  This seems somewhat implausible.

In fact, this theory can metastasise in some surprising ways.  For example, in many accounts of animal homosexuality (from dolphins to ducks) commentators fall over themselves saying that these couplings are assertions of power and are not (heaven forfend) the consequences of animals other than humans finding pleasure in sexual acts with others of their own sex.  And yet these writers are often impeccably liberal.  It is all most strange.

2.3 The nurturing woman

So, as my final deduction from gaze theory, note that it follows from what I have said that a ‘natural’ woman could never, walking in the street, see a man and think ‘he looks a bit of all right’.  So woman’s sexual feelings can only be expressed, if at all, in appropriate, hallowed relationships.  But then again, if every sexual act is an assertion of power, presumably not even then.  Sexual feelings are the sole prerogative of the male, and are used by him as a means of controlling the female.

So what is the ‘natural’ woman’s lot, then?  Well the idea that by doing X women give in to male power and act as pseudo-males instead of as women, that was used in gaze theory, is actually quite popular with feminist theorists.  And somewhere the original goal of feminism – that there should be no male roles or female roles, but only people roles – has been lost and replaced with the idea that for a woman to take on a traditionally male role is to give in to the patriarchy’s expectations.  Instead she should seek out a uniquely female space.

This in itself sounds faintly worrying, and more than a little regressive, but it gets better.  For what is this uniquely female space?  Well, apparently women don’t think like men, and are more concerned with states of being rather than arguments and goals (I once heard this earnestly asserted by the composer Nicola Lefanu, whose mother, the infinitely greater composer Elizabeth Machonchy, wrote some of the most aggressive and goal-directed music I have ever heard).  And their key role, the one that truly expresses their female nature, is nurturing.

So being a woman, in this new sense, involves retreating from the world of the intellect and argument and embracing nurturing and motherhood as one’s defining features.  Am I alone in finding this faintly worrying? 

2.4 How is this different from Victorian views of womanliness?

So, what have we learned that women are incapable of having objectifying feelings (sexual or aesthetic) about men.  In fact, sexual feelings are an exclusively male thing, used to establish power over women.  And it seems that there is nothing a woman can do to establish power over men, unless she sacrifices her natural womanhood.  In addition to this, there are quite a lot of things that women are naturally incapable of.  These include most, if not all, traditionally male roles.  In particular, women, naturally, think in terms of states of being rather than rational argument, and their natural domain is that of mother and nurturer.

Okay.  Let me restate that in slightly different language.  Women are weak things, unfitted for the male world, illogical and unreasonable by nature.  Their forte is to be the wife and mother, naturally submissive to their husbands and nurturing their children.  And, of course, sexually they are a blank: sexual pleasure is for the boys.  Any woman who attempts to overturn these truths is an unnatural freak who has ceased to be truly feminine.

Right, so that re-statement was putting the ideas from the first paragraph into the mind-set of a Victorian man.  The fit is frighteningly good.  It seems that these feminist thinkers have managed to recreate the Victorian model of the pure woman, and yet convince themselves that in doing so they are striking a blow for liberation from the patriarchy.  All while saying implicitly that the patriarchy is necessary, because without it women would be, essentially, helpless.

This is pernicious nonsense.  Thus we must conclude that if the goal of feminist theorists is to establish the right of women to freedom from gender-oppression, they have failed.  If, however, their goal was to establish a theoretical framework justifying male chauvinism, they have succeeded admirably.

3 What feminism should be saying

3.1 Roles for modern women

So, let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that the original goal of feminism, to obliterate gender-based prejudice, is a worthy one.  Clearly the path of the women’s studies theorists is a dead end, so where should we look for guidance on what modern women ought to expect of society?

Now, obviously this is my opinion, that of a man who proclaims himself a feminist of the old school, before theorists discovered the narrative of victimhood and started progressively to paint women back into the corner from whence they had come.  I’m not going to say up front what my ideal for the place of women in society is; instead I’m going to let it emerge from an analysis of some archetypal female roles in search of a type for modern women.

3.2 ‘The Powerpuff Girls’ – source of all truth

And what better place to look for modern archetypes than in the doings of superheroes?  But not those tedious superheroes that are all about jiggle and joggle and making men feel warm inside.  I will look at a superhero saga where men and their opinions are largely irrelevant: The Powerpuff Girls.  And no, this isn’t a joke.  The truth is that The Powerpuff Girls presents us with a number of interesting female archetypes, and looking at them lets us see what our type should be like.

3.2.1 Not so keen on Miss Keane

Miss Keane is the teacher at the kindergarten that the Powerpuff Girls attend.  She is almost always seen in that context.  In the one episode where she actually develops a life outside of teaching, that is seen as a bad thing, and it is quickly corrected.  So, she has a strong nurturing function.  Things are not looking good.

They get worse.  In one episode we learn that she does actually have a powerful intellect, but having briefly given it free rein she quickly, and with some embarrassment, suppresses it again, and returns to her role as the good mother.  And just to make her even more a caricature of the feminist theorists’ ideal, whenever anything goes wrong she always tries to find a peaceful way out that involves everyone being nice, and preventing the Powerpuff Girls from doing the right thing (i.e. kicking butt).

Finally she is almost exaggeratedly sexless.  She is shaped like a bowling pin and always wears ill-fitting, shapeless clothes.  Almost always.  In the one episode where she acquires a life outside of her stereotypical nurturing role, it involves her (all too briefly) developing a sex-life and the change is dramatic: even her body shape changes!  But order is restored, sexuality is banished and she returns to her nurturing.

So, all in all, Miss Keane is the perfect feminist theorist woman.  She has her little space of being everyone’s mother and only very seldom ventures out of it, always retreating again as soon as possible.  Though she clearly could compete in the ‘masculine’ world of the intellect, or the complexities of realpolitik, where being nice is not always the answer, she chooses not to.  In other words, she is the perfect neo-Victorian woman, and hence is the anti-type for the truly liberated modern woman.  

3.2.2 A near miss with Miss Bellum

Miss Bellum, the Mayor of Townsville’s aide, is at first sight the total antithesis to Miss Keane.  For a start, and rather obviously, she isn’t shaped like a bowling pin, but has curves and then some.  And she is sufficiently confident about herself and her body that she positively invites the male gaze; indeed, in a neat reversal of Mulvey’s concept she objectifies men by forcing them to become mute worshippers of her splendour.

But here’s the thing: she’s not a vamp (we get to see what a successful vamp she could have been in one episode where Seduca impersonates her).  She effectively runs Townsville (the Mayor being a pickle-obsessed moron), but she doesn’t do it by seducing people into obeying her.  She does it through immense competence and efficiency.  That doesn’t mean she isn’t prepared to use sexuality as a weapon when it’s appropriate to do so, but she does it when her intelligence dictates that it is the correct approach to use.  She rules Townsville by being effective, not by being a sex-bomb.

So, have we found the desired type?  Unfortunately, not quite.  Sure, Miss Bellum is easy within her body, and confident in her sexuality, and sure she can take on men at their own game and win without sacrificing her essential self.  But there’s one problem: she is content to remain in the Mayor’s shadow.  Why is she the Mayor’s aide and not the Mayor herself?  So in spite of all the confidence and the other positives, she still falls somewhat into the traditional feminine role of subservience to a man.  Which means that she is a near miss; almost the type for women, but lacking in just that final degree of confidence that allows her to do entirely without male authority. 

As an interesting footnote, when it comes to over-sexed fan art (my old bête noire), there is, somewhat to my surprise, considerably more relating to Miss Keane than Miss Bellum.  This seems counter-intuitive, given that Miss Keane is sexless, while Miss Bellum is a goddess, but it is entirely plausible that the male ego finds Miss Bellum’s confident sexuality somewhat threatening.  Which means that in viewing Miss Keane as the anti-type and Miss Bellum as the starting-point for a type, we must be on to something.

3.2.3 The girls themselves

There are three Powerpuff Girls, which is an interestingly magical number, given that goddesses tend to come in threes.  Though each has her own personality – Blossom, the leader, is analytical, thoughtful and sometimes rather bossy; Bubbles, the airhead, is, well, an airhead, and wishes everything were nice with no need for argument, though she can be remarkably violent when roused; Buttercup, the tomboy, sees violence as the solution to everything and is, unsurprisingly, somewhat fiery-tempered – they don’t really function as individuals.  They are an eternally linked trio representing, dare I say, aspects of the type that goes to make the perfect, in their case, little girl, in our case, woman.

Looking at the girls and how they behave, one thing is immediate.  They may have been created by a man, and they may technically speaking work for a man (that pickle-obsessed Mayor again), but they  make their own decisions about what to do with the various threats that menace Townsville, and they take responsibility for the consequences of their actions.  They do not need anyone else to tell them what to do or whether it was done well.  So they represent woman as independent, self-determining individual.

And they are anything but limited.  When a group of superheroes of the traditional mould refuse to let women into their club, the girls’ response is so overwhelming that the superheroes end up asking to join their club.  Rather then avoiding the male domain as being somehow something that negates their womanhood, they effortlessly encompass it, but without, at any moment, ceasing to be women.  Because that is the thing.  They are neither jiggle-merchants nor boys in drag; they are clearly girls, quite capable of using their feminine wiles to trap unwary prey, and enjoying their femininity, while also being amazingly powerful superheroes who kick wrong-doers’ butts.

It seems that we have found our type.  One final point: the combination of analytical leader / brain  Blossom, gentle air-head / heart Bubbles and tempestuous fighter / body Buttercup creates a perfectly rounded assemblage not of feminine traits, but of human traits.   They are truly everywoman, a primal type for woman able to stand on her own two feet.

3.3 So now what?

So, what have we done?  We’ve seen that feminist theorists, seemingly without realising it, in their haste to divorce themselves from the patriarchy actually end up ceding to it all of the space that it traditionally denied women anyway, and so end up worse off than pre-feminist women, who at least didn’t have their own supposed leaders telling them that they could hope for nothing better.  

The idea that lies at the root of this catastrophic retreat is that terribly tempting, but terribly dangerous notion: the narrative of victimhood.  If one makes oneself a victim, then one automatically cedes ground to the victimiser, and so, even if one does not realise it, ends up doing his work for him.  But it is, of course, easier to submit, and loudly complain about having to do so, than to take the only positive approach to being a victim and resist, intent on achieving a relationship with no victor or victim.

So, if women are not to simply re-live the Victorian hell, it is necessary to say farewell to the narrative of victimhood, comforting though it may be.  Miss Keane is a victim pure and simple.  Miss Bellum has fought back, but gave way in the crucial final battle.  The Powerpuff Girls seemingly didn’t even realise that there was a battle to be fought, and blithely treat the world as their own.  And that is the role model, I humbly suggest, that women today should try to emulate, and not Mulvey’s cringing, unempowered, sexless objects of male desire. 

 

The Gendered Gaze

Fifty years ago I put on pants and walked the middle road

Katharine Hepburn

Introduction

This essay is by way of being a reaction to MaryAnn Johanson’s definition of a female gaze analogous to the ‘male gaze‘ of film theory.  Johanson’s approach is a valuable step towards a more generally applicable theory, but her current definition inherits from  ‘male gaze’ theory a somewhat essentialist view of human gender. The problem lies in the implicit assumption that people can be categorised as being ‘male’ or ‘female’. Indeed, it is not even clear what those terms mean. I will argue that there are at least two independent factors that contribute to a person’s appreciation of images of other people, and that both of these are insusceptible to rigid categorisation.  This means that in addition to the ‘male gaze’ and ‘female gaze’ (both of which are now approximations) there is an ‘in-between gaze’.

It could be argument that my approach (which takes in Jungian depth psychology, probability theory, epistemology and some deftly hidden analytic topology) is using an intellectual sledgehammer to smash a nut whose contents are well-known.  Maybe so.  But I, at least, find it satisfying to understand precisely what are the assumptions on which such obvious conclusions rest, and to see the steps in the argument leading to them set out with great care.

Note that my purpose in this essay is to examine the definitional issues relating to gendered gaze theories.  I do not discuss the function of the gaze in defining gender roles, partly because that is a very complex topic, partly because until we actually know what the gendered gaze is such a discussion is pointless.  Therefore this essay attempts to place the concept of ‘gaze’ on a sound footing, as a preliminary to an analysis of its wider cultural ramifications.

Conclusions

I state my conclusions here, for those who are prepared to take the argument on trust.

  1. When treating people en masse, we can speak only of instinctive preferences, as opposed to intellectually motivated preferences. So I might really be homosexual, but pretend to be heterosexual because of societal pressure. Intellectually motivated preferences are too complex for our discussion, as they have to be treated on a case-by-case basis, whereas instinctive preferences, being simpler, are susceptible to generalised arguments.

  2. Gender and sexuality cannot be treated as simple dichotomies. People are predominantly-homosexual, predominantly-heterosexual or of mixed orientation, while being predominantly-masculine, predominantly-feminine or of mixed gender. No combination of gender and sexuality is forbidden (though not all  need be equally likely).

  3. Sexual attraction is based on an individual’s gender and sexuality, but not their sex. This is, on consideration, obvious, because what matters is not what sex one is, but what sex one thinks one is. It leads to some rather startling conclusions, such as that a feminine homosexual man will prefer women as sex-partners, and so appear like a masculine heterosexual man.

  4. We can derive a precise quantitative probabilistic model for an individual’s sexual preference, based on their gender and sexuality. In terms of qualitative models, we can choose between a nine-fold typology, a five-fold typology or a three-fold typology, depending on how much detail we want to capture from the underlying quantitative model. Again, classification into a simple ‘male’ / ‘female’ dichotomy is impossible.

  5. For our purposes the three-fold typology is sufficient: predominantly man-preferring (which includes, but is not limited to, the traditional ‘female’ category), predominantly woman-preferring (which includes, but is not limited to, the traditional ‘male’ category) and mixed-preference (which is new). The sexual reaction to images of other people will be reasonably predictable for individuals in the first two classes (so if I was predominantly woman-preferring, I would respond appreciatively to images of beautiful women and only minimally to images of beautiful men). The interesting class is mixed-preference: the reactions of people in this class are essentially unpredictable.

  6. Aesthetic preferences may be more or less correlated with sexual preferences, but remain distinct because they are influenced by culture and learned taste rather than instinctive reactions. Therefore there is little of a general nature to be about aesthetic preferences.

  7. Given that all of us (barring a vanishingly small number of extreme cases) are constituted of both male and female parts, though it is not true that one sex’s body is more desirable than the other’s, it is plausible that there should exist universal standards for what make a man or woman attractive (in Jungian terms, these would exist within the collective unconscious).

A note on terminology

Throughout this essay I shall use the words man and woman and their adjectival forms manly and womanly to denote the biological sexes. So I take ‘man’ to denote an individual with a Y-chromosome, and ‘woman’ to denote an individual without. I am aware that there are a small number of confusing cases where biological sex is unclear: double-X men, XY-women, hermaphrodites and other liminal cases; however, this is a complication that adds little to the argument, so let us make, for now, this simplifying assumption (which, after all, works over 90% of the time).

I shall use the words male and female and their adjectival forms masculine and feminine to denote genders, which reflect the psychology of the individual rather than their anatomy. I shall argue below that gender and sex are essentially independent, so it is perfectly possible to be a feminine man, for example (this is what I would expect to be the initial state of a man-to-woman transexual).

I shall use the words homosexual and heterosexual with their familiar formal meanings, with the attraction based on sex and not gender. So a homosexual is one who feels sexual desire for individuals of the same sex, while a heterosexual is one who feels sexual desire for individuals of the other sex. So sexuality is taken as being about attraction to types of body, not societal roles. I will (apart from within this sentence) not use the word bisexual, as part of my argument will render it essentially unnecessary.

In contexts where it is clear that some kind of sex/gender-related meaning is intended, but it is not clear what the explicit intention of the originator of the concept under discussion was, I shall use the words ‘male’ and ‘female’ with scare-quotes. I apologise if this becomes tedious, but unfortunately we have too few words with which to describe complex concepts (after all, the mere idea that sex and gender are not identical is relatively recent), and precision is a crucial part of my argument.

Finally, when I say two attributes of a collection of things are independent I mean that all possible combinations of values of the two attributes occur in the collection: there are no ‘forbidden’ combinations. This does not mean that there is no correlation between the attributes, in the sense that certain combinations may be more or less common. I am concerned not with how oftencombinations occur, but with whether they can occur at all.

Possibility and actuality

In the definition of independence I said I was concerned with whether states can occur, not how often they occur. In my analysis of sex, gender and sexuality I will be concerned with possibility: what combinations of these variables can occur and which are forbidden. So when I say that a particular value or combination can exist I am not saying I can point to a thing with that combination of attributes. I am saying that there is a non-zero probability of such a thing existing; its existence is not forbidden.

Thus, later on I will demonstrate that all possible gender mixes between the two extremes of pure masculinity and pure femininity can exist, and similarly for sexuality, and for combinations of gender and sexuality. This does not mean that there are living today, or have ever lived, exemplars of each possible mix or combination, but rather that there is no mechanism inherent in human biology or psychology that prevents such a mix or combination from being realised. This point is absolutely crucial, as it allows the use of thought experiments to consider possible cases that, so long as they are psychologically plausible, can be said to be realisable, if not realised.

Understanding the problem

Gendered gaze theory

The original theory of the ‘male gaze’ is an attempt to explain the over-representation of women in visual art. The thesis is that essentially this is because prior to the twentieth century the majority of art patrons and artists were men, and that though some of them may well have been homosexual, societal disapproval would force them to give the appearance of being heterosexual. Heterosexual men prefer looking at women it is asserted (though I question whether this is automatically true), so we see many beautiful women in visual art, but few beautiful men (the obvious exception is in Carravagio’s work, but he is unusual as an artist in so many ways that he does not constitute a significant counterexample). Such well-known women artists as Elizabeth Vigee Lebrun painted beautiful women because by the time a woman could actually make a living as a painter, the convention that beauty was a property of the womanly body alone was deeply ingrained.

And so art-theorists who argue that it is true that womanly bodies really are more beautiful than manly, or somehow have aesthetic properties that those of men do not are reflecting societal pressure. Indeed, it is rather startling that in so subjective a field as aesthetics anyone would even begin to think they could assert that any position taken was more than opinion: the mere fact that some appear to argue for the aesthetic primacy of the womanly body as some form of natural law should be a warning sign that something strange is happening. And similarly, women who allow themselves to be convinced that beauty is theirs alone are reflecting centuries of indoctrination by a heterosexual-man-dominated society.

Thus the basic ‘male gaze’ theory. Johanson’s proposal is that, as we no longer (at least ostensibly) have a heterosexual-man-dominated society, the time has come to reclaim the beauty of the manly body, and so in addition to the woman-preferring ‘male gaze’, there should be a man-preferring ‘female gaze‘.

Problems with the theory

I have placed scare-quotes around the expressions ‘male gaze’ and ‘female gaze’ as it is not clear what the words ‘male’ and ‘female’ mean within this context. Some obvious problems are as follows:

  • Is the ‘male gaze’ the property of heterosexual men or heterosexual males? Or both? (and mutatis mutandis for the ‘female gaze’)

  • Do homosexual women count as being ‘male’ for the purposes of the theory? (and mutatis mutandis for ‘female’)

  • Is it really the case that each of us find pleasure in contemplation of a particular sex’s body based on being ‘male’ or ‘female’?

  • Is it really possible to produce a simple classification of people as ‘male’ or ‘female’?

Technical background material

The sorites paradox

The sorites paradox has been a rich source of philosophical debate for millennia, so I do not pretend to give an exhaustive discussion (no such could be possible). I shall merely state what I need.

The paradox is most simply explained through an example. Say I have a rectangular strip which is red at one end and blue at the other with a continuous modulation from one colour to the other in between. It might look like this:

gradient

I now have three facts:

  1. One end is red.

  2. The other end is blue.

  3. If I start at any point on the strip and move a very small but non-zero distance in either direction, the colour does not change (in terms of what we call it).

So we get a paradox: start at the red end. Step along the strip using steps small enough for fact 3 to be true. Eventually you reach the other end, so red = blue. Contradiction. So at some point fact 3 must have failed, but the problem is that any attempt to define precisely where that is results in nonsense, because wouldn’t the points just to the left or right do equally well, in which case we are off again, and get another contradiction.

This example actually repays further study. At each of the two ends of the strip there is a region in which the colour is clear: close enough to the left-hand end it is clearly red, and close enough to the right-hand end it is clearly blue. It’s what happens in between that’s interesting, because about half-way along the strip is purple: neither red nor blue. So there is no systematic way of saying whether the colour is red or blue: there is no hard and fast dividing line (which this example makes happily self-evident).

There are many ways of resolving this paradox. I will present the one that I find most convincing, because (a) it is conceptually simple, (b) it is highly intuitive, and (c) it is consistent with what I believe to be the correct resolution, but as that requires three-valued logic it would take us too far afield (those interested in the details should see Understanding Truth by Scott Soames). However some philosophers (e.g. Roy Sorensen) reject this resolution’s consequence that a sorites problem inevitably leads to radical unknowability.

The resolution is as follows. Imagine a group of people looking at the strip independently. Each of them sees an indisputably red region and an indisputably blue region. Moreover each can assign some point they consider to be the best choice for the dividing line between blue and red (or at least a region within which they believe such a point should lie). Now consider the consensus view. They all agree that a region near one end is definitely red, and another region near the other end is definitely blue. They will not agree on the position of the dividing line (or region). So, on consensus, there is an indisputably red region, an indisputably blue region and a debatable region where there is no systematic way of assigning a colour.

So after this argument we want to take away two basic ideas:

The sorites problem

Say we have a collection (finite or infinite) of things (points on the strip in the example) such that:

  • The things can be assigned a property within some range (so in our example this property is colour).

  • A way of assigning one of two kinds to a value in the property’s range, such that values at one end of the range are of the first kind, while those at the other end are of the second (so in the example, this looks at the colour of a point and says whether it is red [at one end] or blue [at the other]).

  • Sufficiently close values have the same kind; so things with sufficiently similar properties have the same kind (this is just fact 3 from above).

Call this a sorites problem. Given a sorites problem, entities can be categorised as follows:

  • For each of the two kinds there is a region of certainty, consisting of things to which we can definitely assign that kind.

  • All other things belong to a region of uncertainty, where there is no systematic way of assigning a kind; the best one can do is to assign kinds on a case-by-case basis.

So in the example, the parts of strip near the two ends are the regions of certainty for red and blue, while the purplish area in the middle is the region of uncertainty.

The strong sorites argument

Now suppose we have a sorites problem, such that:

  • The things in the population have a population of things with a property, and a way of classifying them into one of two kinds based on that property,

  • It is provable that small changes in the value of the property never change the classification,

so fact 3 never breaks down, as we forced it to in the discussion of the paradox above. Then, based on our initial discussion of the sorites paradox, it is easy to see that:

  • If one thing in the population is of a kind, then all things in the population are of that kind.

I call this the strong sorites argument.  The crucial difference from the sorites paradox is that resolution of the paradox forces fact 3 to break down, whereas now we are forcing it to be universally true.

It can be quite hard to find categorisations into kinds for which fact 3 never breaks down. In fact we will only use one categorisation: ‘can exist’ and ‘cannot exist’. Unlike the kinds that leads to sorites paradoxes, this knows no middle ground (ignoring some rather complex epistemological issues that would enormously complicate the argument without noticeably adding to it), so we can be confident in asserting that, for it, fact 3 is true everywhere.

Jungian gender theory

Jung’s analytic psychology is interesting in that he does not take an essential view of gender. So rather than asserting that, for example, all women are purely feminine, he asserts that each of us has both masculine and feminine components, the balance of which determines our gender. This is in marked contrast to the essential quality of sex and gender asserted by other psychological theories.

To simplify the discussion of the theory, I will assume that my subject is a woman. So a woman’s conscious mind is dominated by a female component. However, there is a key aspect of her psyche which is her male component: her animus. This is part of her subconscious mind, but depending on its development it may have a greater or lesser influence on her conscious mind, thus creating a greater or lesser masculine component of her personality. So a woman can range from being almost purely female (undeveloped, and hence wholly unconscious animus) to being predominantly male (overdeveloped animus). This whole discussion goes through mutatis mutandis for men, with sex and gender terms interchanged and replacing animus with anima.

Finally, a quick note on individuation. Individuation is the process of psychological integration that the psyche undergoes through an individual’s life, resulting in a fully developed personality, resulting in a distinct and well-defined individual. The development of the unconscious gender component referred to above is one part of this process.

Analysis 1 : sex, gender, sexuality

In this section I start the analysis by examining the notions of sex, gender and sexuality and their relations to one another. The key results are:

  • That rather than the simple dichotomies used in popular discourse – male, female; homosexual, heterosexual – both gender and sexuality are continua (in the sense that no state lying between the two extremes is impossible to realise), with some individuals being clearly defined as being of one kind or the other, while others are simply a mixture. So there are three types: predominantly at one extreme, predominantly at the other and mixed.

  • That sex, gender and sexuality are independent (in the sense defined above), so no possible combination is forbidden.

Psychological variables are continuous

My argument depends critically on one hypothesis:

  • If I can find an individual for whom a psychological variable (e.g. gender, sexuality) takes a specific value, then nearby values of the variable can be realised by individuals in the population (albeit possibly with very low probability).

(Recall that can implies possibility – that it is not impossible – rather than that such individuals actually exist). Rephrasing the hypothesis less formally: the ranges of psychological variables are (in some sense) ‘smeared’.

To see why this is a plausible assumption, say it is not true. If I know an individual who is assigned the value 90%, what could happen is either:

  1. Values on either side of 90% can occur, which is consistent with the hypothesis.

  2. The variable can take values close to and greater than 90%, but none in a range just below 90%. This means that there is a hard edge at 90%, so the entire population exists either above 90% or some way below it.

  3. The value at 90% is isolated, so individuals are either assigned the value 90%, or a value some non-zero distance away from 90%.

Cases 2 and 3 are those incompatible with the hypothesis. Such hard edges and precise values do not occur in psychology, where behaviour is never hard-edged or precise. Small changes in the structure of the psyche are endemic. As a thought experiment, I can perturb an individual’s psyche slightly to achieve the required small change in the selected variable. As the result is a possible human psyche, there must be a non-zero probability of it existing in the population.

Looking at the specific cases I am interested in, it is intuitively obvious that if an individual can be homosexual 90% of the time, then it is not impossible for an individual to be homosexual 89.9% of the time, because that requires only a tiny change in the individual’s behaviour. Similarly, if my anima is so developed that I an 70% feminine, then at some point it must have been slightly less developed, meaning that I would have been 69.9% feminine, and if I developed it a bit more then I could be 70.1% feminine.

Therefore the contradictory scenario is extremely implausible, which means that my hypothesis is extremely plausible. Call it the continuity hypothesis. It allows us to apply sorites-type arguments to gender and sexuality.

Gender and sexuality are not simple dichotomies

The method of attack is to show that gender and sexuality are sorites problems, so each results in a classification into two predominantly pure types and a mixed type.

Gender

It follows from Jungian gender theory as described above that an individual’s gender falls within a range, with fully-male at one end and fully-female at the other. An individual’s position on the range is determined by the degree of development of the unconscious gender component (I write this being, as I am, a strongly feminine man). Assigning an individual a label male or female and using the continuity hypothesis gives rise to a sorites problem, and so by applying the sorites paradox we get three gender classes: predominantly-malepredominantly-female and mixed-gender.

Sexuality

Unfortunately, there is no good equivalent to Jungian gender theory for sexuality, so I shall have to use a longer elementary argument. The existence of people of homosexual and heterosexual inclination is a given. And, though there seem to be trends in certain circles to adopt the essentialist view that one is either homosexual or heterosexual, and there can be nothing between (see, for example, Mann’s biography of Katharine Hepburn, which seems to argue that as Hepburn had very strong loving relationships with women, her well-documented relationships with men were somehow not real; see also attempts to label Virginia Woolf as a pure lesbian, which end up having to deny that she loved Leonard Woolf, rather contrary to observed fact), it is not hard to think of examples, numerous examples, of people who inhabit the region in between: predominant heterosexuals who nonetheless have homosexual affairs, predominant homosexuals who nonetheless have heterosexual affairs, and individuals who take part, to a greater or lesser extent, in both orientations.

Having established that sexuality is not a binary opposition, but that there exist states in between, concluding that there is a continuum of possible states is relatively simple. It would be nonsensical to assume that all the individuals who spend most of the time in one orientation spend exactly the same amount of time in the other, so we have a blurred region starting at 0% which contains people, and another ending at 100% homosexual. Likewise it would be nonsensical to assume that all ‘in between’ individuals are precisely 50% homosexual, or even that they all share same value, so there is another blurred region around 50%. So we have something like this (where orientation changes from homosexual to heterosexual as one moves across the page):

Now, one could model human sexuality as consisting essentially of polar opposites, with a certain amount of deviation due to psychological factors (experimentation, deliberate transgressive acts, simple human cussedness, etc), but is hard to find any plausible model that allows two polar opposites and a mixed region in the middle but nothing in between.

So, let us set up a sorites problem. At one end we have 0% homosexual, a neighbourhood of which we know is populated. At the other end we have 100% homosexual, a neighbourhood of which we know is populated. Now let the categorisation into kinds be ‘can exist in the population’ and ‘cannot exist in the population’ as applied to points in between these extremes. By the continuity hypothesis, small changes in the value of the parameter ‘how homosexual is an individual’ do not change the property of existence, so we can apply the strong sorites argument to fill in the gaps. So I conclude that sexual orientation is a continuum.

Classifying people into kinds as homosexual or heterosexual and using the continuity hypothesis again gives rise to a sorites problem, and here the classification is not obviously always valid (which we know, because of the debatable middle region), so we end up with three regions: predominantly-homosexualpredominantly-heterosexual and mixed sexuality.

Sex, gender and sexuality are independent

I want to show that the three attributes sex, gender and sexuality are independent. To simplify the discussion I will start by showing that this is true of all three pairs of attributes, and then use this to deduce independence for the triad.

Sex and gender are independent

It follows from Jungian gender theory that gender is largely independent of sex, and may even change over time, as the individuation process proceeds. In many cases the subconscious gender component will be undeveloped, either through lack of self-awareness, or due to societal pressures to conform to stereotyped sex-specific behaviours. This is undoubtedly the reason why it took until the twentieth century for it to be fully understood that the gender that one thinks one is is not necessarily the same as ones sex. As examples consider people who decide to undergo gender reassignment (ignoring, as I said earlier, the small number of cases of people whose biological sex is confused): I would argue that these are individuals whose unconscious gender component (so the anima in a man) is so strongly developed that they simply cannot identify with their bodies, and so feel compelled to change their sex to the one that fits their self-identification.

Sex and sexuality are independent

That sexuality and sex are independent is trivial: homosexual preferences are not the prerogative of one sex, and neither are heterosexual preferences.

Gender and sexuality are independent

The independence of gender and sexuality, while non-trivial, is also relatively simple to prove from direct observation (so there is no need to rely on analytical psychology). At the homosexual end of the spectrum there are the well-known butch and femme gender roles. At the heterosexual end there are both masculine and feminine individuals. If we imagine gender and sexuality as being set out as the axes of a square, this gives us the four corners.

I want to apply the strong sorites argument with the categorisation into kinds ‘can exist in the population’ and ‘cannot exist in the population’. Using the continuity hypothesis, I can apply the strong sorites argument, so all combinations are possible.

Note, as a final critical point that the basis of this argument, i.e. the existence of male-ish and female-ish individuals near both ends of the sexuality spectrum is independent of sex. There are butch and femme lesbians and gay men, and there are masculine and feminine heterosexuals of either sex. Thus the whole gender / sexuality spectrum exists independently for each sex.

Sex, gender and sexuality and independent

Pick a sex. For that sex we have shown that all possible genders and sexualities can exist. Moreover, we have shown that all possible combinations of gender and sexuality can occur in that sex. Repeat the argument for the other sex. Independence is now demonstrated.

Analysis 2: sexual & aesthetic preferences

Finally we reach the core of the essay: the discussion of how sex, gender and sexuality effect aesthetic preferences in terms of to bodies of which sex(es) is an individual attracted aesthetically. The argument proceeds in two stages. First I tackle the (relatively) tractable problem of determining how these three variables influencesexual preferences, i.e. to bodies of which sex(es) is the individual attracted sexually. This done, second I turn to the much more complex question of aesthetic attraction; complex because (as I will show below), though many theorists (including those who formulated the original ‘male gaze’ theory) treat sexual and aesthetic attraction as if they are identical, they are not. They are very similar, but it is possible to have sexual feelings for a person one finds unattractive, and to find attractive a person towards whom one has no sexual feelings.

Throughout this discussion I deal with what one might call instinctive preferences, that is to say those determined by the structure of an individual’s psyche. There are, however, also conscious preferences: an individual may decide, consciously, to find a particular body beautiful despite not being naturally drawn to it (this, after all, is how fashion works), or that, for entirely rational reasons, they should make another individual their sex-partner (e.g. arranged marriages). As conscious preferences involve intellectual decisions, I cannot speak of them within my framework, which works in terms of the unconscious mind, and so, bearing Wittgenstein’s dictum in mind, of them I shall remain silent. Therefore, note that all of the following discussion relates only to instinctive preferences.

Sexual attraction

Which factors are relevant to sexual attraction?

Sexual attraction is an expression of desire to have sexual relations with an individual, and desire is a psychological state. Thus the sexes of the individuals to whom I am attracted will be determined by the structure of my psyche. As such it can depend directly on psychological variables, but only indirectly on physiological factors like sex. By which I mean that physiological factors may contribute to psychological variables (e.g. via the action of hormones on the brain), but these psychological variables will not be determined solely by physiological factors. As we see with even the most basic of physiologically driven psychological variables – pain – other psychological factors can modify and even over-ride the physiological factor. Thus rather than working with (potentially) relevant physiological factors, we should identify the relevant psychological variables. Therefore, provided we understand which relevant psychological variables it influences, we can remove sex from the equation (for the moment).

Start with the two variables discussed at length above. Obviously gender is influenced by sex: as an individual’s gender is how they themselves identify their sex, sex is bound to be a contributing factor, even though other factors can, and do, over-ride it. As for sexuality, there is some evidence that homosexuality is slightly more prevalent among men than women, but given that we have shown that any attempt to categorise people as either homosexual or heterosexual is doomed to fail, it is not clear how much credence would should place in this. However, using the principle of charity, let us accept that there is a weak dependency of sexuality on sex.

We leave for future study the question of whether any other psychological variables impact on sexual preference. A model based on gender and sexuality is sufficient for our purposes.

How is sexual attraction determined?

The naive answer to this is that sex plus sexuality determine the sex(es) to which an individual is attracted. This view is inherent in the ‘male gaze’ theory’s assertion that art disproportionately represents female bodies to cater to the desires of heterosexual men. However, we have seen that sexual desire is a psychological construct. Psychologically, an individual’s ‘sex’ is determined not by their actual physiological sex, but by the sex that they conceive of themselves as being, that is their gender. Thus it is surely more correct to say thatgender plus sexuality determine the sex(es) to which an individual is attracted.

Let us explore some consequences of this by looking at extreme cases (reintroducing sex as a factor to make the consequences of the hypothesis more concrete):

  1. A purely masculine heterosexual man.  This individual will be sexually attracted exclusively to women, and so forms the traditional ‘male’ stereotype, as per the ‘male gaze’.
  2. A purely feminine heterosexual man. This is more interesting, as the individual will be attracted exclusively to men despite being heterosexual. Two outcomes are possible: the individual is a transexual and reassigned as a femme straight woman, or the individual becomes a femme gay man.
  3. A purely masculine homosexual man. This individual will be sexually attracted exclusively to men, and so will be a stereotypical butch gay man.
  4. A purely feminine homosexual man. This individual will be sexually attracted exclusively to women, and so will appear, to all intents and purposes to be a femme straight man. However, as the conflict of body with gender will most likely lead to psychological unease, a more likely outcome is transgendering, with reassignment as a femme lesbian woman.

Examples are all for a man purely for reference (not because of any preference); for a woman interchange genders mutatis mutandis. It can be seen that as we look at both sexes, all eight combinations of butch / femme + straight / gay + man / woman occur. In particular, the treatment of transgender is very comprehensive.

This is rather interesting, as it implies that apparent sexuality need not always be the same as intrinsic sexuality: apparent sexuality is the result of a combination of intrinsic sexuality with gender. This is because sexuality is about attraction to bodies, i.e. sexes, whereas the thing that determines which bodies that sexually attracts one to is not one’s sex but one’s psychological sex, i.e. gender.

To reiterate, the reason this seems counter-intuitive, or even just plain wrong, is that we tend to assume that bodies attract bodies. But in fact, bodies attract minds, and minds need not necessarily consider themselves to be of the same ‘sex’ as the body they inhabit. Once this is accepted, the surprising, but, on a second look rather compelling, outcomes described above arise. And the more convincing seems my model:

preferred sexsexual orientation applied to gender

Classifying types of preference

A quantitative analysis of the influence of gender and sexuality on preference arrives at the following result. If an individual is masculine with probability g and homosexual with probability s, then the probability of their being attracted to the two sexes is:

Attracted to men with probability = 1 + 2gs – g – s

Attracted to women with probability = g + s – 2gs

The derivation of these results can be seen easily from the following figure:

Interpreting the mathematics, we deduce the following:

  • At the extremes of the ranges (so g and s are both equal to 0 or 1) we get ‘normal’, i.e. exclusive, homosexual or heterosexual behaviour.

  • Along the four edges (i.e. where one of the two variables is equal to 0 or 1) the formulae give probability of attraction equal to the other variable or 1 minus the other variable (this is to be expected, given our analysis or exclusive cases above, where we showed that flipping either sexuality or gender reversed preferences). So on the edges, preference is defined by only one variable.

  • If g is equal to one-half, then in both formulae the resulting probability is one-half, irrespective of sexuality. Similarly, ifs is one-half, then in both formulae the resulting probability is one-half, independent of gender. So if either gender or sexuality is (close to) evenly balanced, the individual’s preferences will be entirely unpredictable.

In the four ‘in-between’ regions the probabilities interpolate between these values, the interpolation taking the form of parabolic curves. This can all be visualised as follows (the graph shows the probability of attraction to women):

Thus we conclude that there are nine regions in total:

  • Four regions close to the corners, where both gender and sexuality are exclusive, so preference is exclusive. These can be labelled predominantly-man-preferring and predominantly-woman-preferring regions.

  • A region where one or both of gender and sexuality is close to being equally balanced between the two extremes. This is the region of mixed-preference, where we can say nothing at all about the preference of individuals falling within it.

  • Four regions of approximate-preference, where the preference is predominantly for one sex, but with an admixture of the other. They can be described as falling into two classes: approximately-man-preferring and approximately-woman-preferring.

So there is a five-fold typology:

  1. Predominantly-man-preferring
  2. Approximately-man-preferring
  3. Predominantly-woman-preferring
  4. Approximately-woman-preferring
  5. Mixed-preference

This is illustrated as follows:

So what do we do with all this? There seem to be three approaches:

  • Keep full generality and use the underlying quantitative model given by the probabilities. This is very useful for detailed studies, but not for the relatively coarse-grained work we are interested in: there is little point in defining a ‘43% male, 37% homosexual gaze’!

  • Adopt a five-fold typology: predominantly-man-preferring, predominantly-woman-preferring, approximately-man-preferring, approximately-woman-preferring and mixed-preference. This complicates things somewhat, but it has the merit of being the best qualitative representation of the underlying quantitativemodel.

  • Merge approximately-man-preferring with predominantly-man-preferring, merge approximately-woman-preferring with predominantly-woman-preferring, thus obtaining a three-fold typology: predominantly-man-preferringpredominantly-woman-preferringmixed-preference. This trades off accuracy against simplicity.

We adopt the third approach, as it is all that we need for gendered gaze theory. However, it is recommended that subsequent work investigate the full five-fold typology (or, better still, the underlying quantitative model).

Aesthetic attraction

As soon as we try to switch from looking at sexual attraction to aesthetic attraction problems arise. Naively one might believe the two to be strongly related, but that isn’t the case. Yes, there is a relationship, but a little thought can show that it is possible to be sexually attracted to individuals who one does not consider beautiful (the sexiest woman I have known was not remotely beautiful, and yet the sexual allure she generated was enormous) and to consider beautiful individuals who we do not consider sexually attractive is equally possible (I find Virginia Woolf beautiful but absolutely un-sexy). So what can we do?

This problem is symptomatic of the point I made above distinguishing instinctive and conscious preferences. Sexual preference is overwhelmingly instinctive: we know when we are attracted to an individual because our bodies respond without our appearing to tell them to do anything of the sort. Aesthetics, almost by their very nature involves conscious preferences. Aesthetic values are undoubtedly, at root, based on sexual preference (so if one could find a naive individual, who had had no cultural contact with other individuals they would desire those they found attractive and vice versa), but overlaid on that are the very powerful input of culture and deliberately learned taste. We even speak of things as ‘acquired tastes’, meaning that they are learned. So, for example, I find Francis Bacon’s horrifyingly distorted figures beautiful, because I have cultivated a taste that allows me to do so. Overall, this is perhaps not surprising in view of the much-commented-on fact that the current ‘desirable’ shape for women in western culture seems to be completely at odds with the kind of womanly shape that is sexually desirable.

What this means is that there is no way that the theory developed above can be extended from sexual to aesthetic preferences, as any model for the latter involves not just modelling the (relatively) simple unconscious mind, but potentially all of the conscious mind. The best we can do is to say that there is some (strength unknown) correlation between sexual and aesthetic preference. Therefore gendered gaze theory can be stated as follows:

Gendered gaze theory

Individuals can be categorised based on their sexual attraction to other individuals as follows:

 

  • Predominantly-man-preferring

  • Predominantly-woman-preferring

  • Mixed-preference

Which class an individual falls into depends on their gender and sexuality in a relatively complex, but understood, way. There is a statistical correlation between the sex of figures appearing in art-works created by an individual and which of these classes the individual falls into. The strength of the correlation will vary from individual to individual.

It is hardly surprising to find that this is a much more circumspect conclusion than that made by the theorists of the ‘male gaze’. This may seem like a defeat, but is cannot be entirely negative to replace an over-confident assertion with one that is more nuanced.

Whither the movies?

Introduction

After my recent exhaustive excursion into the depths of unknowability, I thought it would be a good idea to relax a little, but at the same time to attempt a summation of the thinking in my most recent essays about film.  In brief, they have established that, starting in the latter part of the twentieth century and gaining momentum in the twenty-first, there has been a distinct shift in mainstream cinema.  I have said quite a lot about the nature of the change, and made some suggestions as to why it may have come about, but have said little about the mechanism that is driving its acceleration, or (beyond some rather alarmist speculation) considered much what is likely to be the end-state of this process.

So, that is what this essay is about.  I intend to gather together the strands from my recent pieces in order to extract their key unifying features, so as to get at the basic nature of the change process.  Then, I have analysed causes but never mechanisms, so I want to examine the process that can have brought the change about.  I will propose a model for this.  Then, based on the proposed model, I will examine what is likely to happen.  It turns out that there are basically two possibilities, one catastrophic and the other static, but in either case, though I was somewhat excessive in claiming in The Male Gaze Gone Wrong that a barrier to communication and comprehension would inevitably form between the mainstream audience and the non-mainstream, things will probably be nearly as bad.

Why I am writing this?  Partly for the sake of clarifying my thinking, but also because a lot of rubbish is talked about the change in film.  Commentator after commentator pins the blame squarely on the studio bosses, who are said to care only about money.  But that’s the thing: they do care about money.  If there was more money to be made in producing films like Secretary than films like Transformers, then people who care only about money would be producing intelligent, witty films by the bucketload.  But the thing that we have to face is, it is more profitable to make films like Transformers because they are what the mainstream audience wants to see.  In fact, the true situation is that there is a complex interaction between the studios and the mainstream audience, a folie a deux if you like, and it is that interaction that I want to analyse.

Background

In The Tyranny of Realism, I established that starting in the latter half of the twentieth century, there has been a shift in mainstream cinema away from the creation of provocative visual effect and towards grand guignol spectacle.  It has been suggested that this is a side-effect of the increased audience-base for movies, which has expanded to include those from many cultures.  I reject this argument, first because it is unduly simplistic, second because it is so patronising as to verge on suprematism, third because its logic implies that I (as a Briton) should be unable to appreciate films like, say, Valerie and her Week of Wonders, and fourth because I showed quite conclusively in The ‘Other’ in Culture that such cross-cultural barriers to comprehension do not, in fact, exist (at least, within one species).  Let me rehearse what I consider to be the correct analysis.  There are some putative causes and (promisingly) a suggestion of a process:

  1. With the increased emphasis on the individual, as opposed to society, starting after the Second World War, came a fear of any experience or activity that might threaten the self.  This can include quite legitimate fear of threats such as the totalitarian urge to collectivism, but it has the negative of rejecting enhancing experiences that threaten the self by promising to reshape it.  In particular, this translates into a fear of transcendance, and hence avoidance of the complex artistic effects that cause it.
  2. There has been a general move away from the challenging to the easy, which can be seen as being a move from challenging oneself and ones preconceptions to having them gently reinforced, and so is just another aspect of the move to protect the unstable self from threats to its equanimity and smooth over its instabilities.  In the wider culture we see this as part of the general confusion of the simple and the simplistic, leading to the extraordinary situation where a book called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten is not a satire. 
  3. I made the observation that if your concern is with the bottom line, then you want to be able to predict whether a film will make lots of money (i.e. fill lots of seats) before green-lighting it.  And the way to have predictable returns is to have a predictable effect on audiences.  Which means that you want to short-cut all the nasty, complex, sophisticated machinery that makes up the upper part of the human psyche and go for the reptile within, with its concern for the four Fs.  So subtlety is out and spectacle is in.  And people flock to see if because it gives an easy emotional ride, with exhilarating release of hormones, but without any troubling questions.

  So we see a move towards a preference for simple sensation, dare I say gratification, as opposed to more complex, and potentially troubling emotions.  A nice piece of evidence supporting this is the massive shift in the horror genre over the same period.  We move from a theatre of suggestion and suspense, where terror can be found in a shadow or an otherwise everyday misplaced item, which was briefly and honourably sustained for a while by the Hammer horror series, and still exists in isolated non-mainstream films (Shadow of the Vampire – simultaneously a horror movie and a deconstruction of horror movies – or The Others), to the crapulence of Hostel, Saw and (heaven preserve us) The Human Centipede where all we find is grotesque acts of physical violence.  But this is consistent with my thesis: seeings others dismembered or tortured gives a thrill but it also makes you feel good, because the bad things can only happen in the private world of the movie; the genius of the older, suggestive horror is that it leaves the viewer uneasy, for the world could go wrong in exactly the same way outside of the film.  So once again we move from challenge to affirmation.

This was a theme I took up in Less is More and The Male Gaze Gone Wrong, here looking at the issue of eroticism, and its portrayal in the movies.  Looking at the portrayal of female eroticism, we again see a shift from the complex to the very simple.  So we progress from actresses who were beautiful, indeed sexy, and yet could dominate the screen by virtue of their acting and character, and who were given roles to match, to actresses who seem all but interchangeable, and an increasingly powerful emphasis on their bodies, indeed, on everything below the neck, as if the woman herself doesn’t matter, let alone her ability as an actress: it sometimes seems that actresses exist purely as carriers for surgically exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics.  In other words, we have replaced the sensibility of glamour with that of pornography.  And lest we think only the male of the species is guilty, we have reached the point where there are any number of young (and not so young) men who have no discernable acting talent, yet who are successful simply because they are sexually attractive.  Once again, complexity has given way to primitive emotion.  Actors no longer have to inspire love or devotion; all that matters is that they can reliably trigger the right hormones.  Note, in addition, that this shift fits perfectly within the observed trend to self-affirmation: the new sexual sensibility is that of the masturbator or voyeur, not that of the lover. 

Thesis

So, it seems that my basic thesis is that in the second half of the twentieth century, the audience for mainstream cinema underwent a change of appetite.  Increasingly as time went on, until now we reach the point where its dominance seems total, we see the advent of a paradigm in which emotions are simple and direct, anything hinting at complexity is shunned, as is anything that might lead to doubt or questioning of ones self or preconceptions.  The movies now inhabit a strangely Panglossian world where everything would be perfect if only people wouldn’t occasionally (and not for very long, for they are always slapped back into conformity at the end) try to buck the established order.  For it is a strange quasi-paradox that the constant talk of self-affirmation in film and the wider culture in fact constitutes a hymn to conformity.  To not conform means to challenge and question why one is what one is; far easier and happier to conform while seriously believing that by dressing and eating and drinking and thinking exactly like millions of others one is somehow expressing oneself (a former manager of mine once complained ‘Julian, you’re so conformist’, when I enquired, it turned out he was referring to my dress; I was wearing a smart shirt, linen trousers and a tie, the only person in the office so to do; he said ‘Why don’t you dress like everyone else?’  I rest my case).

This uniformisation of emotion and identity seems to affect both the audiences and the pictures and suggests an increasing drive towards productisation, which might lead one to conclude that this is all a story of big bad business taking over the movies and ruining them for all of us.  And that would certainly fit with the other observation that I made above, that I have so far left unexamined: the idea that simple, bold emotions make it easier to shift product.  So is this just a story of how the suits took over the studios and robbed them of art?

No.  There are two problems.  First, making mainstream movies has always been about making money.  Making a movie for wide-scale distribution is an expensive business, so if there were no profit to be had the movie would not get made.  And, that being the case, it is very hard to explain why it is that the change that I have been describing only really got going some time between the end of the war and the mid 1950.  Second, there is still the problem that even if the suits in charge of the studios were all philistines, as it is posited that they love money more than art, if high art had been what sold then it is high art that would have got made, even if in their souls the suits longed for dreck.  Giving them what they want is what being a good businessman is about.  And want it is very clearly what the audiences did and still do in increasing numbers, even though by now the mainstream has become so moronic that it is hard to see (to paraphrase Roger Ebert) what audiences gain from going to the pictures as compared to say, staring at a blank wall for ninety minutes.

And there, of course, is the beginning of the answer and the start of my thesis.  If one is insecure about ones place in the world, the last thing one wants is that blank space that can allow dangerous questions to enter the mind.  One will urgently seek out displacement activity, pabulum, preferably as unchallenging as possible, to quiet the mind, thrust the dangerous ideas back into the depths of the unconscious, and confirm, with any luck, that one is all right really.  So a safe middle-brow (without even the vigour of good low-brow entertainment) show is just what one needs.

So I posit that this is what happened.  Something in the post-war world created an imbalance in people’s minds.  It doesn’t really matter what it was (though it would not be hard to make an educated guess), though it is interesting to note that while the Great Depression and its aftermath bred dreams of sparkling, unreal utopias, with the world of Fred and Ginger as the perfect escapist fantasy, the post-war darkness led to a retreat inward into mediocrity: to see this one only needs to compare the introverted escapism of Meet Me In St Louis with the exuberantly extroverted escapism of Roberta.  

However, we have the imbalance, possibly small, and people feel the need for reassurance.  That translates into a differential in return on movies, with the most consoling doing better.  And that leads to the studios, eager to make money by giving people what they seem to want, to skew in that direction.  But now, the need for reassurance being fed will not go away, but become more demanding, and so the returns for movies bias even more in the direction of wholesome pabulum.  And so now we get a positive feedback loop: the more people choose dull, emotionally simple movies over complex ones, the more studios will make them, and as more of them get made, the more people go because, even with the original cause of the insecurity long forgotten, ego-reinforcement is a highly pleasurable experience and helps soothe the stresses of modern life.  And so the audiences and the studios feed off one another in an escalating cycle.

Quo vadis?

 The reader will, of course, have recognised what I have just described as being a description of runaway evolutionary adaptation on a particular characteristic.  So, as with any evolutionary system, a small pertubation in the state of things causes an initial deviation within the population, but in this special case there is a very strong reward factor for a particular kind of deviation, so with each generation the rewarded factor is represented more and more strongly in the population.  Now, the problem with a positive feedback loop like this is that it is inherently unstable: one cannot go on for ever adapting more and more, either because the adaptation will become so extreme as to be maladaptive and positively harm the population, or because the whole process, as it were, runs out of gas.  We can see examples of both these scenarios in the natural kingdom.  The first was effected by the Irish Elk, in which strong sexual selection on antler-size resulted in males with enormous antlers, so huge that the animal could not sustain carrying them, and so the species essentially selected itself into extinction.  The second has happened with the Sperm Whale.  There appears to have been very strong selection on a particular food source (deep-dwelling squid) with increasingly bizarre adaptations arising to serve foraging.  Here, however, it appears that the feedback loop ran out of gas and left the Sperm Whale stranded, as an evolutionary isolate, dependent entirely on one particular ecological niche for its continuance.

So, what does that mean for the movies? In the Irish Elk scenario, movies get bigger and louder and simpler and dumber until the demand of the audience for even more simply cannot be met any longer because there is nowhere else to go.  At which point the audience will desert the movies en masse in search of their next fix.  In fact there is some evidence suggesting that this may be happening in the general trend over recent years for lower box-office revenues, which gimmicks like 3D have done little to disguise.  What the audiences will take to instead I do not think I want to know (dumbed down porn?), but they will leave behind them a movie industry that will implode under its own weight.  And that, for all the chatter about the evil of the industry bosses, is not something we want to happen.

The other scenario is more benign, but much more bizarre.  What may happen is that the industry and their audience establish a kind of plateau of awfulness, where each is content to remain, promulgating and consuming something which is a distant cousin of the movie as we know it, but which is almost entirely incomprehensible to those of us used to less mainstream fair (and let us be honest, given the inexplicable popularity of post Scary Movie ‘comedy’, a genre so devoid of actual humour as to be entirely incomprehensible to those of us brought up to believe that, say, Bringing up Baby and Blazing Saddles are comedies, we may not be all that far from reaching that point).  And then we will have reached the point I made at the start of this essay.  We will have two populations who both believe they are going to see movies, but who will inhabit conceptual universes so different (go back to my parenthetical comments about comedy just now if you don’t believe me, or if you are not convinced, recall that there are people out there who believe that Eat, Pray, Love is profound) that one might be tempted to say that communication between the two camps would be impossible.  As I showed in On Epistemic Barriers, this will not, in fact, be the case, but it will undeniably be the case that translation will be excessively difficult.  And then what will happen?  I have no idea, but I am sure that it would make a far more interesting movie than any released in the last few years. 

 

 

The Male Gaze Gone Wrong

Introduction

Sexy

Sexualised

In this essay I’m returning to a theme that has featured in several of my earlier pieces, but most especially in the most recent: Less is More. For those of you who haven’t yet read it, let me recap. I expressed a certain amount of surprise at the fact that while a highly abstract cartoon character, who is drawn as a stylish caricature using a minimalist artistic technique (left), is very sexy, in the sense that she created complex erotic feelings that can go on to lead to creative activity by the person having those feelings, fan art versions of her, which are far more detailed in their rendering (right), are highly sexualised but not in the slightest erotic. I concluded that they were part of a phenomenon that I started to analyse in The tyranny of realism, that is to say, the need for instant gratification. The right-hand, sexualised image is perfect if what is wanted is an instant, masturbatory rush of lust. The left-hand image creates something less well-defined, that might require time to make its effect, and which may well end up transforming the viewer.

Now you may feel that I am exaggerating somewhat in my claims for what is, after all, no more than a few lines on paper. Maybe so. What I intend to do is to extend my view to look at the male gaze in general, particularly in cinema. My conclusion, which has been hinted at in earlier pieces, is that something seems to have gone very wrong with the male gaze in the last decade or so, and what has happened can be encapsulated nicely in the transition from the sexy left-hand image to the sexualised right-hand one.

After that, the obvious question is why: this is rather interesting, as it relates to aspects of modern culture, from the rise of hyper-realistic pictures that eschew complex thought-provoking issues, to self-help books and the nature of contemporary religion. Without giving too much away, it is a cultural shift from the idea of permanent self-improvement, as expressed most forcefully by some of the great medieval mystics who saw the goal as overcoming the self, to the idea of permanent self-affirmation, where the goal is to celebrate the self.

Finally, I will look at the wider implications of this shift in the male gaze, and whether it is the beginning of a genuine shift in our culture, is simply the consequence of popular culture pandering too much to the tastes of teenagers, or is (a rather frightening possibility) the beginning of a bifurcation of Western culture and hence society.

So, let’s begin.

Whither the male gaze?

Look on this picture and on this

Bacall

Heigl

Here are two more pictures that, I think, encapsulate rather well what I am talking about. Now they’re both movie actresses, Miss Bacall hit her high-point in the 1940s and 1950s (though she continues to do great work to this day), while Ms Heigl is a major figure right now. And before you complain about the vulgarity of the image of Ms Heigl, it is as nothing compared to a large amount of what Google throws up if one searches on her name. Believe me, I used the most tasteful I could find that would suit my purpose. And yes, repeat readers will note that I have used these pictures before.

Let’s start with Ms Heigl. Well, there’s no doubt about it, this is a highly sexualised image. And it is deliberately so. Anyone wearing that dress knew what she was about, and that was getting noticed by the male gaze. But the thing is, what does she promise? Well, there’s the suggestion that if you were lucky (?) enough to enter her sphere of attention, the physical act of sex with her would be not unpleasant. But sex is, when you come down to it, about more than bodies. Contrary to D H Lawrence, a large amount of sex is in the head, and relies on more than the body of ones sex-partner. And looked at from that perspective, Ms Heigl falls short. She may have big breasts, and be blandly beautiful, but she also has a vapidity about her that means that there is no emotional reaction to the picture at any level higher than the purely animal response of lust. Or, to put it another way, for all the emotional involvement she creates between her and her audience, she could be a high class prostitute (except, of course, that the grandes horizontales of the past knew that their job was about far more than just sex).

Now on to Miss Bacall. What a contrast. For a start, she’s fully covered. But, and here’s the thing, she doesn’t need to expose (nearly) everything she’s got to make an impact. She’s beautiful; far more so than Ms Heigl, but what matters is her expression, the expression of the essential her that comes across. And she is very far from being vapid. Her look promises – not just sex, indeed, not necessarily sex at all, though she oozes sex appeal from every pore. In fact the picture suggests that she is a woman you would want to follow to the ends of the Earth, that she can inspire love and devotion, and, by so doing, be a source of inspiration to her devotees. And that’s an interesting observation: the leading ladies of her day were not called screen goddesses for nothing. There is something like religious awe and devotion in the attachment that they can inspire, and, like religion, it can be a force driving great deeds. They may be good or bad deeds, but the thing is that the devotee will be shaken out of their current state; their devotion is a driver for transformation and not stagnation. It is entirely plausible that people who have never met her should fall in love with Miss Bacall (or Miss Hepburn, Miss Lombard, Miss Rogers, the list goes on) as a result of seeing her films, and this love can be channelled into greater things, can inspire the urge to transformation of the self. The most that Ms Heigl can inspire is a wank.

What does it all mean?

In the previous section I took two carefully chosen examples, one from the golden age of film and one from the – not so golden age of film. And the contrast was between a male gaze that focussed on complex women, who inspired complex emotions, who acted in complex films in which very often men were transformed by meeting them (think of Marlowe in The Big Sleep, Godfrey in My Man Godfrey, Mike Conovan in Pat and Mike), and who hold out the promise of a lifetime of emotional fulfilment, and one in which women are presented as brazenly sexualised figures who hold out little more than the promise of fifteen minutes between the sheets. Now, I am not saying that there are no good actresses out there right now – there are (Streep, Mirren, Roberts, Kidman, Foster, Swinton, Portman come immediately to mind), but on the whole the film industry doesn’t seem to know what to do with them, and it (and its audience) seems to prefer identikit sex objects.

So, the male gaze has shifted in its focus from preferring women who held out promise of complex, potentially transforming, interaction, and women who offered no more than their bodies, but, who, strangely, are nothing like as beautiful as the stars of yore. It almost seems that the male gaze has become so focussed that it pays attention only to the explicitly sexual aspects of women, and ignores not just the intangibles of personality, promise, complexity, but even such tangible features as beauty. We have moved from sexy to sexualised. Why is that?

Here I need to recapitulate some of my argument from The tyranny of realism. In brief, what I observed was that the trend in modern films (and other art forms) is towards producing pieces that:

  • Appeal to simple, direct emotions, because they are predictable, and so make it easy to predict audience reaction and hence box-office appeal. To put it in the terms of this piece, a male heterosexual or female homosexual will feel an immediate jolt on seeing Ms Heigl and her breasts, or rather on seeing her breasts, the rest of her being sadly irrelevant. This is pure animal lust and is as predictable as the reaction of a male rat on seeing a female rat in heat. It is pure desire for the sexual act and it is transient. On the other hand, anyone watching Miss Bacall in action can hardly avoid being inspired, but how they are inspired is going to be complex, and depend on them and their history and their ideas.
  • Pander to the fear of transcendance. Modern people seem to be deeply insecure about themselves and feel the need for constant self-reinforcement. The last thing they want is to undergo anything that might change them, presumably because at root they fear that there is nothing there to change, so they might cease to exist entirely. Again, in the terms of this piece, lust is deeply self-reinforcing, it proves that you are okay if you can feel lust for an unnecessarily copiously displayed woman’s body (forget the woman; she doesn’t matter here). While, on the other hand, if you fall in love with a screen goddess then, even if you never meet her, you are in a relationship with a person, albeit strictly speaking a persona rather than a person, and relationships cause change.
  • Avoid challenge. This is closely related to the second point, but brings out a useful extra factor. Complex is out; simple is in. Why spend three hours watching Katharine Hepburn give the performance of her life in a draining, depressing, arduous play like A long day’s journey into night when you can spend thirty seconds staring at Megan Fox’s cleavage? Lust and sexualisation require almost no work: feeling lust on seeing the appropriate other is more or less hard-wired into us, and so involves no conscious effort at all. The complex emotions that a devotion to Miss Hepburn can inspire might involve real work, because (see above) they might make you want to change and grow.

What I seem to come to is this: there is a mutual feedback loop going on between producers and consumers of film. We’re talking about eroticism here, so let’s stick to that, but it could apply equally well in other areas. So, consumers want simple, disposable emotions that give them a swift buzz, reinforce their sense of self and are an easily swallowed pill. That means they don’t really want the complex world of erotica, but the simple world of porn (so there has been no successor to the great Russ Meyer, whose wild, absurdist erotic fantasias can brighten any day). In terms of the movies they don’t want actresses who inspire complex emotions, they want ones they can drool over. So film-makers move away from complex women and complex parts for women and converge instead on the stick with big boobs but no personality. Which packs a bigger punch in terms of simple, self-reinforcing lust, and so the audiences want more, and so on. And what this means, at the end, is that whereas in the past men wanted to gaze at women they could become involved with, and derive ongoing emotion from, now they want to gaze at cleavage. So that’s what they get.

As an aside, to end this section, note that this means that the male gaze is not solely driven by sexual attraction. For women of the two balloons on a stick variety are not, in fact, what people should be attracted to, given that good child-bearing depends on things like the hip to waist ratio as well as the size of the bosom. What we are seeing is a cultural intervention between sexual desire and actual desire, which substitutes a figure who, increasingly, is a metastatisation of the secondary sexual characteristics, while conforming to the cultural assumption that skinny is good. This is not, perhaps surprising. As I have said elsewhere, we have seen, in the second half of the twentieth century, a general shift in culture away from striving and towards self-satisfaction. Which leads neatly on to the next section.

I like me

I have argued that the shift in the male gaze (whether as a cause or as a consequence it is now too late to say; the feedback loop means that it is both) is largely attributable to a desire for simple means to the simple end of making people feel good about themselves. Well, what could be wrong with that? Let me count the ways.

My main problem, the main problem with people being constantly assured that they’re great just they way they are is that the point at which a culture gives up striving is the point at which decadence sets in. And decadence is the beginning of the end, as we have seen all too often. It is the way of things that species and cultures adapt to meet fresh challenges. Now, in the West, we have a culture whose reaction to challenge is to pretend that it isn’t there. That can lead to catastrophe, and as I have a certain amount of affection for Western culture, I would hate to see that happen.

The other problem is smaller and more personal, but equally awful in its implications. Imagine a child that has been brought up always being told that it’s right, it’s the best it can possibly be, and so on and so forth. What kind of adult will it become? Indeed, will it actually ever become adult? The answers are fairly obvious: a sociopath and no. As philosophers, theologians and psychologists of all persuasions have said, we grow and develop into better adjusted people by working out how to overcome obstacles. We are socialised precisely when we learn that we are not always right, and that all is not for the best in this best of all possible worlds. And a society functions only if the majority of its members are adequately socialised, which will not be the case if they are rampant egotists. Thus, if we are not careful, too great an emphasis on being okay will turn Baroness Thatcher’s assertion that there is no such thing as society from a nonsense into a sad truth.

So, unremitting self-affirmation is not a good thing. But surely it doesn’t matter if it’s only in the movies, which are all about escapism anyway? Parenthetically, isn’t that interesting? That’s the way people view the movies now. But people didn’t go to see Vertigo or Dark Victory or Keeper of the Flame for escapism. Once again, what was once a challenging art-form has become an instant form of self-gratification. Parenthesis over. The thing is, it isn’t just in the movies. So, let’s have a look at some other areas where we see the impact of the urge to self-affirmation.

Theology

Theology hit its high-point (says a very biassed source) in the fourteenth century, with such profound thinkers as AquinasPorete and, of course, Eckhart. Now, they made some amazing claims: Eckhart essentially set out a programme whereby believers could, by virtue of hard spiritual work, achieve unity with the Godhead. And one can’t imagine a higher goal than that. But something that he, Porete and the other mystics of the time all agreed on was that the self was something not to be celebrated, but to be overcome. Porete is quite clear: she says that the will / self must die before the soul can become one with God.

Now, I’m not saying that we should all go back to the fourteenth century and believe whatever Eckhart told us. My point is to say that back then, religion was hard work, it was about overcoming oneself and striving to become something new and amazing. Let us look at religion today, and for these purposes I am looking at mainstream religion, and not the liberal variety. It seems, to this spavined eye, to be all about the state of ones relationship with God, and ensuring that one has a good time in the afterlife. But there’s very little about changing oneself. Indeed, prosperity gospels make it quite clear that one should congratulate oneself on ones own life. We even find that Eckhart and the other mystics are re-invented for our time as wooly new-age shamans, who tell us good news. Gnosticism is very fashionable, but not the complex, world-hating faith of the true Gnostics with its three hundred and sixty-five heavens; rather, again, a vague belief that sitting back and smiling gently is the answer to all.

I think I have made my case, but let me consider one more, particularly pernicious example. Buddhism is an incredibly rigorous system of thought, enjoining on its followers all kinds of ethical and behavioural rules that must be obeyed if one is to have a hope of breaking out of the cycle of reincarnation. As with the medieval mystics, the self is to be destroyed, not affirmed and celebrated, and one must become nothing in order to achieve everything. It isn’t easy being a good Buddhist. Now look at the amazing travesty of Buddhism presented by The Simpsons. Here, Lisa decides she doesn’t like Christianity and, after some rather dull adventures, discovers Buddhism, which is presented as a way for her to be religious without having to believe all that stuff about sin and so on and so forth. In other words, the accidents of Buddhism (lotus position, prayer wheels, incense) are retained, but the essence (destroying the self) is not just lost but inverted. And millions around the world will now believe that that is what Buddhism is. Negation of the self has become affirmation of the self.

Psychology

In classical psychoanalysis, be it Freudian or Jungian, the key notion is that the psyche of the individual is misshapen as a result of a lifetime of negative experiences, and that the individual, with help from their therapist, must work hard to undo the damage. In Jungian psychoanalysis there is the concept of individuation, in the course of which the individual discovers those things, aspects of themselves, that they have hidden away, or that are too frightening for them to confront. Individuation is about gradually coming to terms with these aspects of the self and reintegrating them with the visible parts of the psyche, so as to once more be whole. It is, of course, a life-long process, and unlikely to be achieved in total. So we are presented with the necessity of going through a very long, very hard process, which will involve dealing with unpleasant things, and without even the guarantee of achieving the promised result. One can only strive.

In popular psychology, everything is strangely different. There are a positive plethora of self-help books out there, but they can be summarised by saying that you have to decide that you like yourself really, and positively come to love yourself. When you do, when you accept yourself just the way you are, then all will be well. Once again, we switch from a model that says that the way you are is flawed and must be overcome, to one that celebrates the way you are. Once more, affirmation of the self. The title of one of the greatest hits in decades says it all: I’m okay, You’re okay.

Popular culture

This shouldn’t take long. In the past artists, composers, bands used to practice, practice, practice some more, and then, if they were very lucky, get a gig. Now they get manufactured, and the Christmas number one single will be of the winner of a talent show – not because they’re good, but because they’re the winner of the talent show. With the instant star comes the idea that talent and hard work are unnecessary. What matters is that you be who you are, not that you try to become better and transcend who you are.

Politics

A great man said ‘Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country’. That was John F Kennedy in his inaugural address. That epitomises the old culture, that of dedication to self-overcoming and transformation. Now the mainstream political discourse in the United States seems to be thoroughly centred on the individual, and what the state should or should not do for them. And I write this in a week when President Kennedy has been criticised because he did not make his personal relationship with God the centrepiece of his presidency. I rest my case.

Two cultures?

The first culture

So, I think we can say fairly safely that the strange shift in the male gaze from interesting, sexy women to women whose sole feature is their secondary sexual characteristics is actually symptomatic of a wider shift in popular culture: away from complexity to simplicity, away from promise to instant gratification, away from transcendence to self-affirmation. What does this mean in terms of our culture?

Start with the obvious. The dehumanisation of women in the movies is largely down to the target audience being teenaged boys. The sort who find making jokes about contraceptives funny, and who talk up their sexual prowess, but who would be speechless with fright if a real woman actually came on to them. So, will they just grow up? I’m not sure. To grow out of something, you need to be aware that there is something else more desirable to grow into. And though it’s obvious to me that Lauren Bacall is more interesting than Katherine Heigl, if all you’ve been taught to expect of a woman is cleavage, it won’t be obvious to you. And if it involves work, and accepting that you’re less than perfect – why leave the comfort zone? So if they’re going to grow up and learn to experience the joy of watching Tilda Swinton in a real movie (i.e. not one with talking animals) then it has to be made more attractive to them than their current state, and I’m not sure I know how to do that. The other thing is that we have a second feedback loop going on. Because boys and young men are coming to see women quite literally as sex on legs, girls and young women are adapting to meet that requirement (hence, I now believe, the freakish popularity of the gross anti-feminist modern rom-com that I identified in Sexual politics and the contemporary rom com). So it isn’t even as if they will have to branch out when they reach the age of wanting to couple, because they will find women willing to live out this degrading life, not because they’re bad, or stupid, but because that’s what the culture tells them to do, and it tells them to do it because that’s what more and more of them are doing. Once again, there is neither cause nor effect.

Where could this lead? Let me spin a skein of conjecture. You will see that some of its first stages are starting to happen, and the rest of scarily plausible. If the urge to instant self-gratification goes unchecked, then increasingly individuals will seek it in cyberspace, because virtual friends are somehow safer than real ones. These friends may be real people at another computer; increasingly they will be computer-generated. So eventually each individual will end up enfolded within their own private world which is devoted only to making them feel good about themselves. And that cybersphere will do whatever is needed to make them happy. If being tortured to death is their deepest fantasy, it will do so, then revive them, then do it again, and so on, forever. There will be no culture, just a collection of individuals who happen to share the same planet (if you happen to recognise some of this, it is because it is drawn from the great Stanislaw Lem’s book The Star Diaries). And before you dismiss this as dystopian pessimism, consider the really rather scary way that Japanese culture is shifting to an increasing use of robots in place of human interaction, and virtual, as opposed to real (or are they real – if enough people think of them as existing then do they not exist in precisely the same way that a quark, one of which no-on has ever seen, exists) entertainers and celebrities.

The Second Culture

Von Teese

Fox

That is a ghastly end-state. How can we avoid it? Well there is a sign of hope. Again, look on these two pictures. And by the way, if I had trouble finding a tasteful picture of la Heigl, finding one of Ms Fox was even harder. There were pages and pages of dreadful, vulgar ‘look at me, aren’t I sexy’ poses in underwear or less, which were in fact not in the slightest sexy (in the sense of being erotically or sensually as opposed to animally aroused), and this was the best I could find. Anyway, Ms Fox is a rising star of the popular culture I have been describing. But Miss von Teese, on the other side of the page, looking effortlessly sexy, and not nearly so vulgar, in spite of being wearing distinctly less, is the star of another culture – the Burlesque culture. For in parallel with this sad degeneration of the target of the male gaze in popular culture, we have seen the rise of Burlesque culture, in which sassy women like Miss von Teese are almost revered, and these are real women with sensible shapes and character and everything. It is possible to imagine falling in love with Miss von Teese, whereas the best one can ever do with Miss Fox is to fall in lust.

Now, I am not saying that Burlesque is the answer. Far from it, for though its women are more interesting than those of contemporary cinema, they are still essentially bodies on display, albeit more interesting bodies and a very much more interesting and artful display. But it is a long way from Dita von Teese to Katharine Hepburn, and, as role-models for women go, Miss Hepburn is still the better choice. But the popularity of burlesque is a sign of hope, that there is another culture than the spiritually dead ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’ culture I have been describing, that the spirit of the screen goddesses of old, or Russ Meyer’s lunatic amazons of not-so-old, is not yet moribund. We just need to do that which the adherents of the culture of self-love fear the most and transform ourselves, so that we can build an alternative culture where the male gaze would sooner seek out powerful women who can give it something to aspire to than pasteboard clones who give it something to masturbate to.

The Two Cultures

Today, sex appeal is reduced to taking your top off and sticking one hand in your knickers (can someone please explain to me why this is meant to turn me on?). Glamour is dead in the mainstream. But let us be clear: glamour is not, as is sometimes claimed, synonymous with objectification. Being one of a countless horde of near-identical skinny young women with large breasts who knows no more than to pose for vulgar photographs designed specifically to press the male libido’s big red button, and to behave in a way that would make a prostitute blush – that is objectification, because it could be Heigl, Fox, Lohan, Hilton, Spears the list goes on and there is honestly nothing to distinguish them (in fact, an interesting observation is that in the past good prostitutes aimed to look like and behave – outside the bedroom – like fashionable ladies, while now middle-class young women do their best to look and behave like prostitutes – as the ever-perceptive Matt Stone and Trey Parker have observed). And yet this is marketed as being empowering. How? How is being reduced to wet-dream fodder empowering, when it no longer matters who you are, all that counts is what you’ve got below the neck?

Glamour, on the other hand, is and always has been, something special. It has received quite a negative press because it is confused with the productisation I have just described, but in its true meaning, glamour is a numinous quality that adds to the individual and makes them more than merely a person. It does not take away the fact that its possessor is a person, but gives that person extra qualities. So it is unlikely that fans of Miss Bacall or Miss Hepburn or Miss Lombard or Miss Rogers ever forgot for a moment who it was that they were a fan of. Glamour added that special something that is the sign, in so far as it can be signified on this plane, of the transcendant, or potentially transcendant. And very appropriately in view of this, glamour was originally conceived of as being something other-worldly and of the Gods. Now, the screen goddesses of old had glamour, the new targets of the male gaze have only glitz. Miss von Teese and her cohorts have glamour in abundance; what they need is to add in the substance that the Hepburns and Bacalls had, to turn that glamour into something positive and active.

Should we care?

I have assumed throughout that the culture of glamour, of screen goddesses, of eternal passion rather than easy fulfilment, is a good thing, but I haven’t proved that anywhere, or even argued for it (much). So, should we be upset at the cultural shift of which the realignment of the male gaze is symptomatic? I think so. Partly because of the rather frightening scenarios for where the culture of self-love will lead us, none of which I find particularly comforting, partly because I feel that anything that has as its end result the increased disengagement of the higher brain functions, leaving huge numbers of people acting at a more or less reptilian level of behaviour, cannot be a positive step. Technology may have made it possible for people to regress, but, let us be honest, life would be rather dull if all we had to entertain us was Saw 367Transformers: the Revenge of Michael Bay and films like the dreadful The Ugly Truth and Burlesque (honestly – who in their right mind would make a movie ostensibly about Burlesque and then choose as its principal actors – pop-tarts?)? Haven’t we lost something when people are so inured to violence that they laugh at the vile tortures that have replaced true terror in the modern horror movie and can’t accept that a misplaced letter, a piano-lid that is up when it should be down (The Others – a great film, showing that Nicole Kidman can really act if only she has a good script to do it with) can be truly terrifying, whereas the Saws and Hostels of this world are simply distasteful? If – I am trying desperately to think of the modern-day equivalent of Fred & Ginger and failing horribly, so let’s end it there. To even think of the Step Up franchise in the same brain would be a form of secular blasphemy.

I know that my argument is rhetorical, but it cannot be gainsaid that though the simple life of the self might be very serene, if somewhat unstable (a psyche based on self-affirmation will crumble if that affirmation is not constantly forthcoming), but it would also, without a doubt, be very, very boring. And I don’t know about you, but I do not enjoy being bored. I find it a pain. And I believe that I am not alone in that. It is not surprising that adherents of the me-culture drug themselves in various ways as a way of escaping from mundane reality.

Shall we dance?

The other question is: can the two cultures coexist? Can they communicate? Is there an ineluctable epistemic barrier between them? I have argued in The other in culture that such epistemic barriers cannot exist. But let us look again at the argument, for there is a possibility, a frightening possibility, that might make such a barrier possible after all. That argument made it clear that in any act of translation (which need not be literal translation; converting from English as I speak it to English as you do is, in itself, an act of translation, as we will give individual words subtly different meanings, so, for example, the word ‘glamour’ to me evinces something more complex than simply a glossy, well-finished facade) meaning is lost, but the meaning that is lost is that which cannot be distinguished linguistically. So if you and I say respectively ‘rabbit’ and ‘gavagai’ under exactly the same conditions, we are each justified in guessing what the other means, even if our private inner meanings are quite at variance. Clearly, if I can express some distinctions, so sometimes I call it a ‘rukh gavagai’ then you can start to analyse when I say ‘rukh’, and evidence suggests that even if it is something complex and cultural, not related to the empirical world at all, you can make a guess at its meaning.

But all this rests on one single fundamental assumption: that as we are both human, we both see the world in more or less the same way, we have the same senses, and so if you see a rabbit loping across a field, you can be pretty sure that I can see it too, even if that isn’t what I call it. In other words, we inhabit the same paradigm (in the Kuhnian sense). To put this into perspective, imagine that in fact I was not a human, but an alien whose species had evolved on a neutron star, and who could sense quantum wave functions directly. It would make no sense to me to say that there was a rabbit over there right now, because it would be everywhere all the time, as would everything else. So based on our localised, macroscopic sensorium is our ontology and language that we could not even begin to communicate. There would be a genuine epistemic barrier.

Rabbit

?

So, the question is, is the shift in the male gaze the tremor that foretells the earthquake of a paradigm shift? To say yes might seem faintly ridiculous, but there are some worrying indicators. Let’s go back to the question of what’s sexy. I think that the caricature cartoon character is more sexy than the sexualised fan-art. I think that Lauren Bacall fully clothed is more sexy than Katherine Heigl baring very nearly her all. I think that Dita von Teese is more sexy than Megan Fox. But here’s the thing. I could, if pushed, define what I meant by sexy, and begin to explain what it is about those three women that makes them have that quality. Look at my latest apposition, a pair of Jessicas: the incomparable Jessica Rabbit (you really don’t want to see the fan-art) and the very comparable Jessica Alba (and, yes, that is one of the less tasteless images of her – the most tasteless would make me put myself up for adoption if only I knew some friendly aliens who didn’t think that pictures of women in exiguous bikinis sticking their butts in the air were particularly exciting). Well, I know who I’d want to go on a date with, and yet Miss Alba is viewed as a modern-day sex goddess. Why? What has she got that thousands of other women haven’t? Is that the point? Or is it just that the expectations of the male gaze are now set so low that more or less anyone will pass muster provided they have breasts (check) a skinny torso (check) and are prepared to show them off, no matter how degrading to their sex the driver for doing so might be (check)?

There is a total disconnect between sex as part of a complex web of behaviour, which can lead to the most fulfilling part of a relationship being the non-sexual parts, and sex as physical release. And this seems close to being a paradigmatic division, as I imagine that my tastes would be equally mysterious and inexplicable to one who partakes of the modern male gaze. We have moved from a conceptual scheme based on the idea of the more-than-real (stars were called larger than life), role models who gave one aspirations to self-overcoming, to a paradigm based on the extremely ordinary and role models defined not as people but as collections of organs. That seems to me like the beginnings of a paradigm shift, for I can see no obvious way to translate from one ontology into the other, where we don’t just use words to mean different things, but there seems no obvious way to relate the two usages. If this is the beginning of a paradigm shift, then that is bad news, for once the shift has occurred then our culture will be split irrevocably asunder. And I go back to my comments above to rebut any claim that this is simply evolution in action and that I am part of the out-competed residuum, destined for extinction.

Now, you could say that I am being overly pessimistic, and that all that we have here is the traditional communication problem between parents and children. And yet in previous generations, youth movements looked on the world their parents had made, decided they didn’t like it, and announced a desire to change it. The movement may often have not got far beyond expressing the rage and disdain, but at least it looked at the world around it. The focus was outward; now it is entirely inward. Instead of the Beats or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Anarchy in the UK we have Smells Like Teen Spirit – incoherent self-obsession in spades – and Chicken Soup for the Soul volume four hundred and thirty-seven. Rage against the world has turned into worship of the self. So, modern youth culture is impoverished as compared with that of earlier generations. But, though we started out by looking at youth culture, the shift I am describing is wider. The good actresses I mentioned earlier are either limited to niche fare, or else they appear in fearful drivel like Eat, Pray, Love, which is simply self-love translated to the forty-something generation. Joe Queenan, in his hilarious memoir America, notoriously discovered a whole new, horrible world of mindless dreck that just didn’t fit within his conceptual scheme. It seems that the paradigm shift has started with the young (where else would it start?) but is now spreading.

So what can we do if we are to avoid cultural bifurcation? As I have said above, the challenge for those of us who find the culture of self offensive is to find a way of luring people out of it, and to tease them into a situation where a meaningful dialogue is possible, so we can begin to tear down that epistemic barrier while it is not yet too high. It will not be easy, and it will involve compromises – one does not go straight from lusting for Heigl to longing for Hepburn in one leap – but I believe that we can meet this challenge. We have to.

Less is more

Introduction

This is by way of being a spin-off from my essay on the tyranny of realism. However it is sufficiently distinct to merit a brief note in its own right. So, this all originates in one of the more regrettable feature of the Internet, which is that whereas before the coming of the information superhighway some of the more artistically reprehensible things people got up to for their own fell purposes were kept in the decent obscurity of the community of individuals who liked that kind of thing, now they lurk ready for the unwary to trip over whenever they use a search engine. So for example, you found this piece, which is surely deserving of greater obscurity, and more (I hope) reprehensibly, there is the phenomenon that given just about any subject, there are apparently people out there who try to turn it into an excuse to indulge in a spot of sexual fantasy. Call me a prude, an overly sheltered individual, if you will, but I had never expected, when looking for images of H P Lovecraft’s race of Elder Things (as part of research for a novel), that within the first page of images thrown back at me by Google would be three sexualised images, including two which attempted to merge a naked woman with Lovecraft’s bizarre meeting of a barrel and two star-fish. And I thought I was strange.

Introducing Miss Bellum

So, having established the principle that given (apparently) any subject there are people out there who will try to sexualise it (and one has to wonder just what it takes to be turned on by an Elder Thing), let me introduce the example of this regrettable phenomenon that sparked this train of thought.


 

Miss Bellum


 

Not Miss Bellum

The authentic Miss Bellum

I am a fan of the great cartoon series The Powerpuff Girls. I won’t give much background, because little is needed. What you need to know is that one recurrent character is Miss Sara Bellum, aide to the incredibly short Mayor of Townsville. She is an incredibly curvaceous red-head dressed in a smart red suit who is basically the brains behind the Mayor. As a running gag we never see her face; either her head is cut off by the top of the frame or something (often her hair, on one memorable occasion her bosom) obscures the view. Well, here, on the left, are some images of the authentic Miss Bellum, to give you some idea what I’m talking about. As you’ll see, we are left in no doubt that she is highly concupiscent (though interestingly, in the show, her behaviour is that of a cool and intelligent woman, not that of a sexpot).

Ersatz Miss Bellums

Now it may come as a bit of a surprise, given that, in view of what I have said about sexualisation on the Internet, one would expect such an overtly sexy character as Miss Bellum to be quite popular, but in fact these are pretty much the only images of Miss Bellum out there on the Internet. Or, to be more exact, the only images of her as she appeared in The Powerpuff Girls. Because apparently this version of her is not sexy enough. So, in fact, there are very many Miss Bellum-derived images out there, but they are largely, Miss Bellum ‘fan art’. Which mostly consists of the kind of regrettable thing that I mentioned in the introduction; not perhaps as weird as sexualised alien monsters, but every bit as tasteless. Here, on the right, are two of the more, er, tasteful examples.

I’ll just comment here that this phenomenon is far from being unique to poor Miss Bellum. If you want a really nasty surprise and are feeling strong, try doing a Google image search on Miss Piggy some time. It seems clear that whatever the image or character, be it ever so exaggeratedly sexual (or asexual) there is somebody out there who will make it yet more explicitly sexual. What had been closeted and referred to as ‘specialist tastes’ is now exuberantly out of the closet and making life that bit less pleasant for those of us who still have some illusions intact. What is interesting is that we are seeing the creation of a penumbra around mainstream (popular) culture. The impulse that leads to gross images of Miss Piggy, sexy alien monsters and Miss Bellum with breasts the size of watermelons (no, I didn’t feel up to reproducing that one) is the same impulse that led to books like ‘Pride and Promiscuity: the lost sex-scenes of Jane Austen’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice with Zombies’. I shall return to this point in a future essay.

An interesting observation

When I discovered this strange fact about images of Miss Bellum, a thought that had always been lurking in the back of my mind when faced with the aggressive sexualisation of, well, everything, in modern popular culture finally articulated itself. The authentic Miss Bellum is a stylish minimalist caricature, build from a couple of sinuous lines and a block of solid red colour. The ersatz Bellums are more detailed, semi-realistic pictures of women with strongly defined sexual characteristics. And yet the authentic Miss Bellum is far more sexy than either of them.

Why is less more?

Miss Bellum – a second look

Let’s look at Miss Bellum a bit harder, starting with the authentic Powerpuff Girls version.

If this Miss Bellum is taken as a picture of a real woman then she is a non-starter. No real woman could have such exaggerated curves and such high hip-to-waist and bust-to-waist ratios. Legs and arms defined by a single straight line down the front are a physical impossibility. Real bosoms do not balloon out in such a dramatic way and yet with such an elegant outline. In other words, she does not and cannot represent a real woman. But she can, and does, represent ‘woman’. That is to say, she is very clearly a work of art. Art in that she is an attempt (quite a successful one) to represent the concept ‘highly desirable woman’ which achieves its aim by abstracting out as much detail as possible, leaving eventually only the bare minimum needed to represent the concept (a Platonist could have a field-day with her). And that bare minimum is important: by suggesting rather than stating, by giving room for the viewer’s imagination to engage with her, rather than telling it what to think, she creates a potent mix of suggestion and carefully directed imagination and fantasy contributed by the viewer that results in her becoming an extremely sexy woman, in spite of being only a few spare lines on the page. In other words, she points the way, and the viewer responds with their own imagination to create their own ‘highly desirable woman’.

Now look at the ersatz Miss Bellums. They are both much more ‘realistic’. Both have more-or-less believable body proportions, and both give much more prominence to secondary sexual characteristics, with the simple line defining the authentic Miss Bellum’s cleavage being replaced by lovingly rendered breasts. As far as line goes, simplicity of line is replaced by an attempt to accurately reflect what is clearly the important thing to these artists: the way fabric stretches and shapes itself in response to the shape of the body underneath. So the aim is clearly to create a highly sexualised body that is realistic in the sense that it represents, if not a real woman, then a shape that a real woman could have. And this shape is then dressed in such a way as to show it off. While at the same time borrowing the iconography of Miss Bellum. So at one and the same moment, the images give the viewer a far more explicitly sexual input, and yet gives them far less freedom as to what they can do with it.

Whereas the authentic Miss Bellum is symbolic of sexual desire, and so becomes, in Aristotelian terms, an essence to which each of us adds our own accidents, these images are all accident. They dictate that the viewer should be drooling over those legs and those breasts, and as such – they are very effective at creating a brief surge of simple lust, but when that is over and gone, there is nothing to them, whereas the authentic Miss Bellum remains as elegant, mysterious and desirable as ever. Her appeal continues. And this is probably why it turns out that so many people try to capture that appeal with their overtly sexual realisations of her, only to discover (if they are sufficiently self aware) that once the initial excitement is over, they are no nearer to realising what makes her so desirable. Which is precisely the fact that she asks questions (what is your perfectly woman?) and never answers them (these breasts, those legs).

Examples from film

Let us now move beyond Miss Bellum to see what can be said more generally about this phenomenon. I am going to try to distinguish between eroticism, as something positive that can enable creative energies, and sexualism, which is simply an aid to masturbation. I am deliberately eschewing the word ‘pornography’, largely because I don’t think anyone actually agrees on what it means, and such meaning as it has is simply pejorative, and I am trying (very hard) to not denounce sexualism as bad, but rather to suggest that it is to eroticism as ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’ is to the Eroica Symphony.

She is therefore she is sexy

Now, eroticism need have nothing explicitly to do with sex. Back when the power of the censor forced film-makers to actually apply their minds to the problem of creating a sexual effect, instead of, as now, simply stripping off their protagonists and telling them to get on with it, film-makers knew that you could create an unbearably erotic atmosphere while the protagonists were clothed from head to foot. And if you don’t believe me, I suggest you watch the scene in Some Like it Hot where Marilyn Monroe is kissing Tony Curtis as part of a clinical experiment to determine whether his character is capable of feeling the softer emotions, or any of the scenes of Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart together in any of their movies, but especially The Big Sleep. Both remarkably erotic (Bacall could probably make a laundry list sound sexy) and yet there is nothing of sexualism in these scenes.

That Dress

Indeed, the overwhelming impression in the Monroe / Curtis scene is of naive innocence. And yes, Monroe is wearing that dress (see picture), which is quite – alluring – but which is merely part of a mood created by two fine actors with a great script that puts every man in the audience of being kissed by Marilyn Monroe and every woman in the position of kissing Tony Curtis. But it goes beyond that, and here’s why. The whole scene is several times removed from reality. First, obviously, this is fiction. But then, not one but both of the characters are lying about who they are (in fact, you can argue that Tony Curtis’ character is lying twice over, given that he is Gerald, pretending to be Geraldine, pretending to be . . .). And then they start to play an elaborate game even within the imaginary characters that they have donned for the evening’s entertainment. The script abstracts away any vestige of reality from the characters until all we are left with is the empty containers of desirable humanity, one woman, one man. We are back to Aristotle: the accidents of the characters have been removed by the successive abstractions from such ‘reality’ as exists within the film until all we have is the essence of an erotic connection between man and woman that we, the audience, can fill with whatever we want of ourselves and our hopes and desires.

Ekberg knocks them cold

And, of course, I haven’t even mentioned La Dolce Vita, have I? Anita Ekberg plays her part brilliantly; she is an absolute innocent with the mind of an unspoiled child inside a body that could demand kingdoms and get them if it wanted. And, basically, what does her celebrated sequence with Marcello Mastroianna consist of? They go for a walk; she jumps into a fountain; she sweeps aside all his attempts to become more intimate, seemingly not because she’s playing hard to get, but simply because she doesn’t understand, because that isn’t part of her world. And yet it must be one of the most erotic filmed sequences ever made. But that is the point; the fact that our hero won’t get to sleep with the bombshell, the fact that she is unwitting: these leave that empty space which is room for co-creation between the artist and the audience, which is surely the highest thing art can aspire to. And I don’t just mean that in the realm of eroticism. Art that asks us to look and say ‘wow’ is dead; live art must instigate co-creation or, as I put it in my earlier essay, transcendence.

So what’s wrong with sexualism?

Fine. That all sounds very poetic, and it seems reasonably convincing. But why can’t I get the same from an image of an anonymous couple coupling? If Lauren Bacall is that sexy fully clothed, wouldn’t she be even more so not? To get that rather displeasing thought out of my mind (not that I imagine that Miss Bacall was displeasing when naked; rather than I have too high a regard for her to want to think about such things) let me say that no she wouldn’t be, and the reason why is because, as all good fashion designers know, eroticism is all about what you reveal, and you can only reveal if you conceal (which sounds rather paradoxical, but does make sense when you think about it). And concealment gives room for imagination and for the viewer to insert themselves, and so for the image to grow from sexualism to eroticism.

Let’s consider that mainstay of the modern movie: two naked bodies writhing in the throes of supposed ecstatic delight. Is it a turn-on? Well, if you’re after a simple surge of lust, then possibly yes. But then what do you do with it? It’s just like the situation with the ersatz Miss Bellums. Once you’ve had your pulse of lust there’s nothing you can do with it, except have another pulse of lust. And if you expectations of what eroticism should be are so minimal then that’s fine, though you are to be seriously pitied. But what can I do with it if I want more? Fine, I see two writhing bodies. It might give me ideas, but it won’t fill me with energy, because there’s no creativity, no energy, nothing. Just two bodies following a script. And if you still don’t believe me, consider two cinematic sex scenes, one a masterstroke, one – not. The masterstroke is in Godard’s Alphaville and involves both Eddie Constantine and Anna Karina keeping their clothes on throughout. In a complex sequence the camera moves around a hotel suite; occasionally we see Constantine and Karine, sometimes apart, occasionally just touching hands. We know what the characters are doing, but we are left to create for ourselves, and are energised by the amazing images we are shown. As my not a masterstroke, I present to you the infamous ‘love-scene’ from The Matrix Reloaded, a clinical exercise in body-rubbing which is about as un-erotic as you can get. The emotion it inspired in me was dismay, but perhaps I’m unusual.

So where have we got to?

 

This comes back to a subject that my readers will be very aware of: the tyranny of realism. Sexualism is sexual realism: it serves up a precisely calculated portion of arousal and then leaves nothing behind. Which is fine if your ambition as an artist is limited to getting bums on seats and then shifting them out again as fast as possible, because your goal is the count of bums on seats, not the degree to which you have inspired people to be better, more inventive, more creative, more loving, more at one with themselves and the world. If your goal is the latter, then you won’t do sexualism. And indeed, think of my examples: from Miss Bellum to Alphaville the positive examples are distinguished by the fact that they are all highly unrealistic. The fountain scene in La Dolce Vita is utterly unrealistic, but that is part of what makes it resonate so, and become far more powerful and, are I say it, seminal, than any number of images of Mastroianna making love with Ekberg would have been.

So, earlier I suggested that part of the reason why older film-makers were more artful was their fear of the censor. Maybe so, but that does not explain the European films in my list, or Miss Bellum. It may have been a contributing factor, but the real drivers seem to be those descried in the earlier essay: the desire for predictable emotional responses (arousal is so much easier to predict than eroticism) and the fear of transcendence. Great art, as I said above, turns us from spectators into co-creators. Somebody who fears transcendence will not want to be a co-creator, because who knows where it may end? Rather than emerging from the cinema or the gallery with our sense of self re-confirmed, we may emerge as different people. And our culture’s tragedy is that so few people now are willing to take up that challenge and see what they may become.