A Defense of
by Miles Mathis
A ghost arising from the past—from the period of Ancient Greece to the period of the Edwardians say—would look upon the title of this paper with curiosity or confusion. He might ask his airy self, “How does human beauty require a defense?” One might as well write or read a defense of chocolate ice cream. But a modern reader will not be confused for a moment. He or she will more likely wonder that I have the audacity to bring the subject up at all, since I am an artist and, beyond that, have made some claim to intelligence. Surely I know the left’s position; surely I don’t want to be seen to be on the right; surely I know that those two are the only choices?
Fortunately I have already crossed and burned all bridges and am now striding ahead into the treeless and waterless regions, the blasted plains beyond all possible caring. Out here I can speak sense to the cypresses and the myrtles and they will not be offended. The living are weeping saltily in the cities; out here the only human listeners are ghosts of the past, ghosts who remember fondly the chocolate ice creams.
I arrived at this paper in the usual way. Someone asked me a question many years ago, a question so utterly absurd and shocking to my system that I was forced to file it away until I reached the outer regions. Now that I am here I can unwrap it without fear or disgust, as a sort of game. This was the question, though it will seem unremarkable at first: “Don’t you ever paint ‘everyday people’” Pause, pause, pause. What could I say to that, in a city situation? How to respond to an “everyday person.” I never painted what I paint to be unfriendly. I never talked to people, “everyday” or not, to be unfriendly. Like Nietzsche, I saved my agonies for a distant unwrapping.
But now that I am safely in the desert, under a vast arm of heaven, I may tell you. No, my dear, I didn’t ever paint everyday people and never shall. If I wanted to interact in fastastical situations with everyday people, I simply woke up and walked out the front door. If I wanted to collect everyday images, I set my one-step camera on stun and began snapping indiscriminately. Once home, I could relive the non-glory of that everyday on every otherday, watching myself and others do nothing important forevermore. I could then have my giant cache of digital banality, to soothe my normal soul into a banal and hopefully dreamless sleep.
It seems to me, at times, though, that the everyday people may not be as consistently boring as they pretend. They want to take offense at beauty and distinction in visual art, since this gives them some social clout, but in other respects they do not drift so cowishly into quiet pastures. Do they watch everyday movies, read everyday books, play everyday vidgames, read everyday magazines with everyday articles? It would seem not. I can’t remember a movie or book or TV show that was about going to the grocery store, getting the correct change, going to work, talking on the phone about reordering computer paper, coming home, having a TV dinner, and then going out and not meeting anybody. Even Seinfeld, which was supposed to be about nothing, was gloriously full of interesting things happening. People being funny, for one thing, which almost never happens with everyday people. Meeting pretty people, crazy people, people with personalities, unpredictable people. This almost never happens to everyday people, which is why they watch it so avidly on TV.
But painting is one of those things, like the comics page, that is now supposed to be boring. It is required to be, by some statute. It is as if it has been cordoned off for the exclusive use of those who cannot bear excitement or emotion. For the longest time, painting was the exclusive domain of that most arid of subjects, politics. Art became a century-long sermon on morals, and nearly the entire world dozed off. Even this was too rich a fare for some, who took refuge in theory. Here the art could be dispensed with altogether—it was just a wispy suggestion, a quiet finger pointing at a nearly formless idea. One eidolon announcing another. This was as close to death as one could get without hiring a hearse. Nietzsche’s preachers of death, the priests, the spiders, had founded a new career on a new rock. Art was the newest vampire, the newest tomb song. From here all health could be attacked. An attraction to beauty was just one sign of this health.
But at last the congregation began to awaken, hungry for some refreshment. And the new priests discussed how this hunger might be satisfied without feeding it. “We will allow them figures,” said the tarantulas, “Aye even nudes. We will allow them subjects, if they will have them. But we will not suffer them to enjoy these subjects. That can never be allowed to happen in a field that we control!”
And so Lucian Freud and Philip Pearlstein and John Currin and Eric Fischl and Jenny Saville and Odd Nerdrum arrived to entertain the congregation. And they did showeth them nudes. And the congregation were at first amazed, for were these not the very subjects that were taboo but last Sunday? And the people took the nudes greedily, for they were ahungered and athrist and their mouths were parched and their bellies empty.
But the nudes satisfyeth them not, for the nudes had been carefully embalmed and drained of all passion and emotion and pleasure. They were either sickly or rotting, as with Saville and Freud, or they were deranged and spoke of death, like Nerdrum or Currin, or they were clinical and cold, like Pearlstein, or they were unspeakably banal, a blown-up Mary Worth, updated with fake frisson, like Fischl.
And so verily the people left the frigid church and went online, where other people were doing unspeakable outrages upon one another’s bodies; and the voyeurs only desired to join them, unspeakable or no. For these people online were not everyday people. They were young and beautiful and (momentarily) healthy looking. They were having a party. All desired to join this party, for this is where the pleasure was allowed.
And so the world was divided, not into left and right, but into happy unhealthy sinners who would likely crash and burn very soon and unhappy healthy moralists who would likely do nothing, ever.
And art was an accomplice in this false division, for it lied to the people when it said that art could or should not include pleasure. It lied when it said that art in the past had not provided pleasure. It lied when it said that it was for the people’s own good that pleasure was denied. It lied when it told them that Freud was outdated, for Freud had warned, just like Nietzsche, against the priests and spiders. He had spelled out how pleasure and health would be turned on their heads, made to dance by the new priests, made to dance the tarantella.
But the people chose to believe their captors, and were groomed for ever smaller cells. The cell might shrink to the size of a TV screen, but no smaller, for the body was infinitely bendable, but technology inexorable.
Some will think I am making the case for art as licit porn, but these readers are confused by any but the most prosaic sentences. More directly: If people are allowed pleasure from natural sources then they will not be forced to seek it through dirty backchannels. These natural sources used to include human contact and art. Human contact has been curtailed and restrictured, while art has been redefined. This has forced the libido and all pleasure seeking into ever lower regions. The Greeks could visit the sublime and still be titillated. The gods themselves were lusty and were possible sexual partners for all. In the Renaissance, the same Adam could enlighten and arouse the same cardinal from the same ceiling of the same chapel. There was no separation of pleasure and knowledge, despite the apple and the tree and the snake. In the 19th century, the beautiful nudes were everywhere, almost all tied to old morality tales of one sort or another. Almost none were explicit invitations to wickedness or vulgarity or dementia, though they often included it.
In all these times, human beauty was both a call to enlightenment and one of its outcomes. Now, this role has been taken over by Hollywood. The enlightenment there is usually on a lower level, when it exists at all, since the themes of Hollywood are most often political. But the calling card is still human beauty. The beautiful stars get you into the theater, where you can be preached to by directors and screenwriters. A movie or a TV show without beautiful people in it is rare, and the movie that succeeds without them is rarer still. It must make up for it with other types of non-everyday situations and people. Very funny people, very clever people or very violent people, usually. A movie without beautiful people, violent people or funny people is like a slow car without a radio. Painful to the modern psyche.
Nerdrum and his followers would appear to think that he is a sensualist, a provider of licit pleasure in the old ways. But I would ask you to consider this: why does Nerdrum not paint people actually having sex? He has crossed every other line. He has people defecating, people with erections, people murdering eachother in cold blood for no reason, deformed people and so on. Why not a couple of hooded freaks shagging on the battle plain? Because that would be too pleasant. It could not be read as simply transgressive or disgusting. Sex is a nice thing, even between mutants of the future or dogs or worms. It cannot be totally sullied. But realism is allowed now by the avant garde, the status quo, only if it is completely upside down. Everything must be undercut or toppled. Everything must bespeak of disgust or agony or victimhood or crushing banality. The sexual act cannot easily be fit into this litany. Only a violent rape could meet the requirements, and this is what we sometimes find in avant garde realism. I predict it may be one of the subjects of Nerdrum in the future.
It will certainly hit the big time before a couple of attractive people having a pleasant shag. This last subject has been common in all the ages of man. Why nothing now? Why, in this time of ultimate freedom and transgression, do we find no pleasant copulation? It would seem to be the perfect historical opportunity for the subject to finally hit the mainstream, in some market or another. You will say that it is unnecessary with the proliferation of online photos and movies. But there are two arguments against that. One is that there is almost no pleasant copulation online. Energetic, yes, imaginative, yes, varied, yes. Loving and tender, no. The second argument against it is that painting has never competed directly with photography. A glut in one area should not affect the other negatively. In fact it should feed it. If there is an audience for one, there should be an audience for the other. And yet we don’t see it, not at the most progressive galleries, not at the most conservative galleries, not in the US, not in Europe. A few exceptions exist, of course, but these mostly support my point here. Erotica is not a part of either traditional realism nor of the avant garde. It is marginalized by both, and is probably more out of fashion now than it has ever been.
I am not preparing the way for my entry into the field, but I find it interesting to see how far the avant garde is from embracing erotica. Fischl may be flirting with the idea, but he is still a long way from it, I think. What I said about Nerdrum applies equally to Fischl. Fischl knows his market too well to completely write off its requirements. He must remain jaded and ironic, and the act itself just can’t be painted in that way. Couples doing strange things in bedrooms, yes. Having fights, sitting on eachother, sprawling upside down or legs akimbo. Couples actually having a good time, no. You can be sure that if someone in the avant garde begins painting people having sex, it will be as a statement about predatory pornography or victimhood or some other agony. There will be no pleasure involved in looking at it.
For several decades now, physical human beauty has been seen by the intelligentsia to be a categorical signal of either shallowness or oppression, or both. All female nudity is linked to the Hugh Hefner mentality, and the theorists imply not so subtly that all males are morons (at least when it comes to sex) and that all beautiful females are morons. That this implication is untrue, and just as offensive to women as to men, is rarely seen. If beauty is only skin deep—which is what this whole hypothesis rests on—then logically there must be many beautiful women who are not stupid. That is to say, if there is no connection between looks and quality (which is what the feminists are so keen to drive home) then a good looking woman would be just as likely to be smart as anyone else. And if this is the case, then the feminists should be offended only by paintings of women looking stupid or foolish. They should be offended by paintings by men depicting women looking like vapid tarts, only willing to please. Conversely, a painting by a man of an intelligent woman, one looking deeply loved, or even just looking desired, should not provoke any political outrage, no matter whether she is pretty or not. For what is wrong with desire?
For that matter, what is wrong with a stupid man painting a stupid woman with desire, as long as she has some dignity? Is everyone required to be an intellectual? Artistically, we may find depth or intelligence more interesting than ignorance or shallowness, but politically there can be nothing unfair in relatively ignorant people loving eachother, and expressing it. There is nothing at all sexist in a man wanting to paint his wife, or vice versa, no matter their IQs or levels of physical beauty.
“Ah, but you don’t paint women regardless of their IQ’s or levels of physical beauty,” the feminists will say. “You paint these odd skinny young things who may or may not be intelligent, we don’t know. They do have a certain aura: they don’t look vapid, we have to admit. They certainly look desired, possibly loved (again we don’t know). Most have a gravitas, maybe, if you want to put it that way. They appear to be real women with real personalities—personalities that you have not manufactured or suppressed. But they are certainly beautiful, they are thin, and (you claim) they are intelligent. So you are judging women on their looks. If you were not, then you would have an equal number of fat women and unattractive women. You cannot wriggle out of that one.”
But there is no need for me to wriggle anywhere. To avoid being sexist I do not have to be attracted to all women or paint all women. I only have to treat the women I am attracted to as equals, as human beings with full dignity and rights. And I have to treat the women I am not attracted to as human beings with full dignity and rights. But I do not have to be attracted to them. Neither art nor life is an equal-time situation. It would be just as feckless for me demand that women who are not attracted to me should be attracted to me by some manufactured doctrine of fairness. I am too thin for some women, too hairless for some women, too blond for others, too quiet for others, too curly for others. Too outspoken for most. I accept this. I must accept this. I have no choice. Just as they must accept their state of affairs, no matter what it is. They must accept it because no amount of complaint or legislation is going to make me attracted to women I am not attracted to, or make them attracted to me if they are not.
The state of affairs now is precisely equivalent to skinny 19th century women petitioning or ostracizing or ignoring with malice the late nudes of Renoir. “All he wants are fleshy women with melons for breasts. Why can’t men like flat-chested women? We demand equal time!” Did many women do this? I don’t think so. Would we be impressed if they had? Not really. It would look more than a bit desperate and absurd, not to say transparently personal. Why should Renoir be forced to paint what he does not like, or not to paint at all?
If only history could be stirred up a bit: Renoir could flatter the women I ignore and I could paint the flat-chested sign-wavers of his time, making them feel artistically loved and important. As it is, the glass seems to be perpetually half-empty. We only hear from the neglected. Those ignored by Botero do not come show-off for me, nor do those ignored by me go undress for Botero, though it would be more empowering (and fun) for everyone involved if they did. No, they prefer to stomp their feet and gnash their teeth and claim that none of us are real artists anyway.
Of course I care what people look like, and the people in my paintings most of all. What person, male or female, does not care what people look like, their beloved first and foremost? I care what everything looks like: my shoes, my bicycle, my bedspread, my garden, my house, my town, my dog and my neighbor’s dog. All have some sort of meaning to me. How could my lover’s beauty not interest me? Of course my lover’s looks are not the only thing that interest me about her. What she says, what she does, how she thinks, what she knows, what her voice sounds like, how she moves, how she smells. All of these things are important, and should be. But how could I pretend that the way the world looked was not important to me, and, moreover, why would I want to?
The fallout from this sort of illogical feminism is that I should quit noticing women’s bodies, and that I should do so from a desire for fairness. I should start thinking about other things, start painting other things. Overlooked women don’t like being overlooked, and this is the only solution to that problem. You can’t force men to look equally at everyone, so the fallback position is to force men to ignore everyone equally, or pretend to. What this solves, I can’t imagine. If men ever succeeded in ignoring women’s bodies, the outcry from the female sex as a whole would be deafening. Not only would all get their feelings hurt, instead of just a few; we would also probably stop having babies. Human history would quite simply end.
None of this means anything to the status quo, I know. My comments are just more cries from the past, more excuses for chauvinism. Any man who does not immediately do what he is told is a backslider, part of the “backlash.” Even my Mom, who is beautiful and intelligent and has read her Freud, does not understand why I must be attracted to beauty. If she cannot see my ontogeny as charming in any way, how can other women?
You can see that I have not written just another ode “in praise of fine wine and women.” The modern man is not allowed to be Horace or Catullus. He is not allowed his pleasures, guilty or otherwise. Unless he runs in the lowest circles, he must be on the 24- hour defensive. The upper levels of society are heavily policed by women and their priestly accomplices. We are not even allowed to love them without having our love daily bonzaied by their sharp shears of disapproval.
But these shears will never cut away beauty without taking
desire with it. The sisters are cutting
eachother’s noses off to spite us, but a clever artist will always be able to
find a lovely profile, a rare gem unschooled in political hatred and anti-pleasure.
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