Posts Tagged ‘Marcus Bunyan Bench Press

23
Nov
22

Text: “Bench Press” chapter from Marcus Bunyan’s PhD research ‘Pressing the Flesh: Sex, Body Image and the Gay Male’, RMIT University, Melbourne, 2001

November 2022

 

Eugen Sandow (German, 1867-1925) 'Instructions for the use of Sandow's spring grip dumb-bells' Between 1900 and 1909 (detail)

 

Eugen Sandow (German, 1867-1925)
Instructions for the use of Sandow’s spring grip dumb-bells (detail)
Between 1900 and 1909
(23 pages): illustrations; 18 cm
National Library of Australia, Canberra viewed 10 November 2022

 

 

Since the demise of my old website, my PhD research Pressing the Flesh: Sex, Body Image and the Gay Male (RMIT University, Melbourne, 2001) has no longer been available online.

I have now republished the second of twelve chapters, “Bench Press”, so that it is available to read. More chapters will be added as I get time. I hope the text is of some interest…

Dr Marcus Bunyan November 2022

 

 

“Bench Press” chapter from Marcus Bunyan’s PhD research Pressing the Flesh: Sex, Body Image and the Gay Male RMIT University, Melbourne, 2001

Through plain language English (not academic speak) the text of this chapter investigates the development of gym culture, its ‘masculinity’1, ‘lifestyle’, and the images used to represent it. The text also examines the positive and negative effects of this culture on the individual and collective lives and bodies of gay men.

NB. This chapter should be read in conjunction with the Historical Pressings and Re-Pressentation chapters for a fuller overview of the development of the muscular male body. This chapter also contains descriptions of sexual activity.

 

Keywords

The Cult of Muscularity, male bodies, queer bodies, bodybuilding, gym culture, masculinity, images of masculinity, development of gym culture, gay men and gym culture, muscular mesomorph, gay lifestyle

 

Sections

  • The Cult of Muscularity
  • The Body and the Social Environment
  • Science, Photography and the Body
  • Before / after photographs
  • Power and the Muscular Body
  • The Phallic Armoured Body
  • Muscle Gods, Hot Jocks, and Gay Desire

Word count 5,000

 

 

Bench Press

 

The Cult of Muscularity

 

“… muscularity is a key term in appraising men’s bodies … this comes from men themselves. Muscularity is the sign of power – natural, achieved, phallic.”

.
Richard Dyer 2

 

 

Eugen Sandow (German, 1867-1925) 'Instructions for the use of Sandow's spring grip dumb-bells' Between 1900 and 1909 (detail)

 

Eugen Sandow (German, 1867-1925)
Instructions for the use of Sandow’s spring grip dumb-bells (detail)
Between 1900 and 1909
(23 pages): illustrations; 18 cm
National Library of Australia, Canberra viewed 10 November 2022

 

 

‘The Cult of Muscularity’ was formed in the last decade of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century in a reaction to the perceived effeminisation of heterosexual masculinity. Sporting and war heroes became national icons. Muscle proved the ‘masculinity’ of men, fit for power, fit to dominate women and less powerful men. The ‘ideal’ of the perfect masculine body can be linked to a concern for the position and power of men in an industrialised world.3

The position of the active, heroic hetero-male was under attack from the passivity of industrialisation, from the expansion of women’s rights and their ability to become breadwinners, and through the naming of deviant sexualities that were seen as a threat to the stability of society. By naming deviant sexualities they became visible to the general public for the fist time, creating apprehension in the minds of men gazing upon the bodies of other men lest they be thought of as ‘pansies’. (Remember that it was in this decade the trials of Oscar Wilde had taken place in England after he was accused of being a sodomite by The Marquis of Queensbury. It is perhaps no coincidence that the rules that governed boxing, a very masculine sport in which a man could become a popular hero, were named after his accuser. By all accounts he was a brute of a man who despised and beat his son Lord Alfred Douglas and sought revenge on his partner, Oscar Wilde, for their sexual adventures).

Muscles became the sign of heterosexual power, prowess, and virility. A man had control over his body and his physical world. His appearance affected how he interacted with this world, how he saw himself, and was seen by others, and how closely he matched the male physical ‘ideal’ impacted on his own levels of self-esteem. The gymnasium became a meeting point for exercise, for health, for male bonding, and to show off your undoubted ‘masculinity’.

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Untitled [Gym group possibly German/Prussian]' c. 1890-1910

 

Anonymous photographer
Untitled [Gym group possibly German/Prussian]
c. 1890-1910
Silver gelatin photograph
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

 

 

Ultimately, going to the gym has more to do with fitting a certain ‘ideal’ image of ‘masculinity’, that of the muscular mesomorph, than it has to do with getting fit. Aerobic activity such as swimming or running are much more effective ways of getting fit. But what gym work does much better than aerobic activity is that it builds muscle mass. And for a man that wants to be recognised for his physical presence, having more muscle is the epitome of the ‘ideal’.

In a patriarchal society, in other words in a society where men have power over women and other men, to have a masculine body was / is seen as the opposite of being feminine or gay – it emphasises the difference between the position of men and women / gays in society. They are seen as inferior whilst a mesomorphic body confirms ‘real’ men in positions of power over others. No wonder homosexuals found muscular working class men (‘rough trade’) so enticing a sexual fantasy in the early part of this century, and still do to this day.

Still, in being named by the majority limp-wristed ‘nancies’ and by accepting that label now historically ourselves, we forget that not all gay men were pansies with effeminate mannerisms, even in those times.

In contemporary society the division between straight and gay ‘masculine’ bodies has diminished. At dance parties it is now difficult to tell which is the gay body and which is the straight. In seeking acceptance and assimilation into the general society gay men have moulded their bodies on the ‘ideal’ of the muscular mesomorphic model. Both gay and straight men are likely to be striving after the same muscular mesomorphic ideal so much so that they may both become homogenised into a non-feminine, paradoxical asexual masculinity, where very little sexuality exudes from any-body at all!

 

Siegmund Klein – 'Strength & Health' (March 1933) Vol. 1 No. 4

 

Siegmund Klein – Strength & Health (March 1933) Vol. 1 No. 4

 

 

The Body and the Social Environment

The development of ‘The Cult of Muscularity’ may also have parallels in other social environments which were evolving at the turn of the century. For example, I think that the construction of the muscular mesomorphic body can be linked to the appearance of the first skyscrapers in cities in the United States of America. Skyscrapers were a way increasing visibility and surface area within the limited space of a crowded city. One of the benefits of owning a skyscraper like the Chrysler Building in New York, with its increased surface area, was that it got the company noticed. The same can be said of the muscular body. Living and interacting in the city, the body itself is inscribed by social interaction with its environment, its systems of regulation and its memories and historicities (his-tor-i-city, ‘tor’ being a large hill or formation of rocks).

Like a skyscraper, the muscular body has more surface area, is more visible, attracts more attention to its owner and is more admired. The owner of this body is desired because of his external appearance which may give him a feeling of superiority and power over others. However, this body image may also lead to low self-esteem and heightened body dissatisfaction in the owner (causing anxiety and insecurity in his identity) as he constantly strives to maintain and enhance his body to fulfil expectations he has of himself.

Of course, body image is never a static concept as the power of muscular images of the male body resides in their perceived value as a commodity. This value is re-enforced through social moral values, through fluid personal interactions, and through the desire of self and others for this type of body image; it is a hierarchical system of valuation. It relies on what type of body is seen as socially desirable and ‘beautiful’ in a collective sense, even though physical attractiveness is very much a personal choice.

In the four photographs from the 1930s (below) we can see a range of ethnic men portrayed, all seeking the attainment of what was, for them, the perfection of the muscular human form. Indian, Chinese, Black American and Phillipino are all represented. Compare this to today’s cast of body types from a gay muscle fitness video (soft core pornography video aimed squarely at the gay market) and you can see how the broad inclusion of different ethnic types has been tailored to the demographics of its particular buying public (‘masculine’ white gay male).

Today what is desirable in a masculine body seems to be even more limited in its stereotyping than was the case in the 1930s. Then, at least, there was a diversified range of ethnicity. Now, within the ‘lifestyle’ health and fitness magazines, the paradigm for the desirable male body is predominantly the tanned, toned, muscular white male. Thankfully, professional buff, body-builders do still come in all colours!

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Anselus T. Del Rosario' c. 1930

 

Anonymous photographer
Anselus T. Del Rosario
c. 1930
in Berry, Mark. Physical Improvement. Vol. II. Philadelphia: Milo Publishing Company, 1930, p. 78
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

“There is something unusual about the back of this young Phillipino, Anselus T. Del Rosario. The pose is rather original and offers suggestion to others.”

 

Anonymous photographers. 'Three bodybuilders' c. 1930

 

(left to right)

Anonymous photographer
Cheah Chin Poh
c. 1930
in Berry, Mark. Physical Improvement. Vol. II. Philadelphia: Milo Publishing Company, 1930, p. 261
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

Anonymous photographer
Prof. C. C. Shah
c. 1930
in Berry, Mark. Physical Improvement. Vol. II. Philadelphia: Milo Publishing Company, 1930, p. 261
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

Anonymous photographer
Wesley Williams
c. 1930
in Berry, Mark. Physical Improvement. Vol. II. Philadelphia: Milo Publishing Company, 1930, p. 154
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

 

 

Science, Photography and the Body

In the Victorian and Edwardian eras the knowledge of science, such as the science of physical fitness for example, allowed the body to become an object that was subject to technical expertise. Physical fitness was taken up by governments and their armies to enforce standards of fitness for recruits, the medical examination ensuring suitability for service and the fitness regime ensuring that all bodies were interchangeable and replaceable in the event of death on the battlefield. The body became a site of intervention; it became malleable and plastic, subject to the demands of the self and State. This trend continues at an unabated pace today especially within the personal sphere; in the ‘miracles’ of steroid enhancement, plastic surgery, implants and liposuction all there to help you attain the ‘perfect’ body. Now ALL bodies can start to look alike, interchangeable one with another.

Photography, also a relatively new science in that era (photography is both an art and a science), confirmed the ‘truth’ of the power of the muscular body through documentary evidence. The camera acted to legitimise the concerns of men over their body image through relationship of power to the practice of representation. Surveillance of the self became a major factor in the construction of your social identity. Through photographs you could judge for yourself whether you measured up to the ‘ideals’ put forward as valuable by society. Therefore images of muscular mesomorphs can and do affect the self-esteem of individuals through a powerful semiotic system that is embedded in the idealised body factually re-presented in a photograph.

This power is validated because people know the key to interpret the coded ‘sign’ language through which photographs, and indeed all images, speak. In neglecting to acknowledge alternative significations present within this semiotically coded power structure there is the opportunity for one dominant image to be chosen selectively over other types of less ‘valuable’ body images, eventually leading to the possible loss of the key to decode the desirability of ‘other’ body images.

The problem with dominant images that promote the masculinity and power of the muscular mesomorphic body is that they portray one supposed objective truth which is impossible, for there can be can many changing ‘truths’ (viewed from many subjective and objective positions).4 Personally, I believe we should see things not solely as they are from an objective point of view and not purely from an appeal to an “actively struggled for” subjectivity (as argued for by David Smail), but perhaps emerging from a knowledge of the fluid nature of truth, an ever changing combination of many variable truths. Being true to ourselves does not require a one-eyed point of view for we must try to see things from many different points of view to appreciate that there are many shifting, non-final subjective, objective and variable ‘truths’ in life.

Images can be a fabrication just as easily as they are supposed to speak the language of an objective ‘truth’. For example, in the 1870s Dr. Barnardo had photographs taken that showed rough, dirty, and dishevelled children arriving at his homes, and then paired them with photographs of the same children bright as a new pin, happy and working in the homes afterwards. These photographs were used to sell the story of children saved from poverty and oppression and happy in the homes; they appeared on cards which were sold to raise money to support the work of these homes. Dr. Barnardo was taken to court when one such pair of photographs was found to be a fabrication, an ‘artistic fiction’.5

Photographs can be used not only as a tool of observation but as a commodity, to advertise, support and sell the existence of a regime of power that controls the body, in the case of Dr. Barnardo the body of the child. In this way the body of the child becomes a commodity too.

 

Before / after photographs

Anonymous photographer. 'M. J. Poncela' c. 1930

 

Anonymous photographer
M. J. Poncela
c. 1930
in Berry, Mark. Physical Improvement. Vol. II. Philadelphia: Milo Publishing Company, 1930, p. 211
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

 

Anonymous photographer. 'George Renzi, Jr.' c. 1930

 

Anonymous photographer
George Renzi, Jr.
c. 1930
in Berry, Mark. Physical Improvement. Vol. II. Philadelphia: Milo Publishing Company, 1930, p. 210
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Untitled' c. 1952

 

Anonymous photographer
Untitled
c. 1952
‘Before photo/after photo, 35 day Johnson bodybuilding program advertisement’, in Rader, Peary (ed.,). Iron Man. Vol. 12. Dec-Feb. 1952, No. 4. Alliance, Nebraska: Iron Man Publishing Co., 1952, pp. 26-27.
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

 

Anonymous photographer. 'The New Theory of Evolution (Unretouched photographs taken over a period of less than 12 weeks)' 1998

 

Anonymous photographer
The New Theory of Evolution (Unretouched photographs taken over a period of less than 12 weeks)
1998
Experimental and Applied Sciences advertisement, 1998, in Low, Cheh N. (ed.,). Exercise for Men Only. New York: Chelo Publishing, December 1998, pp. 2-3.

 

 

The same process of commodification of the body can be seen in the ‘Before and After’ photographs from the 1930’s. The science of physical fitness has always sold product to go with its ideals and the use of before and after photos echoes those of Dr. Barnardo. Here I am looking at my own weak and puny body and then looking at these photographs and advertisements that are telling me: ‘You can have a bigger, better body in only (substitute x amount of time) days or weeks!’ You can attain the perfect male body. But it will cost you. In time, in money, in sacrifices, perhaps in failure. But you desire that body don’t you, you want that body, you want to belong!

The photographs from the 1930s show examples of bodily improvement over a period of one year, a reasonable amount of time given the improvement shown. As the century progressed however, the claims for products became more outlandish and photography was used to bolster these claims. In the 1952 photographs above for example, the photograph is used to authenticate the models physical improvement in just 35 days! Note, however, that in the second photograph the model is standing closer to the camera than in the first one, he has a tan which makes him look healthier, is oiled up, and his hair is bigger to give him more physical presence. He is also engaging the gaze of the viewer, returning his look, which in itself is a more challenging, defiant act.

Nothing much has changed in advertising claims from the 1950s until today. In the unretouched sequence of photographs (above) from 1998 (for a leading supplier of sports nutritional supplements), we are asked to believe a new, super-fast “Theory of Evolution” exists, all achieved in less than 12 weeks.

I am not suggesting for one minute that these photographs actually lie. But they do restructure the ‘truth’. Firstly, the model does not have an ‘ordinary’ body to start with. You only have to look at the legs and arms in all four photographs to realise that this man is probably a bodybuilder who is out of condition and training. In the first photograph he is stooped, unkempt, unshaven, hairy, flat-footed & slovenly. Much the same as the photographs of children arriving at the Dr. Barnardo’s homes in the 1870s. Funny about that. As the sequence progresses he becomes happier, taller, more ‘pumped’ and ‘cut’ till he positively shines like burnished steel, his muscles glowing as he strides on the balls of his feet into the future. His fists become clenched to emphasise his bulging muscles and his manliness.

Hey, its a ‘lifestyle’ thing. Muscular men look after their bodies, have no moral disorders and are happier and more successful!

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Bill Good executing Stretching Exercise course' c. 1930 and 'Bill Good executing Free Motion exercises' c. 1930

 

(left and right)

Anonymous photographer
Bill Good executing Stretching Exercise course
c. 1930
in Berry, Mark. Physical Improvement. Vol. I. Philadelphia: Milo Publishing Company, 1930, p. 143
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

Anonymous photographer
Bill Good executing Free Motion exercises
c. 1930
in Berry, Mark. Physical Improvement. Vol. I. Philadelphia: Milo Publishing Company, 1930, p. 127
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

 

 

Power and the Muscular Body

Increasingly, the body was not only able to exercise on its way to muscularity it was also able to exercise the ritual semiotic language of the hyper-masculine body as power over the social body in general. A sociology of the body was constructed based on the interaction with history, memory and context. Men sought to transform their body and the social body through the structures and rituals of power, naming deviants such as homosexuals as ‘other’ and therefore reducing them to an inferior status. It is not surprising that homosexual men are attracted to this power. For a long time they have been subject to persecution & derision, and saw themselves as inferior. Now, with the adoption of hyper-masculine bodies as the epitome of gay male image, gay men seek to be ‘real’ men perhaps even more than straight men. Unfortunately this may reinforce traditional patriarchal stereotypes within the gay community, a community that is supposed to pride itself on equality and diversity. The very things that homosexuals have long fought against, oppression and discrimination, may be confirmed in the exercising of power by the muscular ‘ideal’ within the gay community.

In the conformation of the power of the muscular body I suggest that gay men may have adopted a mask to cover their own insecurities in order to seek acceptance for themselves into the gay and general population. This mask has become more than just a facade for some gay men, it has become their reality. The owner of a body that measures up to the ideal may seek acceptance of him- self in the perfection of his own reflection. What he sees in this reflection is, perhaps, not his ‘true’ self but a mask that is put on, a pre-formed surface that reflects the values of the society from which it emanates, perhaps a surface that is only skin deep inscribed by his social enculturation and assimilation. Once put on this mask is very difficult to take off; how many times do we see the words “straight acting” in newspaper advertisements in the gay press describing what is sexually offered and wanted, as though being str8-acting enables our gay masculinity and makes us ‘real’ men? I believe it is no longer an ironic act for gay men to try and fulfil the straight hyper-masculine ideal, not a ‘camp’ ironic comment as it used to be, but a deadly serious endeavour. This has important repercussions for the psyche of all gay men and I discuss these repercussions later in this chapter and also in the (S)ex-press chapter.

As can be seen from the photographs within this text, there has been a development of the complete ‘look’ of the body over the last century. Beautiful muscles compliment a beautiful ‘lifestyle’6 and an equally beautiful tan. Appearance and the power of that appearance is now of the essence. The appearance of this ideal ‘lifestyle’ is available to everyone of us, regardless of social status or age, how rich or poor we are as gay men – yeah, right!

 

Raymond Vino. 'Steve Downs' 1998

 

Raymond Vino
Steve Downs
1998
in Low, Cheh N. (ed.,). Exercise for Men Only. New York: Chelo Publishing, December 1998, p. 103.

 

Bob Jones (American) 'Short Mens Class', 'Untitled', 'Untitled' 1952

 

(top to bottom)

Bob Jones (American)
Short Mens Class
Untitled
Untitled
1952
in Rader, Peary (ed.,). Iron Man. Vol. 12. Dec-Feb. 1952, No. 4. Alliance, Nebraska: Iron Man Publishing Co., 1952, p. 8
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

 

Now aren’t there some good looking men amongst this lot! I wonder how many of them were gay? Not an effeminate man to be seen here, you can bet your life. These are all ‘real’ he-men: strong, masculine and ruggedly virile examples of manhood. There is still a range of ethnicities present in these 1950s photographs, from Brazilians to Afro-Americans & men of Asian origin but there is not a hairy man amongst them. They probably shaved for the event, a very feminine thing for a man to do! These photographs also serve to illustrate another point: that although body shape might be slightly different when compared to each other, overall the bodies seem to form a homogenised whole, forms which seem to have been pressed from the same mould (‘template man’).

 

 

We observe the billboards with the fashionable ‘lifestyle’ Calvin Klein underwear ads, featuring some truly amazing bodies. We desire these bodies in all their airbrushed glory, ‘simulations’ of an ideal world where bodies are perfect, not all sorts of shapes and sizes as in the real world.

We lust after the perfect idealisation of the muscular body and the projected power that this ‘ideal’ body image and its lifestyle proposes. This perfection is never obtainable, of course, because we can always have bigger muscles, a better tan, more fashionable clothes, etc. … The ‘ideal’ is like a carrot on a stick, always just beyond our reach, like an ever receding dream.

 

Anonymous. 'Untitled [Posing straps]' 1952

 

Anonymous
Untitled [Posing straps]
1952
Athletic Model Guild advertisement, in Rader, Peary (ed.,). Iron Man. Vol. 12. Dec-Feb. 1952, No. 4. Alliance, Nebraska: Iron Man Publishing Co., 1952, p. 50.
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

 

 

The Phallic Armoured Body

In much of the imagery of the muscular male the body becomes a substitute for the undisclosed and hidden power of the penis. The body becomes a huge phallus, hard and rigid, strong, erect, and powerful. The muscular body acts as a phallic symbol, surrounding itself with an implied sexual mystique, the physical embodiment of the male phallic power. But the penis can never live up to these expectations.7 After all the penis is just an appendage of limp flesh and looks faintly ridiculous most of the time!

Thus, the muscular body becomes a form of dominance display; hard, bulging muscles embodying the mystical potency and virility implied in its phallic construction. Gay men are attracted to the fantasy of a powerful phallus. They too want to be powerful. In some sections of the gay community (especially the ‘Muscle Marys’ as they are known) the muscular body is seen as the epitome of physical attractiveness. This body type has a powerful image, as much for the supposed power of its hidden penis as anything else. A big body can stand as a metaphor for the power of a big dick, something which some gay men seem obsessed with. Muscular gay men are often derided by other gay men by saying that ‘he must have a big body because he can’t have a big dick’, or if a gay man is obviously on steroids then his balls, ‘will have shrivelled up like walnuts and he will have no sex drive’.

I wonder whether this a truth or are some gay men just jealous?

The body as phallus has also become an armoured body, supposedly able to protect its occupant from the anxieties and stress of modern life. This body
allows the occupant to control his environment through his body, not allowing any transgressive pleasures / messy secretions / intimacy / love to interject into his controlled armoured existence – no a(r)mour, no love. The body surface becomes an impervious barrier, all orifices closed to seepage across its boundaries. Hard, shiny and smooth nothing can penetrate this perfect projectile. This is especially significant with the onset of the HIV/AIDS virus. A big body was and is perhaps still seen as a healthy body, muscles becoming a sign and symbol of health within the gay community.

“Burn off more than you can chew” (below) is a contemporary advertisement that I believe illustrates the linkage between the phallic smooth, white muscular mesomorphic body and product. Advertising helps encourage the body to become a consumer of the product and postulates the body as a perfect product for consumption itself, at one and the same time. The model with the 6-pak looks longingly at the phallic, erect, penis shaped bar (a ‘bar’ in gay slang is a stiff cock), eats the bar to burn fat, to become ‘ripped’, so other men can gaze at and desire the perfection of his body as a product they wish to consume themselves by having sex with him. His body, his (chocolate) bar becomes a metaphor for the mythological power of his bulging (just) hidden penis.

 

Iron Man

1950s bodybuilders

 

(left to right)

Douglas (photographer)
“Vic Seipke of the N.E.YMCA of Detroit. Height 5’9″. 186 pounds, neck 18, chest 48, arm 17, waist 29, thigh 25, calf 16, ankle 9 and a half. Won Mr. Michigan, 3rd in Mr. Mid-America 7th in Mr. America.”
1952
in Rader, Peary (ed.,). Iron Man. Vol. 12. Dec-Feb. 1952, No. 4. Alliance, Nebraska: Iron Man Publishing Co., 1952, p. 23.
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

Anonymous photographer. “Bill Pearl, another pupil of the Stern gym is 21 and at a height of 5’9″ weighs 209, with a 17″ neck, 47″ chest, 32″ waist, 18″ arm, 8″ wrist, 25 and a half thigh and 16″ calf.”
1952,
in Rader, Peary (ed.,). Iron Man. Vol. 12. Dec-Feb. 1952, No. 4. Alliance, Nebraska: Iron Man Publishing Co., 1952, p. 22.
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

Bob Jones (photographer). “Jim Park, Mr. World”
1952, in Rader, Peary (ed.,). Iron Man. Vol. 12. Dec-Feb. 1952, No. 4. Alliance, Nebraska: Iron Man Publishing Co., 1952, p. 7.
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

Fritshe (photographer)
“Mike Barrilli, a pupil of Fritshe, won the Jr. Mr. Atlantic title in 1950. At 20 years of age he is 5’6″ tall and weighs 160 pounds of perfectly proportioned muscle.”
1952
in Rader, Peary (ed.,). Iron Man. Vol. 12. Dec-Feb. 1952, No. 4. Alliance, Nebraska: Iron Man Publishing Co., 1952, p. 21.
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

 

Anonymous photographer/designer. "Burn off more than you can chew" c. 1999

 

Anonymous photographer/designer
“Burn off more than you can chew”
c. 1999
Aussie Bodies advertisement in Clifton, Paul and Gennari, Isabelle (eds.,). Midsumma Festival 2000 guide. Melbourne: Midsumma Festival, 1999.

 

Body Builders

 

(left to right)

Carl Hensel
Untitled
Nd
in Dutton, Kenneth. The Perfectible Body. London: Cassell, 1995, p. 193

Anonymous photographer
Bob Paris
Nd
in Dutton, Kenneth. The Perfectible Body. London: Cassell, 1995, p. 248

 

 

Muscle Gods, Hot Jocks, and Gay Desire

 

“It was my dream to get a body … I would see all of those guys with their muscles and I wanted to be one of them … It’s not even like I want to really even hang out with the muscle gods, I mean, after I do get into bed with one, it usually is a letdown. Beyond the sex, which is sometimes really dull, I’m usually saying to myself, why did you obsess over getting this guy? We never have anything in common. They’re usually so involved in their bodies – and it really is an all-consuming project to be a muscle god, and work out, like, all the time – that they don’t have any interests beyond talking about the gym and the scene. But that’s the thing about it. It’s the private club, the world of the muscle gods, and you don’t want to be excluded from it …”

.
Mark, 44 year-old New Yorker quoted in Signorile, Michelangelo. Life Outside. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997, p. 168.

 

In the relationship between gay men and going to the gym to muscle up a sense of belonging to the group is an important factor. Often having been persecuted in early life gay men want to belong to a team, and if belonging to the team that is seen as the most desirable means getting a bigger body then so be it, they will do anything to get that body. Gay men can become muscle gods too!

In the above photograph by Carl Hensel we can see one of these muscle gods, his body pumped up like a hooded cobra about to strike. The importance of his genital area is reduced thanks to the smallness of his posing pouch. In serious bodybuilding reducing the eroticism of the body is important in containing the possibility of homoerotic attraction when men view other men’s bodies. The supposed lack of homoeroticism in bodybuilding is upset when one of the fold, for example Bob Paris (above right), openly declares himself to be gay.

Men do lust after and desire other men’s bodies in any context.

This desire has been commodified in contemporary muscular male imagery. The ‘hot jock’ stereotype has been legitimised as a site of lust and desire. The advertisement below comes from a magazine entitled Exercise for Men Only, a publication aimed primarily at ‘lifestyle’ straight and gay men. These images are not aimed at women. They reveal, as the ad says, “Every shape of their Stunning, Young, Muscular Bodies,” and appeal to men who admire, come along and “feel the heat” of these types of physique. This is soft porn of the entire body a la 1990s style, clothed in the justification of beautiful, artistic cinematography much as the photographers of the 1950s used the devise of association with classical ‘ideals’ to justify the publication of their images. Note how in this advertisement all the bodies conform to the stereotypical ‘ideal’ of the muscular, buff, tanned, white male.

To a great extent this ‘ideal’ has been promulgated and propagated by the imagery used in American gay porn videos since the early 1980s. The imagery of Muscleforce (below) is a good example, linking as it does muscle and power within an eroticism of homosexual lust and desire.

For more detailed information about the development of the imagery of gay pornography in the media please visit the gay male pornography section in the In-Press chapter.

Dr Marcus Bunyan 2001

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Muscle Heatwave' Vista Video advertisement, c. 1998

 

Anonymous photographer
Muscle Heatwave
Vista Video advertisement, c. 1998
in Low, Cheh N. (ed.,). Exercise for Men Only. New York: Chelo Publishing, December 1998, p. 47.

 

Join Eight Muscular Young Fitness Stars in this Steamy Sequel to “Muscles in Paradise”
Exciting Sequences and Remarkable Photography reveal every shape of their Stunning, Young, Muscular Bodies
Come Along… Live the Adventure and Feel the Heat!
(Includes Beautiful Artistic Cinematography of the ENTIRE Male body)

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Muscleforce' c. 1996

 

Anonymous photographer
Muscleforce
c. 1996
Cover of Fox Studios pornography video

 

 

Footnotes

  1. Throughout my PhD and project notes (including the development of interview questions, the analysis of data, and the development of evolving theory), I have used the quotation below as the basis for my definition of the term ‘masculinity’.
    “The category of “masculinity” should be seen as always ambivalent, always complicated, always dependent on the exigencies [meaning: necessary conditions and requirements] of personal and institutional power … [masculinity is] an interplay of emotional and intellectual factors – an interplay that directly implicates women as well as men, and is mediated by other social factors, including race, sexuality, nationality, and class … Far from being just about men, the idea of masculinity engages, inflects, and shapes everyone.”
    Berger, Maurice, Wallis, Brian and Watson, Simon (eds.,). Constructing Masculinity. New York: Routledge, 1995, pp. 3-7. Introduction.
  2. Dyer, Richard. Only Entertainment. London: Routledge, 1992, p. 114, quoted in Stratton, Jon. The Desirable Body. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996, p. 195.
  3. See Gorn, Elliott. The Manly Art. London: Robson Books, 1986.
  4. “Where objective knowing is passive, subjective knowing is active – rather than giving allegiance to a set of methodological rules which are designed to deliver up truth through some kind of automatic process [in this case the image], the subjective knower takes a personal risk in entering into the meaning of the phenomena to be known…
    Those who have some time for the validity of subjective experience but intellectual qualms about any kind of ‘truth’ which is not ‘objective’, are apt to solve their problem by appealing to some kind of relativity. For example, it might be felt that we all have our own versions of the truth about which we must tolerantly agree to differ. While in some ways this kind of approach represents an advance on the brute domination of ‘objective truth’, it in fact undercuts and betrays the reality of the world given to our subjectivity. Subjective truth has to be actively struggled for: we need the courage to differ until we can agree.
    Though the truth is not just a matter of personal perspective, neither is it fixed and certain, objectively ‘out there’ and independent of human knowing. ‘The truth’ changes according to, among other things, developments and alterations in our values and understandings … the ‘non-finality’ of truth is not to be confused with a simple relativity of ‘truths’.”
    Smail, David. Illusion and Reality: The Meaning of Anxiety. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1984, pp. 152-153.
  5. See Tagg, John. The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988, p. 85.
  6. ‘Lifestyle’ was a term conceived by the Viennese psychiatrist Alfred Adler in the 1920s in order to describe the attitudes that inform a person’s experience of life. By the 1960s style, fashion and consumerism had overlaid its original meaning and now a ‘lifestyle’ is perhaps a style of life based on your ability to have, compete and move in valued social circles. It has become a combination of both materialism and psychiatry. Much as ‘homosexuality’ was medically named as a deviancy in the 1870s in order to control that deviancy through treatment and regulation, ‘lifestyle’ has links to the medical profession which names its [lifestyles that is] effects on the identity of the self.
    “Lifestyle refers to a relatively integrated set of practices chosen by an individual in order to give material form to a particular narrative of self-identity. The more tradition loses its ability to provide people with a secure and stable sense of self, the more individuals have to negotiate lifestyle choices, and attach importance to these choices.”
    Schilling, Chris. The Body and Social Theory. London: Sage Publications, 1993, pp. 181-183.
  7. “The penis can never live up to the mystique implied by the phallus. Hence the excessive, even hysterical quality of so much male imagery. The clenched fists, the bulging muscles, the hardened jaws, the proliferation of phallic symbols – they are all straining after what can hardly ever be achieved, the embodiment of the phallic physique.” (My italics).
    Dyer, R. Only Entertainment. London: Routledge, 1992, p. 116, quoted in Stratton, Jon. The Desirable Body. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996, p. 195.

 

 

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04
Feb
14

Exhibition: ‘The Weak Sex – How Art Pictures the New Male’ at Kunstmuseum Bern

Exhibition dates: 18th October 2013 – 9th February 2014

Participating artists: Vito Acconci / Bas Jan Ader / Luc Andrié / Lynda Benglis / Luciano Castelli / Martin Disler / VALIE EXPORT and Peter Weibel / Gelitin / Pascal Häusermann / Alexis Hunter / Cathy Joritz / Jesper Just / Jürgen Klauke / Frantiček Klossner / Elke Silvia Krystufek / Marie-Jo Lafontaine / Peter Land / Littlewhitehead / Sarah Lucas / Urs Lüthi / Manon / Paul McCarthy / Tracey Moffatt / Josef Felix Müller / Ursula Palla / Adrian Piper / Anne-Julie Raccoursier / Ugo Rondinone / Carole Roussopoulos / Rico Scagliola and Michael Meier / Sylvia Sleigh / Nedko Solakov / Megan Francis Sullivan / Sam Taylor-Johnson / Costa Vece / William Wegman / Silvie Zürcher.

 

 

Alexis Hunter. 'Approach to Fear: XVII: Masculinisation of Society - exorcise' 1977

 

Alexis Hunter (New Zealand, b. 1948)
Approach to Fear: XVII: Masculinisation of Society – exorcise
1977
10 Colour photographs, mounted on two panels, both 25 x 101cm
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery
© 2013 ProLitteris, Zürich
(From the section Experiments)

 

 

The Cult of Muscularity

 

“… muscularity is a key term in appraising men’s bodies … this comes from men themselves. Muscularity is the sign of power – natural, achieved, phallic.”

.
Richard Dyer. Only Entertainment. London: Routledge, 1992, p. 114

 

“The formation of ‘The Cult of Muscularity’ (Elliott Gorn. The Manly Art. London: Robson Books, 1986) in the last decade of the 19th century was a reaction to the perceived effeminisation of heterosexual masculinity. The position of the active, heroic hetero-male was under attack from the passivity of industrialisation, from the expansion of women’s rights and their ability to become breadwinners, and through the naming of deviant sexualities that were seen as a threat to the stability of society. By naming deviant sexualities they became visible to the general public for the first time, creating apprehension in the minds of men gazing upon the bodies of other men lest they be thought of as ‘pansies’. (Remember that it was in this decade the trials of Oscar Wilde had taken place in England after he was accused of being a sodomite by The Marquis of Queensbury. It is perhaps no coincidence that the rules that governed boxing, a very masculine sport in which a man could become a popular hero, were named after his accuser. By all accounts he was a brute of a man who despised and beat his son Lord Alfred Douglas and sought revenge on his partner, Oscar Wilde, for their sexual adventures). Muscles became the sign of heterosexual power, prowess, and virility. A man had control over his body and his physical world. His appearance affected how he interacted with this world, how he saw himself, and was seen by others, and how closely he matched the male physical ‘ideal’ impacted on his own levels of self-esteem. The gymnasium became a meeting point for exercise, for health, for male bonding, and to show off your undoubted ‘masculinity’…”

The development of ‘The Cult of Muscularity’ may also have parallels in other social environments which were evolving at the turn of the century. For example, I think that the construction of the muscular mesomorphic body can be linked to the appearance of the first skyscrapers in cities in the United States of America. Skyscrapers were a way increasing visibility and surface area within the limited space of a crowded city. One of the benefits of owning a skyscraper like the Chrysler Building in New York, with its increased surface area, was that it got the company noticed. The same can be said of the muscular body. Living and interacting in the city, the body itself is inscribed by social interaction with its environment, its systems of regulation and its memories and historicities (his-tor-i-city, ‘tor’ being a large hill or formation of rocks). Like a skyscraper, the muscular body has more surface area, is more visible, attracts more attention to its owner and is more admired. The owner of this body is desired because of his external appearance which may give him a feeling of superiority and power over others. However this body image may also lead to low self-esteem and heightened body dissatisfaction in the owner (causing anxiety and insecurity in his identity) as he constantly strives to maintain and enhance his body to fulfil expectations he has of himself.

Of course, body image is never a static concept for the power of muscular images of the male body resides in their perceived value as a commodity. This value is reinforced through social and moral values, through fluid personal interactions, and through the desire of self and others for a particular type of body image; it is a hierarchical system of valuation. It relies on what type of body is seen as socially desirable and ‘beautiful’ in a collective sense, even though physical attractiveness is very much a personal choice.”

.
Dr Marcus Bunyan. Excerpt from “Bench Press,” in Pressing the Flesh: Sex, Body Image and the Gay Male, PhD thesis, RMIT University, Melbourne, 2001.

 

*PLEASE NOTE THIS POSTING CONTAINS ART PHOTOGRAPHS OF MALE NUDITY AND MALE SEXUAL AROUSAL – IF YOU DO NOT LIKE PLEASE DO NOT LOOK, FAIR WARNING HAS BEEN GIVEN*

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Many thankx to the Kunstmuseum Bern for allowing me to publish the art work in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

Ugo Rondinone. 'I Don't Live Here Anymore' 1998

 

Ugo Rondinone (Switzerland, b. 1962)
I Don’t Live Here Anymore
1998
C-prints between Alucobond and Plexiglas
Each 180 × 125cm
Kunstmuseum Bern, purchased with the donation of an Art Lover
(From the section Masculinity as Masquerade)

 

 

Digitally manipulates photos of women depicted in various suggestive poses, replacing their features with his own in a sufficiently consistent way for the image to retain its erotic content. By slipping into different bodies, he tests his own body and appearance, and he raises the issue of reality. The artist can only offer his own, man-made version.

 

Lynda Benglis. 'Artforum Advertisement in: Artforum, November 1974, Vol. 13, No. 3, S. 3-4' 1974

 

Lynda Benglis (American, b. 1941)
Artforum Advertisement in: Artforum, November 1974, Vol. 13, No. 3, S. 3-4
1974
26.7 × 26.5 × 0.5cm
Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, München
(From the section Experiments)

 

Peter Land. 'Peter Land d. 5. maj 1994' 1994

 

Peter Land (Danish, b. 1966)
Peter Land d. 5. maj 1994
1994
Colour video
Time, 25 Min.
Courtesy Galleri Nicolai Wallner
(From the section Crisis and Criticism)

 

Ursula Palla. 'balance' 2012

 

Ursula Palla (Switzerland, b. 1961)
balance
2012
Colour video installation
Time, 8 Min.
Courtesy the artist
(From the section Crisis and Criticism)

 

 

Masculinity under scrutiny

This themed group exhibition is our contribution to the discussion on new role definitions of the male gender, a topic that has long been on the agenda of academia and popular culture. Works by artists of both sexes will address the issue of how contemporary art stages male role models and masculinity, critically scrutinising the content of the same.

Who or what makes a man? How do men define themselves in art since feminism; how do they reflect on their gender and the portrayal thereof? Whereas the preferred angle of engaging with female artists is still today via “gender”, this is still a novel angle for looking at male artists. And as feminist art has finally become an established entity in major institutions, it is time to take a closer look at the art produced by men about men. The Sexual Revolution as well as the feminist and gay movements did not have only one side to them: they likewise impacted the roles of men and transformed images of masculinity. The exhibition therefore explores how contemporary Western artists of both sexes have, since the 1960s, invented new notions of masculinity or shattered existing ones. It does this with some 45 installations, some of which are large and extensive.

With this exhibition, the Kunstmuseum Bern is addressing a topic that, until now, has hardly been tackled in a museum context: the “normal” white heterosexual male, hitherto the ultimate measure for everything we consider characteristically human, is now facing a crisis. The exhibition and catalogue draw on the reflections and insights gained from masculinities studies to throw light on the consequences of the contemporary male crisis and how it is reflected in art, making the extent of the crisis visually palpable.

The works selected for the show have been divided up into six sections. These sections explore what “normal” might be and what the new nuances inherent in being “male” are today. The prescribed tour of the exhibition begins with the chapter on “Strong Weaknesses” and then proceeds through the sections focusing thematically on “Experiments”, “Emotions”, “Eroticism”, “Critique and Crisis”, and “Masculinity as Masquerade”. This route follows, at the same time, a roughly chronological order. The show is accompanied by a rich fund of educational programs with tours of the exhibition, discussions of artworks with invited guests, as well as a film program in collaboration with the cinema Kino Kunstmuseum, and not least, workshops for schools.

Text from the Kunstmuseum Bern website

 

Tracey Moffat. 'Heaven' (still) 1997

Tracey Moffat. 'Heaven' (still) 1997

Tracey Moffat. 'Heaven' (still) 1997

 

Tracey Moffat (Australian, b. 1960)
Heaven (3 stills)
1997
Colour video
Time, 28 Min.
© 2013 ProLitteris, Zürich
(From the section Eroticism)

 

 

Male to the Hilt: Images of Men

The exhibition The Weak Sex – How Art Pictures the New Male zeroes in on the evolution of male identity since the 1960s. On view are works by 40 artists regardless of gender who question masculinity and stage it anew. The Kunstmuseum Bern seeks to foster dialogue in the exhibition and is therefore increasing its focus on social media. For the first time our visitors can respond to issues raised by an exhibition immediately on location…

 

The whole spectrum of art media and male images

The exhibition is presenting works that cover the entire range of media used by artists, including paintings, drawings, photographs, films, videos, sculptures and performance-installations. Artists of all ages are represented in the exhibition, enabling it to highlight images of men in all age groups. Each of the artworks questions social norms, who or what a man is, while orchestrating masculinity in novel ways and reflecting on what it means to be a “man”. The artworks in the show take up the theme of masculinity or male emotions – as discussed in society in general or as openly demonstrated by men today: as weeping sport heroes, the disadvantaged position of divorced fathers, overstrained top managers or criminal youths.

 

Of strong weaknesses, eroticism and the male in crisis

The exhibition is divided into six sections that explore key aspects of masculinity studies and thus simultaneously follow a loose art-historical chronological thread. The introductory section takes up the theme of “Strong Weaknesses” with representations of men weeping or expressing fear. The second section “Experiments” scrutinises the exciting events that took place in conjunction with the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The section “Emotions” presents male emotionality in intensely stirring artistic orchestrations. The section “Eroticism” take us through a selection of artworks that investigate men as objects of desire. The last two sections of the exhibition “Crisis and Critique” and “Masculinity as Masquerade” investigate traditional male images and give us an account of the potential of new gender orientations.

Press release from the Kunstmuseum Bern website

 

Bas Jan Ader. 'I'm Too Sad to Tell You' 1970-71

 

Bas Jan Ader (born Winschoten, Netherlands, 1942, died 1975 presumably on the high seas. Lived in California, USA, as of 1963)
I’m Too Sad to Tell You
1970-1971
16mm, s/w
Time, 3:34 Min.
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam
(From the section Strong Weaknesses)

 

Sylvia Sleigh. 'Paul Rosano in Jacobson Chair' 1971

 

Sylvia Sleigh (born Llandudno, Wales, Great Britain, 1916; died New York, USA, 2010)
Paul Rosano in Jacobson Chair
1971
Oil on canvas
131 x 142cm
Courtesy The Estate of Sylvia Sleigh & Freymond-Guth Fine Arts Zürich
(From the section Eroticism)

 

Peter Weibel with Valie EXPORT. 'Peter Weibel Aus der Mappe der Hundigkeit' (Peter Weibel From the Underdog File) 1969

 

Peter Weibel (Austrian, b. 1944) with Valie EXPORT (Austrian, b. 1940)
Peter Weibel Aus der Mappe der Hundigkeit (Peter Weibel From the Underdog File)
1969
Documentation of the action
5 s/w photographs, 40.4 x 50 cm / 50 x 40.4cm
Sammlung Generali Foundation
Vienna Foto: Josef Tandl
© Generali Foundation © 2013 ProLitteris, Zürich
(From the section Experiments)

 

Gelitin. 'Ständerfotos - Nudes' (Standing Photos - Nudes) 2000

 

Gelitin
Ständerfotos – Nudes (Standing Photos – Nudes)
2000
Series of 15 Lambda prints
Various dimensions
(From the section Eroticism)

 

Gelitin. 'Ständerfotos - Nudes' (Standing Photos - Nudes) 2000

 

Gelitin
Ständerfotos – Nudes (Standing Photos – Nudes)
2000
Series of 15 Lambda prints
Various dimensions
(From the section Eroticism)

 

 

Austrian artists’ collective with Wolfgang Gantner, Ali Janka, Florian Reither, and Tobias Urban. Apparently became acquainted at a summer camp in 1978. Changed their name from Gelatin to Gelitin in 2005.

 

 

Those who lived through their childhood and youth as members of the baby-boomer generation in the period of the late nineteen-fifties to the mid-seventies, as we did, received a clear view of the world along the way. It was the Cold War. There were precise dividing lines, and it was possible to completely separate good and evil, right and wrong, from one other. The division of roles between men and women was regulated in a way that was just as self-evident. For many children of this time, it was natural that the father earned the money while the mother was at home around the clock and, depending on her social position, went shopping and took care of the laundry herself, or left the housework to employees in order to be able to dedicate herself to “nobler” tasks such as, for instance, beauty care. Family and social duties were clearly distributed between husband and wife: the “strong” sex was responsible for the material basics of existence and for the social identity of the family. The “weak” or also fair sex, in contrast, was responsible for the “soft” factors inside: children, housekeeping, and the beautification of the home. The year 1968 did away with bourgeois concepts of life. Feminism and emancipation anchored the equality of men and women in law. And since the nineteen-sixties, art has also dealt intensively and combatively with feminism and gender questions.

Since VALIE EXPORT walked her partner Peter Weibel on a leash like a dog in their public action that unsettled the public in 1968, legions of creators of art, primarily of the female sex, have questioned the correlations between the genders and undertaken radical reassessments. The formerly “strong” gender has thus long since become a “weak” one. Nevertheless, the exhibition The Weak Sex: How Art Pictures the New Male is not dedicated first and foremost to the battlefield of the genders. Nor is the gender question, which has so frequently been dealt with, posited in the foreground. The Weak Sex is instead dedicated to man as object of research. In what state does he find himself now that his classical role has been invalidated? How does he behave after the shift from representative external appearance to work within the family unit? And where does he stand in the meantime in the midst of so many strong women? What has become of the proud and self-assured man who once signed the school report cards with praise or reproach as head of the family? What has become of the XY species since then is presented – insightfully, sarcastically, and wittily – in the exhibition by Kathleen Bühler.

Part of the Preface to the exhibition by Matthias Frehner, Director of the Kunstmuseum Bern and Klaus Vogel, Director of the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden

 

Sam Taylor-Johnson. 'Steve Buscemi' 2004

 

Sam Taylor-Johnson (British, b. 1967)
Steve Buscemi
2004
From the series: Crying Men, 2002-2004
C-Print
99.2 x 99.2cm framed
Courtesy White Cube
© Sam Taylor-Johnson
(From the section Strong Weaknesses)

 

Sam Taylor-Johnson. 'Gabriel Byrne' 2002

 

Sam Taylor-Johnson (British, b. 1967)
Gabriel Byrne
2002
From the series: Crying Men, 2002-2004
C-Print
86.2 x 86.2cm framed
Courtesy White Cube
© Sam Taylor-Johnson
(From the section Strong Weaknesses)

 

Costa Vece. 'Me as a Revolutionary, Dictator, Guerilla, Freedom Fighter, Terrorist, Jesus Christ' 2007

 

Costa Vece (Swiss, b. 1969)
Me as a Revolutionary, Dictator, Guerilla, Freedom Fighter, Terrorist, Jesus Christ
2007
Ultrachrome – Digitalprint
106 × 80cm
(From the section Crisis and Criticism)

 

Ugo Rondinone. 'I Don't Live Here Anymore' 1998

 

Ugo Rondinone (Swiss, b. 1962)
I Don’t Live Here Anymore
1998
C-print between Alucobond and Plexiglas
180 × 125cm
Kunstmuseum Bern, purchased with the donation of an Art Lover
(From the section Masculinity as Masquerade)

 

Rico Scagliola & Michael Meier (Swiss, b. 1985; Swiss, b. 1982) Nude, Leaves and Harp 2012

 

Rico Scagliola & Michael Meier (Swiss, b. 1985; Swiss, b. 1982)
Nude, Leaves and Harp
2012
Floor Installation, HD Digital Print on Novilux traffic, dimensions variable
Ed. 1/5

 

Jürgen Klauke. 'Rot' 1974

 

Jürgen Klauke (Germany, b. 1943)
Rot
1974
Series of 7 photographs
Each 40 × 30cm
Kunstmuseum Bern
(From the section Experiments)

 

 

Stronger and Weaker Sexes: Remarks on the Exhibition

Kathleen Bühler Curator Kunstmuseum Bern

In 1908, the Genevan politician and essayist William Vogt wrote the book Sexe faible (The Weak Sex), in which he examines the “natural” weaknesses and inabilities of the female gender. Intended as a “response to absurd exaggerations and feminist utopias,”1 since then the catchy title has shaped the battle of the sexes as a dictum. Like Otto Weininger’s misogynistic study Geschlecht und Charakter (Sex and Character, 1903), Sexe faible is one of the texts from the turn of the previous century that justified the legal, political, and social subordination of women based on their anatomical and, according to the opinion of the author, thus also intellectual inferiority in comparison with men.2 The perception of women as the “weak sex” persisted tenaciously. It is first in recent years that this ascription has slowly been shifted to men, as for instance in the report by neurobiologist Gerald Huther called Das schwache Geschlecht und sein Gehirn (The Weak Sex and His Brain) published in 2009.

Polemics has long since yielded to statistics, and the most recent biological discoveries are gaining currency, such as the fact that male babies are already at risk in the womb because they lack a second X chromosome.3 This genetic “weakness” would apparently lead seamlessly to a social weakness, since males more frequently have problems in school, turn criminal, and die earlier.4 In addition to the findings on biologically based weaknesses also comes the social, economic, and political challenge, which has for some years been discussed as a “crisis of masculinity.” With this metaphor, “an attempt is made to apprehend all the changes that contribute to the fact that the dominance of the male gender, which was formerly consolidated to a large extent, … has lost the obviousness of being self-evident.”5 Nothing therefore demonstrates the transience of gender stereotypes more clearly, and one might rightly ask whether the earlier “weaknesses” might long since have come to be considered new “strengths.” The exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Bern takes up the thread that was already spun by the small but noteworthy exhibition in Switzerland Helden Heute (Heroes Today) in 2005.6 At that time, the focus was put on hero images in contemporary art and on society’s current need for strong men in art and politics.7 The current exhibition in Bern, in contrast, argues quite differently that specifically images of “weak” men best represent the social and cultural liberation movements of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The fact that men today are allowed to express their feelings publicly, as is shown for instance by the example of the exceptional Swiss athlete Roger Federer, or that they are staged by female artists as object of desire and no longer as subject of desire is a crucial innovation in the visualisation of gender identities. After various exhibitions in recent years were dedicated to gender relations, gender imprinting, or the social latitude in performative stagings of gender,8 the exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Bern focuses exclusively on men in contemporary art for the first time.9 It brings together the points of view of male and female artists who deal either with their own experiences with men and/or being a man, or with an examination of the images of men that are available. This exhibition has been long overdue.

Nonetheless, what first needs to be overcome is the perception that “gender” themes are a woman’s matter and that only marginalised positions have addressed their social gender. Hegemonic male types – thus men who, according to general opinion, embody the dominant masculine ideal most convincingly – have only been reflected in public through media for a relatively short time, even though the male gender is also a sociocultural construct, just like that of women, transgender, or inter-gender individuals.10 What comes to be expressed here is the invisibility of norms. As is generally known, it is those social groups that hold the most power that actually expose their own status the least. In Western cultural tradition, these are physically sound, white heterosexual men.11 They remain the norm unchallenged as a “blind spot” without their position of power and their power to make decisions ever becoming a focus. The masculine-heterosexual dominance succeeds in “remaining out of the question itself,” as the art historian Irit Rogoff has criticised, by subordinating all representations of the “other” to their own norm, including women, individuals with a different sexual orientation, and non-whites.12

The fact that male bodies are becoming visible today in the most unexpected places is demonstrated in a striking way by the work Nude, Leaves and Harp (2012) by Rico Scagliola and Michael Meier, which graces the entrance area to the exhibition in Bern. The artist duo incorporated detailed images of their naked, sculpted bodies into a palm and marble decor on the floor. The path to the exhibition literally leads over their nakedness. Two exhibitions in Austria were also recently dedicated to this new presence of the naked man,13 with numerous works documenting “the deconstruction of hegemonic models of masculinity – the look of desire at the male body as well as body cult and exploitation,” which is also a focus of the exhibition in Bern.14 However, while those responsible in Linz and Vienna assumed a distanced, art-historical perspective by taking an iconographic approach based on the selection of motifs or a chronological approach according to epoch, the exhibition in Bern favours a different perspective. It focuses on representations of masculinity in art since the nineteen-sixties while simultaneously taking the historical conditions of being a man into consideration by utilising central issues in masculinity research as a guide. What thus results is a logical division of the exhibition and this publication into six chapters.

The introductory chapter “Strong Weaknesses” revolves around the change in gender virtues and considers this based on the example of the weeping and fearful man. The chapter “Experiments” presents eccentric artistic stagings and socio-critical actions that were influenced by the sexual revolution. The chapter “Emotions” highlights the point in time at which men themselves increasingly cast aside the image of the successful and unflinching hero and explore men’s emotionality through doing so. The chapter “Eroticism” describes the change in gaze and position from the male subject to object of desire. The final two chapters “Crisis and Criticism” and “Masculinity as Masquerade,” in contrast, are dedicated to a younger generation of artists who deal out criticism of their “fathers” and also discover the arsenal of gender stagings and their utopian potential anew.

 

Footnotes

  1. Une riposte aux exagérations, aux absurdités et aux utopies du féminisme is the subtitle.
  2. Otto Weininger, Geschlecht und Charakter, 19th ed. (Leipzig and Vienna, 1920), p. 390. Both Weininger’s book and Vogt’s pamphlet, which saw signs of cultural decay in the women’s movement, are considered to be expressions of a growing antifeminism. The often-used term “weak sex” then also provided the title of a theatre piece by Edouard Bourdet in 1929, which was even filmed in 1933.
  3. “Männer – Das schwache Geschlecht und sein Gehirn: Peter Schipek im Gespräch mit Prof. Dr. Gerald Hüther,” p. 2 (accessed July 2013) No long available online.
  4. Carmen Sadowski, “Der Mann: das schwache Geschlecht,” Express.de, (accessed July 14, 2013) No longer available online.
  5. Michael Meuser and Sylka Scholz, “Krise oder Strukturwandel hegemonialer Männlichkeit?,” in In der Krise? Männlichkeiten im 21. Jahrhundert, ed. Mechthild Bereswill and Anke Neuber (Münster, 2011), p. 56. See also the text by Michael Meuser in this book.
  6. Helden Heute: Das Heldenbild in der zeitgenössischen Kunst, Centre Pasquart, Biel, 2005.
  7. Sociologists interpret this as a sign of need in times of social upheaval. See Dolores Denaro, in Helden Heute: Das Heldenbild in der zeitgenössischen Kunst, ed. Dolores Denaro, exh. cat. Centre Pasquart (Biel, 2005), p. 20.
  8. Oh boy! It’s a Girl, Kunstverein München, 1994; Féminin – Masculin, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1995; Rosa für Jungs: Hellblau für Mädchen, Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst, Berlin, 1999; Das achte Feld, Museum Ludwig, Cologne, 2006; to name but a few.
  9. To date, this has occurred only in smaller exhibition spaces, above all during the nineteen-eighties and nineties, and has remained practically undocumented. An exception in this respect was the exhibition Women’s Images of Men (1984) at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, organised by Joyce Agee, Catherine Elwes, Jacqueline Morreau, and Pat Whiteread.
  10. Inge Stephan, “Im toten Winkel: Die Neuentdeckung des ‘ersten Geschlechts’ durch men’s studies und Männlichkeitsforschung,” in Männlichkeit als Maskerade: Kulturelle Inszenierungen vom Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart, ed. Claudia Benthien and Inge Stephan (Cologne et al., 2003), p. 13.
  11. Richard Dyer, “Introduction,” in The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation, ed. Richard Dyer (London and New York, 1993), p. 4.
  12. Irit Rogoff, “Er selbst: Konfigurationen von Männlichkeit und Autorität in der Deutschen Moderne,” in Blick-Wechsel: Konstruktionen von Männlichkeit und Weiblichkeit in Kunst und Kunstge-schichte, ed. Ines Lindner et al. (Berlin, 1989), p. 141.
  13. Nude Men, Leopold Museum, Vienna, 2012-13; The Naked Man, Lentos Museum, Linz, 2012-13.
  14. Barnabàs Bencsik and Stella Rollig, “Vorwort,” in Der nackte Mann: Texte, exh. cat. Lentos Kun-stmuseum Linz and Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art (Budapest, 2012), p. 7.

 

Urs Lüthi. 'Lüthi weint auch für Sie' (Lüthi also cries for you) 1970

 

Urs Lüthi (Swiss, b. 1947)
Lüthi weint auch für Sie (Lüthi also cries for you)
1970
Offset printing on paper
85.5 x 58.6cm
Ed. 15/100
Kunstmuseum Bern Sammlung Toni Gerber (Schenkung 1983)
© Urs Lüthi
(From the section Experiments)

 

Luciano Castelli. 'Lucille, Straps Attractive' 1973

 

Luciano Castelli (Swiss, b. 1951)
Lucille, Straps Attractive
1973
Collage on cardboard
100 x 70cm
Kunstmuseum St. Gallen
© 2013 ProLitteris, Zürich
(From the section Experiments)

 

littlewhitehead. 'The Overman' 2012

 

littlewhitehead (Craig Little, born Glasgow (UK), 1980. Blake Whitehead, born Lanark (UK), 1985)
The Overman
2012
Mannequin, towels, Boxing Glove, wooden base
120 x 120 x 120cm
Saatchi Collection, London Courtesy of the artist/Sumarria Lunn Gallery/Saatchi Collection
(From the section Crisis and Criticism)

 

Pascal Häusermann. 'Megalomania, No. 8' 2009

 

Pascal Häusermann (Swiss, b. 1973)
Megalomania, No. 8
2009
Monotype, oil paint, shellac
43 x 29cm
Private Collection, Courtesy the artist
(From the section Crisis and Criticism)

 

Sarah Lucas. 'Self Portrait with Knickers' 1999

 

Sarah Lucas (British, b. 1962)
Self Portrait with Knickers
1999
From Self Portraits 1990-1999
1999
Iris print on watercolour paper
80 x 60cm
© Sarah Lucas, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London
(From the section Masculinity as Masquerade)

 

Sarah Lucas. 'Self Portrait With Skull' 1996

 

Sarah Lucas (British, b. 1962)
Self Portrait With Skull
1996
From Self Portraits 1990-1999
1999
Iris print on watercolour paper
80 x 60cm
© Sarah Lucas, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London
(From the section Masculinity as Masquerade)

 

Sarah Lucas. 'Smoking' 1998

 

Sarah Lucas (British, b. 1962)
Smoking
1998
From Self Portraits 1990-1999
1999
Iris print on watercolour paper
80 x 60cm
© Sarah Lucas, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London
(From the section Masculinity as Masquerade)

 

Silvie Zürcher. 'Blue Shorts' 2005-6

 

Silvie Zürcher (Swiss, b. 1977)
Blue Shorts
2005-6
From the series I Wanna Be a Son
Collage
31.5 x 24.4cm
Courtesy Silvie Zürcher
(From the section Masculinity as Masquerade)

 

 

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E: info@kunstmuseumbern.ch

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

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Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Orphans and small groups’ 1994-96 Part 2

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