Friday, 31 December 2010

Intent, context, ethics

Eyeballman aka Ron, founder of the deviantArt group Fine Art Photography, of which I am co-founder, sent me a note this morning,  in reply to another one of mine in which I had been trying to argue that intent and context are the yardstick to determine whether an art work,  a photograph in this instance, is art or porn.

It is not an idle discussion. Everyday we receive submissions, some of which  in the art nude genre, and the question continues to be asked.

Ron ultimately believes that whether something is art or porn is all to do with the viewer. Neither author nor gallerist has much control over what  viewers think (or the "messages" they perceive). He prefers to stick with the three criteria of  technique, craftsmanship and  aesthetic impact - not necessarily in that order, he says, to evaluate a photograph. Maybe. But a gallerist can do much to give the work a context and that context can have an impact on how the artwork is perceived by the viewers.

I am familiar with theories of meaning as being contextually and subjectively assigned. I would like to agree with Ron but his glossing of aesthetics  does not help me.  What is that aesthetic impact? Does it involve the intellectual and the emotional?

Can we really disregard any intentionality in the work of art? After all much conservation work is founded on the idea of recovering an artistic intention. If I were to restore Da Vinci's Mona Lisa I could not add beard and moustache  à la Duchamp, who in doing that created a completely different art work (and he did not do it on Da Vinci's original Mona Lisa)

In photography people often talk, after Barthes,  of the interplay of punctum and studium. Recognising the  studium is an encounter with  the photographer's intentions, the punctum is an unexpected discovery in our encounter with the studium.

Says Kathrina Mitcheson in her paper on intentionality and realism in photography  "The photographer can intentionally allow the accidental, leaving room for the audience to encounter a punctum, and  the control manifested in the photographer's work can serve to heighten the experience of the penetration of the studium by the punctum when it occurs".

So denying the existence of an intention or regarding it as totally secondary does not sound too convincing.

This brings me to my favourite question. Does artistic value  have anything to do with ethics? Oscar Wilde famously said " there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all". Much as I admire Oscar Wilde's wit I do not necessarily agree with him (in fact having read Orwell's essay on Kipling in which he discusses both Kipling and Wilde, the latter in less than flattering terms, my admiration for Wilde has been recontextualised).

One can dissociate an aesthetic value from an ethical one. Philosopher Jeffrey Dean makes the point that works of art have multiple dimensions of value. "A work of art" he says "that is aesthetically excellent, historically significant, and morally profound is a better work of art, overall, than one which is only some or none of these things often finds that disputants are talking past each other: one is touting the excellence of a work while the other is decrying is triviality, but it will often turn out that the former, say, is focused on the work’s historical significance and moral fortitude, while the latter is considering only a specific set of aesthetic values relevant to the genre"

Food for thought.

Happy 2011 everyone

All photos by Christèle Jacquermin and modelled by Alex B.
Clothes designer & Wardrobe stylist: JDYS (José David Plaza) Makeup: Verónica Bernal Hair: Xavi Paya Post-production: Jorge Fernández

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Honi soit qui mal y pense

 Photographer: Mark Varley

I first encountered Sally Mann's photography  following her controversial solo exhibition Immediate Family in Philadelphia in 1992. It was impossible at the time, whether one was or not into photography, not to be aware of the furore her pictures had unleashed. Her detractors thought that putting her own naked children on display was tantamount to pornography. Earlier this year  a retrospective of Mann's photography was on show in London  and this provided  an opportunity to re-examine her work and the hysterical opposition it  provoked.

In a recent interview, one of her children, Jessie, now 23, says that collaborating with her mother had made her understand  the power of art and how those photographs in particular make one ask questions about reality and fantasy. Where  does one end and the other commence? Photography can often blur that boundary. Such is its power.

Sexualisation of naked children is one of the greatest anxieties of our time.  As curator Pauline Hadaway told  Tiffany Jenkins for The Independent a' propos Sally Mann's photographs, "we live in an age when the child-protection regulations instruct us to put ourselves into the place of the paedophile when we look at images today. Thus we are no longer assessing the piece, or the subject, but instead how it could be interpreted."  Once we begin to think 'like a paedophile' our children's innocence is forever lost.

Pictures of my naked child playing in the sand, if put on show, could get me arrested.  My child is now an adult but images of him taken when he was little while playing wearing no clothes  on a Mediterranean beach could still get me into serious trouble if I were to upload them on the internet.  I, you, most of us, would see them as beautiful childhood moments. A small minority of adults would see them differently, investing them with an eroticism that my maternal eye is unable and unwilling to see.

Photographer: Marc Wainwright

Reclaiming that childhood innocence is not made any easier when  photography sexualises children, portraying adolescent/pre-pubescent eroticism by using older models camouflaged as much younger girls. Use of lighting, posing and expression can blend into creating the right kind of effect, something advertising has fully exploited.  Calvin Klein consistently used the child like Kate Moss from when she was still only 14, well into her twenties,  as well as other models, often as young as 15, sometimes older but  looking like pubescent girls,  showing them  in provocative poses in controversial ads.  From time to time  they had to be withdrawn for the outrage they sparked - viewers were troubled by the sexualisation and commercialisation of children which such ads seemed to be endorsing.

Whereas pictures of nude children in suggestively erotic poses are illegal and immediately classed as pornography, pictures of child like nude models in eroticised child like poses and expressions are not. I have seen pictures on  public sites including  deviantArt of child like girls in a state of half undress, portrayed as awkwardly and tantalisingly erotic young things.  A recent one is by an accomplished photographer who claims to have been inspired by Sally Mann in his portrait work. It shows a child like girl who appears to be feeling awkward, almost reluctant to pose without her top and yet complying, looking like a real pubescent girl would  if she were before a much older man and this man insisted she should undress for him.

It is all make believe, the model is acting like a  teenager, her hair is styled simply pinned to one side with a plain girlie slide, and she totally looks the part, so much so that some viewers have articulated their discomfort in tactful comments. One of them says  "It's technically a good photograph. There was no suggestion from me that the model was underage, merely that she appeared to be so. As a result of this, and her very youthful look, there was something inside me that told me that I should not be looking. To be honest, I'd be more concerned if I didn't have that reaction. Certainly thought provoking! " That is a very English  understatement.

I am not a prude and I know that teens do explore their sexuality and sensuality. But it is one thing to see them do it with each other, another thing to photograph them doing it and yet another thing to get a child like girl to interpret a bashful and confused teenager about to disrobe for a much older man. "

 These images can be freely downloaded.  Because of the context in which they are found  these nude portraits of an imagined highly eroticised teenage subject are distributed for public consumption. Their viewers are mostly adults. It makes me wonder.

 Photographer: Owen Gruyfedd

This is and will remain a controversial topic and here I can only sketch out my argument. I am neither condemning nor praising. I am asking questions.  Are  photographers who circumvent  the legal problems they would encounter if they were to use real underage models to be viewed as courageously pushing artistic boundaries? Are they  reclaiming 'adolescent eroticism' as a fit subject for art nude, and in doing so attempting to extricate it from its commercialisation?  Or, by eroticising young nudity and ensuring it is done within legality, are they making it impossible for photographs of nude children to be viewed as charming and emotive childhood memories, something that could be argued Sally Mann or Bill Henson were actually attempting to do?

(All photos modelled by Alex B)

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Merry Christmas

 Photographer: Terry Slater

It comes once a year and it never loses its magic, not for me anyway. Nothing to do with presents under the tree, it's the atmosphere, the Spirit of Christmas.
I  wish everyone a very happy and peaceful Christmas

Alex x

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The female nude and Camille Paglia

 Photographer: Gregory Brown

My injury is slowly healing - oh, we do need both our hands, there is no doubt! I find it hard not to use my left hand at all.  I am housebound. Fortunately, Christmas is coming up and having finally given up on the idea of travelling - too complicated with a plaster, and airlines insist on it being cut, which defeats the purpose of wearing it,  I am not wasting away precious time.  I can be at home, relax and plan for future work.

The enforced rest has been useful, I have done more online curatorial work for the deviantArt groups I am involved with and am planning my DMP essay whose deadline is early February, as well as my next term teaching. A lot of reading these days can be done online, through ebraries. When I was a postgraduate student back in the early 1990s I used to live in libraries. Now the whole pattern of studies has changed, if you know what you are looking for, you can access it easily on the internet. Even then, nothing beats the pleasure of finding books on an open shelf library and skim read them  while crouching next to a whole line of shelves, so as soon as it is feasible I will go and visit one of the big libraries in town.

Yesterday I put together a gallery show with the help of a guest curator for the wonderful Art Express group. It was about the body as art, in the figurative arts and in photography. The images selected by Elly are stunning. I wrote a short introduction to the show and I immediately started asking myself questions on the classical view of the body in art, especially the female nude. I decided I'd write a blog post about it and revisited classic texts such as Kenneth Clark's The Nude and Lynda Nead's The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality - the two have to be read in conjunction, at least that was the way I read them when I first encountered them in 1992.

Photographer: Suki Wilde

It took me all back. Clark's study of the nude in the Western tradition is well known. He distinguishes between the naked and the nude body and sets the parameters for the  investigation of the nude.  The post 1960s feminist scholarship of Nead, Nochlin  and Mulvey challenged the neutrality and the aesthetic innocence of Clark's nude, introducing the notion of a male gaze (which later Mulvey revised, paying more attention to the female gaze). And then there was Camille Paglia.

A maverick, as she has often been described, she went against the excesses of the feminist movement, and often made statements against its leaders, writing

"Students who read Clark will be safely inoculated against the worst excesses of feminist theory, with its prattle about objectification and the male gaze—terms cooked up by ideologues with glaringly little knowledge of or feeling for art."

Strong views indeed, which have infuriated critics and delighted admirers. Paglia celebrated the Dionysian, the wilder and darker side of human sexuality, and its expression in art.  For all her 'neo-conservatism', hers is actually a reclamation of what was historically intended for men - the display of eroticism and an explicit sexuality.

Photographer: David Nuttall

So my original reflections on the nude have led me again to Sexual Personae , Paglia's first book!

Paglia is still very active, and recently published a book about poetry,  Break, Blow, Burn.  But this is indeed a topic for another post.

Meanwhile, you can have a glimpse of the great lady in the video-clip below , while I immerse myself in Sexual Personae.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

My feature in Anne of Carversville

 Photographer: Suki Wilde

 My feature in Anne of Carversville as part of  AGELESS FABULOSITY continues. I share this week long exposure with my great friend  Carla Johnson.

The feature began on 6th December with my interview of Carla, followed on 7th December by her interview of me. The feature continued on 9th December with beautiful pictures of Carla and Elijah taken by A.J.Kahn.

Today other photos of me taken by David Gibson, Marcello Pozzetti, Michael Culhane, George Swift, Pascal Renoux, Terri Lee Shields, Paddy Johnston, Neil Huxtable, Victor Schwanberg and PWP Images appear in the SENSUALITY NEWS section.

Other images by Suki Wilde, Bob Adams, Erwan, David Nuttall, Darren Brade, Vijay Jethwa and Elisabeth Jakobsen are in the LAYERS OF ALEX B SPIRITED LIFE section also published today.

 Photographer: Elisabeth Jakobsen

More to follow next week, when Carla and myself will appear side by side with Monica Bellucci, now 46,  in a column on ageing.

I am very grateful to Anne Enke, Editor in chief of Anne of Carversville for this amazing opportunity I have been given to reach  thousands of readers worldwide and be part of a wonderful, unique  E-zine aimed at discerning women, globally.  It truly is a great honour for me.

I am also, it goes without saying, most grateful to all the photographers I have modelled for and for their support of me.  By choosing to work with a mature model they have made a statement and I am honoured to be part of that statement.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Fashion is endemically racist

 Photographer: Martin Robinson

Fashion is racist. It is supermodel Naomi Campbell who says so  and she certainly knows a thing or two about the fashion world. According to Miss Campbell, we are seeing fewer and fewer models of colour in shows and editorial work.  Alexandra Shulman, the editor of British Vogue, echoes Naomi when she admits that "classically pretty, white girls" are favoured on the catwalk.

I have always found that whenever fashion opens its door to a black or Asian model it is to emphasise her exoticism. Even in the case of Naomi Campbell, her strongest selling point was her exotic mix -  she typified the wild, dark beauty. Temper tantrums? they were  a correlative of her blackness.

Naomi belongs to a tradition of black beauties accepted by the mainstream entertainment industry - of which  fashion is part - from, at the very least,  the days of Josephine Baker. The Black Venus, as she was known, Baker essentialised the black primitive in 1920s Paris.   Primitivism was one of the early modernist artistic trends in the early part of the 20th century and one of its fascinations was the  supposed overt sexuality of non-Europeans, the assumption  that "non-Western" cultures have a greater appreciation of sexuality or sensuality than Europeans. The primitive African - Africa being the dark continent - was viewed as overly sexed.

It is that same primitivism that led to an acceptance of the non-white female model in fashion, an acceptance based on stereotyping blackness, rather than equality. A black woman is never "classically beautiful" simply because the idea of the classical is such as to exclude  non-Europeans. We talk of "other classicisms" but the "other" here is emphasised -  not quite the same as European classicism, the one that goes all the way back to ancient Greece, by definition the cradle of European civilization.  

A black woman cannot be classically beautiful. That is a contradiction in terms. A black woman is beautiful but only as an exotic, primitive other. At least, that is the stereotype. The inherent racism of this proposition, when put this way, is easy to spot.

The day we see women as women rather than as ethnically defined will mark a change in fashion. Until then it will continue to be a barometer of society, reflecting its prejudices and stereotypes.

Photographer: Antonio Genco
(All photos modelled by Alex B.)
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Friday, 10 December 2010

Parliament Square 9/12/10

Here Come the StudentsImage by lewishamdreamer via Flickr

Today the news are all about how students yesterday behaved like yobs, attacked the car with Prince Charles and his wife Camilla on board, which happened to be on the protest route,  and generally caused London to come to a standstill and businesses to lose trade. Ah those dreadful students!

The coalition passed the tuition fee bill and now universities can charge up to £ 9,000 per year for a degree. The cuts have also gone through so inevitably some departments and the poorer colleges will close down, only certain subjects are being supported. People make light of it. "In America people pay over £20,000  for their university education. Why should students here not pay?"

Right, before I explode in a rage, let me start with yesterday's events. I was there. I saw it. We began - there were thousands and thousands of us - at 1 pm. The police led the protesters astray using plain clothes officers to make the protesters go  into areas from which they could not exit.  It is easy to lead a crowd. I saw one of these plain clothes policemen  talking over his radio and telling his colleagues he had got us to go to a particular place.  The police stepped in and  used kettling techniques. Kettling should be outlawed because it serves the purpose of dividing a crowd, dispersing it,  and keeping smaller groups prisoner in an area whose exit points are guarded by police.

DemonstrationImage by lewishamdreamer via Flickr

Some of us realised we were about to be  kettled and even before reaching Parliament Square! We had just gone past Trafalgar Square, past the ICA. So in small groups and even individually we moved away before the police began sealing the exits. We cut through the park, went through alleyways and reached Westminster Abbey. By then I was on my own and wanted to get to Parliament Square but the police had already cordoned it off. I could see people running in all directions and towards Victoria Street.

I took a short cut and went from the back of Westminster School - I was in touch through my mobile with my son, who was also at the protest but with another group. He knows the area well having been a student at the Great School. "Go down Great College Street" he said "you will find yourself at the other end of the House Of Parliament".  I did and found myself in an area completely covered in police vans.  And saw them. They were in full riot gear and had horses, getting ready to charge. It made me feel like throwing up. I looked like an ordinary  tourist, they politely asked me to leave and I ran back to Westminster School.

I walked towards  the Abbey. Some protesters were also there, about fifteen. They were talking to policemen and insisted they had the right to be in the Square. I joined them. One policeman tried to stop me, not grasping I was a protester myself. "I am with them" I said. He pushed me lightly, I joined the group  and we got into the Square. They told us we could not get out once in. On the other side of the Square I could see people being beaten up by those officers I had seen earlier on horseback. I did not go near.

We were kettled in Parliament Square. The plan had been for all the protesters to be there, a candle vigil was going to take place. Some of my colleagues who were teaching yesterday had emailed saying they'd come after 4 pm. Now we were considerably fewer than when we started and it was about 3 pm. Police stopped allowing people in and the exits were guarded by two rows of policemen all in full riot gear.
Alex B. Photographer: KnightPix

I met lots of press people while in the Square and even met one of the photographers I have worked with. Yesterday he was working as a photojournalist.  We lit a few fires, it was bitterly cold. Yes, there were a few people there that were climbing on statues, but they were a minority. Most of us were bewildered we had got separated from the others and did not have a clue about what was going on. My son was still on the other side, by Victoria Street. He called me at some point and advised me to plead with an officer to let me out. "There is going to be trouble, I can see they are getting ready". I was not up to fighting, my left wrist is fractured. So I asked an officer to escort me out. He looked at me, at first feeling uncertain, but then he let me go. I rejoined my son at St James' Park  and we walked back towards the Abbey. By then the vote had been cast. The protesters went wild. And the police hit hard. If people went wild  that was also and especially because they had been kettled! and the police would not let them out! Please read the Guardian latest blog on this.  Murdoch's press is going on about the horrible protesters, but what about the police?

So even before we get to the main issue, of what the cuts and the raising of the fees is going to do (easy to guess, it will kill off education in this country), let me ask: how can a democratic country employ such extreme police tactics to stop people from voicing their dissent? Next it will be all right for police officers to open fire on a group of protesters "in the interest of the public". Really?

As for the tuition fees, I have posted on this already. Just because American students pay through their noses it does not mean it is a fair system and it should be adopted. Education in this country needs an overhaul and its problems cannot be solved by denying access to higher education to those who cannot afford it.

Alex B in Parliament Square. Photographer: Vijay Jethwa

Mr Clegg has given a new meaning to the word pledge. He pledged before the election that he would not support the cuts and raising tuition fees.  In his vocabulary 'pledge' means something quite different from what his voters understood it to mean. When I voted for him I did not know he was Cameron in disguise!

One of the banners held by the protesters yesterday showed a grave with the words "R.I.P. Education".  Indeed. We will sorely miss you from our lives.

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Thursday, 9 December 2010

A resounding NO

 Photographer: Terri Lee-Shields
Today is the big day. The vote on the cuts in higher education is taking place in the afternoon of today, 9th December 2010. Students will be leading a massive demonstration that is expected to see at the very least 20,000 people.

College occupations and student demonstrations have been in full swing for the past month or so. Yesterday, many universities  had a walkout by students and lecturing staff.   Today my classes are cancelled and I will be there, demonstrating in Westminster, wearing my plaster - as it turns out I have fractured my left wrist, rather than just sprained it, so now it is in a plaster and I am wearing a sling. Damn nuisance!

Student occupations in the 21st century are a different affair from their 1968 counterpart.  The theme is not REVOLUTION but EDUCATION FOR ALL. So students have been surprising Londoners with a series of Teach -outs.  They gather in some well known square or station or public venue and deliver lectures. Faculty members join them.  Today, for example, a number of mini lectures took place on  tube trains from 3 till 5 pm.

This is a week when so many good things are happening to me, in my personal and professional life. I am grateful for this abundance of gifts, it goes without saying. But the best of all, yet to come, would be to know that we have defeated this insane government and its absurd policies. That's why today I will be demonstrating, plaster or not.

I posted about the cuts a few days ago. If they go ahead it will be the end of education in the UK. If they dont, it will be the end of the current government. Much is at stake.

Hetty Bowen, a Londoner who is 105 years old and who marched on the anti-Iraq war protests, has sent this solidarity message to the protesters:

"Education is the basis of civilised society. It is of primary importance for the future peace of the nations of the world".

That's why we are saying NO to the cuts.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Ageless Fabulosity

 Photographer: Talkingdrum

It is with immense pleasure that I can announce a week long feature of myself and Carla Johnson in the E-zine Anne of Carversville by Anne Enke

In Anne's words:

"Our Ageless Fabulosity celebration of timeless beauty and sensuality is officially in liftoff mode. Enjoy honest straight talk and inspiring words, combined with provocative, deeply-sensual images of two highly-credentialed, real-world women who are nude models, as well as established career women.

Meet Sensual and Superyoung women ‘of a certain age’ Dr. Carla Johnson and Dr. Alex B.

The clues to Dr. Carla Johnson’s real age, emerge in her interview by Alex B. We will post Carla’s interview of Alex B on Tuesday, December 7, 2010.

These interviews initially had nothing to do with me. After reading Anne of Carversville, Alex B and Carla asked me if I might be interested in publishing their private online dialogues and sensual, sometimes nude, art and fashion photography. Within two seconds, I said “Yes, let’s do it! I’m in.”

Ageless Fabulosity is focused holistically on mind, spirit and body. We will be talking to — and looking at — real women of a certain age — but always over 50 — who celebrate their sensuality and physicality as key to their self-identity, good health and positive well being.

I’m so excited by the confidence and positive attitudes of these two women about their bodies and sensual beauty, that I want to know them inside and out.

Behind every Sensual and Superyoung woman is a sense of control about the decisions she makes for herself. How have these women learned to love their bodies, celebrating them with confidence and a love of the woman in the mirror? Don’t answer “It’s easy with their genes and beauty.” I know that these women have challenges like we all experience.

Please add your questions of Carla and Alex B in the comments section after their interviews. Links to nude and sensual images of both Carla and Alex B will appear all week long at Anne of Carversville and Sensuality News"

Many of you have known Carla under a different name, I will not spoil your surprise. As for me, I continue to be Alex B to keep my 'other life' private, though Anne could not resist using my academic title. All right, at some point in my life I acquired a PhD...