In Depth

What Is Masculinity In Art, And Do We Have To Care?

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What Is Masculinity In Art, And Do We Have To Care?
Jeff Koons, Hulk Elvis via Wallstreet International Magazine

If you’ve ever perused Hinge or read a newspaper, you’ll know too well that men, particularly white, straight, cis ones, won’t stop eating themselves alive. Much fuss has been made over our culture’s shift in gender expectations and its attendant leakage over the past three decades, but this particular cannibalizing impulse seems to have escaped the hand-wringing afforded more headline-ready habitus. Journalists fret over the incel subReddits, the frantic cancelations, the rise of Joe Rogan, the stylized bombast of our dreadful president, and all for good reason; disaffected white guys can’t seem to stop shooting up schools, powerful white guys can’t seem to stop assaulting anyone within cufflink distance. The most long-winded among us have already dedicated endless bandwidth to every political ripple that bridged gaps or closed ranks could possibly animate, interrogating the supremacist contours of men who vote against their own best interests or berate the women they’re allegedly trying to bang. White dudes feel abandoned, redundant. If we laugh at them, they’ll murder us. So, writers and artists and scientists and teachers commit to the breathless task of solubility, of reinscribed significance, as white men gnaw away at their own fingers and toes, hoping in vain that thickened flesh might mark them as simultaneously used and useful. 

 Untitled, Richard Prince, 2013 via Sotheby's

This lack of appendages doesn’t prevent them from making art, though. I originally wanted to write a pithy piece explaining why most contemporary painting made by white guys is ugly, abstract and rendered in green (I won't names names but...you know what I'm talking about), but the more I poked around, the more floored I was by “masculinity’s” ontological slipperiness inside and outside an art world context. For a concept so socially punitive and monolithic, it feels skinny in practice. In his landmark book, Female Masculinity, queer theorist Jack Halberstam posits that masculinity “becomes legible where and when it leaves the white male middle class body”, invoking icon James Bond as the ultimate gender-cypher, normatively defined by the prosthetics that denote an ironically “natural” state of embodiment. While he refuses an elevator pitch, Halberstam makes a case for masculinity as an “epic” performance either protected or policed according to its anchored identity. Feminist aesthetics scholar Hilde Hein created another workable ‘90s blueprint, describing the “feminine stain” as a bleminishing agent; masculinity may be rigid, then, but only in the service of a self-consciously porous exterior. 

The history of masculinity inspires some head-scratching, too, especially in the context of race. Jacobean doctors thought women were just undercooked men, regularly warning little girls that running too fast might encourage penises to spontaneously sprout from excess heat. Gender aberration doesn’t encourage swift, cruel correction through “grotesque” rarity, but, rather, on account of its comparative prevalence. It follows that “fragile masculinity” itself is a tautology; white male apotheosis of any variety necessitates brittleness, and that frailty is compounded by white male conflation, not reduced. Power always relies on precarity for its lure, and masculinity needs a white male host in order to operate in Hegelian terms; without that subterranean network of social concessions, racist entitlement, sexual conquest and symbolic antagonism, masculinity means something fundamentally different; separate, even, sometimes radical. As such, I find myself tracking a shadow delineated by its very absence, personal and collective in equal measure. Lesbian feminist Sarah Ahmed noted that “When we talk of white men, we are describing an institution...reproduced as a “citational relational”; not to cite white men is not to exist”. This “masculinity crisis” is a white male problem because it’s designed to be. They’re eating themselves on purpose, you guys. 

Painter in Bed, Philip Guston, 1973 via MoMA 

On October 19th of this year, GQ Magazine released an elegant infographic titled “The State of Masculinity Now” based on the self-reported opinions of 1005 readers. The results say quite a bit more about the editors than the data pool at hand; the survey includes questions like, “are you comfortable crying at weddings?” (37% of men are)  and “have you taken a yoga class?” (10% of men have). Uncertain, inscrutable and defensive, white masculinity in art follows a similar pattern of almost petty reification. A casual JStor search unearths the usual suspects—queer artists who subvert it, artists of color who affirm it, women artists who interrogate it. This, of course, is evidence of Ahmed’s aforementioned “citational relational”; it’s hard to get play in the canon if you don’t engage. White, straight masculinity is the benchmark, and even opposition to it helps assert its social dominance. Art historian Maura Reilly’’s recent review of the renovated MoMA for ARTnews supports this observation; she lambasts the museum’s decision to shoe-horn a Faith Ringgold painting in a gallery full of Picassos, asking, “Why is she integrated into a room dedicated to a white male master? MoMA justifies the placement like so: “Ringgold based her composition on Picasso’s Guernica (1937)—the artist’s response to the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War—which she regularly visited when the monumental canvas was on display at the Museum of Modern Art.” Positioned as she is, Ringgold is presented as a derivative of Picasso, or as a supporting character.” She also calls out the placement of a single Alma Thomas painting in an all-Matisse room, declaring it “tokenism”. I’d go one step further. These pieces have been implemented as an external means of standardizing aesthetic white masculinity through plausibly deniable difference. Both curatorial moves are “inclusive” in the same manner that quicksand is inclusive. This is where the cannibals begin their process. 

Not unlike pornography, it seems that unironically masculine art subscribes to a “know it when you see it” model. Scholarship on the subject localizes in the Abstract Expressionist realm, back when the fetish of painting celebrated process over image and the cult of caucasian Male Genius was at an all time high. Following that, Pop Art introduced gentler forms of dissent and commentary, decrying “traditional gender roles” in step with postmodernism’s divestment from major narratives in general. Still, when we talk about “gender” in art, we’re usually talking about points of distinction from masculinity’s tabula rasa, an oversight that amounts to aporia at best. In her new book “Females”, trans memoirist and academic Andrea Long Chu makes the argument that “femaleness is not an anatomical or genetic characteristic of an organism, but rather a universal existential condition”, the unruly urge to become a mirror for someone else’s desire. If woman-ness is a condition, then male-ness has to be Hito Steyerl’s “poor image” of gender, a long corrupted, low-res “debris of audiovisual production...a visual idea in its very becoming”. How can such a core cultural concept, one consisting almost entirely of external signifiers, prove so visually ineffable? Sure, we hear whispers of what might constitute a “masculine” art piece in exhibition reviews, but usually in a Halberstam context, based on its migration from white male centrality. Cindy Sherman has spoken proudly about how she makes large-scale work like “the men” do, Cady Noland became famous for arranging male-coded totems into self-effacing sculptures, but things get stickier when we ask for normative, contemporary forms of admiration, not incision. When I think of masculinity in art, I think of Guston, of Shrigley, of failure, frankly. I think of a period in which questioning masculinity's individuated stability or tense relationship with prowess wasn't considered whiny, obnoxious, or intimidating, where white male vulnerability was praised, insofar as it fulfilled its necessarily heroic (or anti-heroic) edicts. 

 Stag at Sharkey's, by George Bellows, 1909 via Met Museum

If fine art shrouds masculinity in darkness, then design drags its most exacting qualities forth into the light. A recent listicle for The Spruce, an interior decor website, cites the elements of “Modern Masculine Decor” as neutral palettes, geometric patterns, mixed textures (with an “emphasis on hard, rough, or weathered surfaces”), accessories, like books, black-and-white photography, and, of course, leather. It’s impossible to discuss the discursive entanglements of gender and architecture, for instance, without mentioning Libertarian darling Ayn Rand, whose novel “The Fountainhead” capitalized on the popular perception that authors of buildings are also authors of manhood, unencumbered, independent creators concerned first and foremost by conquest over nature. Even Le Corbusier found his romantic archetype in the male nude, an “ideal presentation”, like Rand’s protagonist. Le Corbusier’s “Law of Ripolin”, the thin coat of white wash he believed imbued modern spaces with spiritual cleansing properties, masquerades as a restorative “neutral palette”, but more closely aligns with “masculine” traits like logic, truth, and cleanliness. This Modernist dismissal of “feminine” embellishment may eschew decorative frivolity, but it can’t hide from its contradictory status as a second skin, a cloak thrown over the scaffolding of identity. Indeed, just as design jargon can be gendered, gender borrows much of its lexis from design; terms like “mapping” and “construction” denaturalize identity en route to de-essentializing expression. And here we go again—white masculinity as synthetic, but mandatory for the accrual of power. It’s little wonder that capitalism holds the center in bluechip representations on the subject — Jeff Koons, the highest selling artist of all time, creates emblems for the laissez-faire market that weaponize nostalgia and traffic in surface, enacting their own semioclasm through the deployment of empty signifiers. His is the work of hegemonic masculinity, the original form of flesh-eating. 

It’s notable that the term “toxic masculinity” was coined by the self-help-oriented mythopoetic men’s movement of the ‘70s in contrast with what they termed the “deep” masculine tenets, typically measured in loss. The mythopoets believed that men suffered from too much domestic contact with women, too much separation from their fathers, too many accusations of sexism, which depleted their God-given, “deep-masculine” nature. This group would have considered a self-described male feminist “toxic”, not the other way around. And what is white masculinity without misogyny, anyway? In the art world, the two concepts seem, frankly, inextricable. While the queer academy has explained exhaustively that masculinity doesn’t have to breed chauvinism, in practice, when implemented within a heriarchical power praxis, it does just that. This goes beyond Mulvey’s “male gaze”; this is the hijack of visual language, the embedded cultural coding of heterosexist white supremacy. If masculinity is the flame, whiteness is the fentanyl. 

Untitled, David Shrigley, 2019 via Anton Kern Gallery

That brings us back to aesthetics. Gender as we know it isn’t really working anymore, and neither are its visual signifiers. White men are no longer allowed to eat us, but the hunger never left. So, cue the bloody stumps, seething resentment, and wishy washy green art. If I were to take a guess, I’d say the de-skilling and found objects and digital pastiche and gutless swathes puce are all by-products of perceived exclusion from an identity political conversation that white men refuse to believe they exist inside. Shadow-masculinity and the corporatization of marginalia as a distraction from class-based antagonism have created a patriarchally convenient but debilitating double-blind for white male artists; they crave the edge of the underclass, but can’t stand anything other than the spotlight. So, they’re left with no institutionally approved modes of artistic recourse that aren’t coded, questioned or up for recall, and we are left with a paratactical masculinity of formalistic decay or lionization, a structural parallel to its theoretical impetus. At this point, it might be useful to invoke a #notallmen disclaimer, but really, it’s no men, not a single one. In an recent essay for the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith describes Lucian Freud’s relationship to his one-time muse, painter Celia Paul. “When it came to women, he did not see. Misogyny, whatever else it might be, is a form of distortion, a way of not seeing, of assuming both too much and too little. It was beneath—or beyond—his notice to capture that the pretty, apparently passive body lying naked before him thrummed with painterly ambition, just like his”. Misogyny blinds those infected to subjectivity, and white masculinity limits the tools with which to re-enact authentic experience. 

 Self Portrait, Lucian Freud, 1986 via Artsy

Unsurprisingly, I've ranted about this subject before in person and online, and a white guy painter friend asked me what he should, well, do about it. Should he stop making art? Should he feel guilty? The answer to the latter two questions are obviously no, and as far as the first goes, it seems wise to continue working until something new happens, and interrogate the reasons it hasn't yet. It might behoove an auto-cannibal to paint in blood every once in while. 

RELATED ARTICLES: 

Q&A: The Haas Brothers on Saying 'Goodbye' To Toxic Masculinity  

 Video: A Look Inside Lucian Freud's Painting Studio

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