“Any violation of a woman’s body can become sex for men; this is the essential truth of pornography.”
― Andrea Dworkin
In my last post I wrote a little about the art establishment and how it is controlled by white men. A reader of the post asked me if I thought anything at all had changed. I said not. This is why.
While you have images like these being displayed in top art galleries and published in fine art books, then how can anything have changed?
Richard Kern is a middle-aged, white man who was born, lives and works in the USA. He is variously described as an underground artist, a filmmaker, a photographer. Never as a pornographer. He is an artist. Kern’s work is feted in art circles, where his images of women are critiqued for their artistic merit. The art establishment facilitates his ‘work’ and he is now a wealthy man, thanks very much. He has been interviewed for numerous art publications and on TV. But not as a pervert. He is an artist.
So let’s look at his art. (I should say at this point that I thought long and hard about which images to include here as they are all so offensive). Kern likes very young women; if this was porn it would be the ‘barely legal’ variety. The models are dressed, when they are dressed at all, not in the clothes of a glamour model, but in the cotton pants and T shirts of an average teenager. Despite youthful vulnerability, these young girls are shown raising their skirts and tops to willingly display their bodies to our gaze. The images could be the handiwork of a friend at a teen sleepover, with girls innocently romping around in a various states of undress. The settings are often domestic to give the impression, not only of informality, but also of an intimate relationship between the photographer and the photographed. But it isn’t a friend taking these shots, it is a man. And if for one minute you are fooled into thinking these women are in control of how they are seen, then a look at this image below clearly reminds us that it is Kern who is in complete control of the images he produces, directing the models to show exactly what he wants them to.
So apart from pretending the models are actively promoting their own nakedness and he just happens to be there with his camera, Kern also likes to prowl around and catch naked women unawares, or at least give that impression. There are endless shots of semi naked women in the woods, their intimacy intruded upon by the camera lens. Seriously, what is going on in the head of a man who replicates the behaviour of a predatory voyeur and presents it as art?
Another disturbing image shows a naked woman emerging from a shower, with the phallic lens of Kern’s camera peeping through the door. This is creepy, voyeuristic behaviour presented as art. This is niche porn presented as art. The most unabashedly voyeuristic, a series called Up-Skirt, which has been given house room in galleries all around the world, is a collection of photographs that Kern has taken from the floor as he looks up women’s skirts. Here he doesn’t just adopt a voyeuristic point of view, he openly celebrates the voyeur and reduces the models to their genitals. This is the language of misogyny.
Just as an aside, 13% of all sex crimes reported in England and Wales in 2011/12 were defined as voyeuristic, and these included cases of men who secretly photographed up women’s skirts.
There seems to be no area of male perversion that Kern will not explore in the name of art. He is truly heroic in his campaign to display women in just about every conceivable image of submission. A short film he directed in 1992 is called Sewing Circle and is seven minutes of filming a woman having her labia sewn up by another woman. The unspeakable cruelty and horror is only matched by the cynicism with which Kern appropriates a phrase typically associated with all-female activity for the title. This film has been produced as a collection of Kern’s short movies, all of them showing hardcore pornography, and a blu-ray version is available on Amazon.
The link between art and pornography is an old one and Kern is not the first to objectify women in the name of subversive art. There is no shortage of historical examples of art being a masquerade for pornographic representations of women. Indeed, before the invention of the photographic image, artists were the earliest pornographers. Mostly, sexually explicit images were produced for a wealthy patron who would commission a painting of a particular theme that would arouse him. The subject of classical mythology provided a good excuse for a bit of nudity. Such paintings were not often for public display, as they are now, but were intended to be hung in a library or dressing room, or some other private space belonging to the client. But one painting comes to mind when I look at the photography of Richard Kern.
The above painting is considered to be a ‘masterpiece’ of Rococo painting and it is what the artist is best known for. It was a private commission by a man who wanted an erotic painting that featured himself and would have been shocking even in the libidinous time in which it was created. It depicts a woman on a swing being spied on by a young man hiding in the bushes. Her skirts are raised and we anticipate that the voyeur is gaining some illicit sexual pleasure from seeing this woman’s legs. It is obvious that the woman is aware that she is being observed and is therefore made complicit in her own sexualisation. She is seen as enjoying the attentions of the peeping tom. However, her response is entirely created by the artist. Just as with Fragonard, Kern poses his models to suggest that they are complicit in their own sexualisation and objectification. This is the language of pornography. Or else he sneaks up on them and photographs them unawares. This is the language of abuse.
Just as there is a history of the objectification of women in art, so too there is a history of the exclusion of women from the art establishment. Linda Nochlin wrote of how there are no great women artists, not because we have not reclaimed them, not because the meaning of greatness is different when applied to women artists, but because the manufacture and display of art, the education about art, the patronage of art and the critical attention of art is biased towards men. White men. A man like Richard Kern can play out his own rape-y, masturbatory fantasies and it is called art. He can show a woman with her head down a toilet or with a candle in her anus and it is called art. To me, this is not subversive but is a signifier for the inherent sexism and misogyny within the art establishment and demonstrates very clearly who is in charge of the production and consumption of art. Rather than images like those above being dismissed as offensive and unacceptable, a feminist backlash has resulted in any criticism of such imagery as art as anti-sex, anti-choice and even anti-feminist.
As an art historian I am continually disgusted by the perpetual cycle of the objectification of women by men, who are in turn feted and rewarded. While the language of pornography continues to hold currency with the art establishment, and whilst the guardians of artistic merit are white men, men like Richard Kern will continue to be given centre stage whilst women artists struggle for recognition. The continued objectification of women within the art world colludes with the pornographers and confirms women, not as creators of the image, but as subjects of the image for male consumption.