I’m reading a book on Mannerism [amazon] and stumbled on a pair of amusing quotes. The first, from Alberti’s On Painting (1435) really ought to be some kind of epigraph for The Hawkeye Initiative. (What? You didn’t know about it. Go ahead and waste a few happy minutes there. It’s hilarious. Now you’re back. Good!)
As I was saying, here’s Alberti, warning us that, even though good istoria painting should exhibit variety and seem alive with motion, you shouldn’t go all Escher Girl boobs + butt Full-Monty-and-then-some:
There are those who express too animated movements, making the chest and the small of the back visible at once in the same figure, an impossible and inappropriate thing; they think themselves deserving of praise because they hear that those images seem alive that violently move each member; and for this reason they make figures that seem to be fencers and actors, with none of the dignity of painting, whence not only are they without grace and sweetness, but even more they show the ingegno of the artist to be too fervent and furious [troppo fervente et furioso].
On the other hand, here’s a quote from Pietro Aretino, praising Vasari’s cartoon of “The Fall of Manna In The Desert”:
The naked man who bends down to show both sides of his body by virtue of its qualities of graceful power and powerful ease draws the eyes like a magnet, and mine were held until so dazzled that they had to turn elsewhere.
There’s no accounting for taste.
While we’re on the subject, might as well mention a BBC piece on a fantasy author whose hobby is photographically re-enacting bad covers. Everyone should have a hobby.
I approve all parody nonsense, but the Mannerist connection does complicate the critique. The BBC gives the simple version, quoting from the HI: ‘if Hawkeye can replace the female character without “looking silly or stupid, then it’s acceptable and probably non-sexist. If [he] can’t, then just forget about it.”’
The problem, on the one hand, is that Hawkeye swapped into any Mannerist (i.e. violently non-naturalistic, exaggerated, grotesque, contorted) work of art is going to look silly and stupid, if only because it will be incongruous, and especially so if the art is done as crudely as these parodies are. (Goodbye, Mannerist virtuosity and all that!)
The Long-Necked Hawk! (Well, I’m never getting that half hour back again!)
Mannerism has an only accidental relationship to sexism.
On the other hand, it would be silly for these comics and cover artists whose work is being mocked to plead Mannerist sophistication and virtuosity, by way of extenuating their artistic circumstances. Truth is, they are mostly extenuating their subjects’ waists. Plus boob jobs. (Who are we kidding?)
And, by the way, even establishing the presence of the Male Gaze isn’t enough: if the Hawkeye versions were done more competently (for a Tom of Finland value of ‘competence’) the results would just be plain vanilla fetish-y softcore gay pr0n. Not my cup of leather and latex, but not sexist, per se, so if you like that sort of thing, go nuts [warning: the goggles, they do nothing]! See Dan Savage, ad nauseum. Some things that nauseate some folks, or at least seem silly and stupid, seem sexy to other people. I don’t call anyone’s visual fetish ‘unacceptable!’ – not in a Lemongrabby way – so long as it involves consenting adults. I try not to. [UPDATE: sorry, this has been taken by some commenters as a plea for censorship. Quite the opposite. Since artists presumably consent, and drawings aren’t persons, even if they are of persons, pretty much everything goes, I say. I don’t think it should be impermissible to draw non-consenting adults. They aren’t people, just ink on the page, so they can’t be harmed.]
What’s wrong with the Male Gaze expressing itself, Manneristically, as a bunch of broke-back females? It makes the guys happy, apparently, and no actual females are harmed, right?
The harm, such as it is, seems to me ecological. There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with a girly pin-up, as anatomically preposterous as you like it (that’s what I say, anyway.) But not everything should be such a thing, and when the pin-up aesthetic gets so omnipresent it’s like the fish that’s last to hear about all the water, it’s dumb.
The Hawkeye Initiative proceeds as if the problem is that pin-ups can be found. But the problem isn’t that pin-ups can be found, rather that pin-ups can’t be not found in places where it really ought to be possible to not find them. If, on counter-earth, heterosexual males find it nigh impossible to find action heroes depicted in anything but a Tom of Finland style, they will conclude that Tom of Finland is a bad artist – damn you, buttless chaps! – even though that’s not strictly the conclusion they should draw.
There’s also the specific problem that ‘more adult’ means a couple of different things – more realistic; more half-naked ladies. How embarrassing to get those two confused.
The mainstream is choked with pin-up stuff that doesn’t have a lot to say, even while it’s acting, energetically, like it’s got a lot to say.
Mannerism should be cleverly contrarian, not stupidly hegemonic. (Not that it’s up there with income inequality, as threats to social justice go.)
I’ll conclude with E. Gombrich on Parmigianino’s Long-Necked Madonna:
I can well imagine that some may find [Parmigianino’s] Madonna almost offensive because of the affectation and sophistication with which a sacred object is treated. There is nothing in it of the ease and simplicity with which Raphael had treated that ancient theme. The picture is called the ‘Madonna with the long neck’ because the painter, in his eagerness to make the Holy Virgin look graceful and elegant, has given her a neck like that of a swan. He has stretched and lengthened the proportions of the human body in a strangely capricious way. The hand of the Virgin with its long delicate fingers, the long leg of the angel in the foreground, the lean, haggard prophet with a scroll of parchment – we see them all as through a distorting mirror. And yet there can be no doubt that the artist achieved this effect through neither ignorance nor indifference. He has taken care to show us that he liked these unnaturally elongated forms, for, to make doubly sure of his effect, he placed an oddly shaped high column of equally unusual proportions in the background of the painting. As for the arrangement of the picture, he also showed us that he did not believe in conventional harmonies. Instead of distributing his figures in equal pairs on both sides of the Madonna, he crammed a jostling crowd of angels into a narrow corner, and left the other side wide open to show the tall figure of the prophet, so reduced in size through the distance that he hardly reaches the Madonna’s knee. There can be no doubt, then, that if this be madness there is method in it. The painter wanted to be unorthodox. He wanted to show that the classical solution of perfect harmony is not the only solution conceivable; that natural simplicity is one way of achieving beauty, but that there are less direct ways of getting interesting effects for sophisticated lovers of art. Whether we like or dislike the road he took, we must admit that he was consistent. Indeed, Parmigianino and all the artists of his time who deliberately sought to create something new and unexpected, even at the expense of the ‘natural’ beauty established by the great masters, were perhaps the first ‘modern’ artists. We shall see, indeed, that what is now called ‘modern’ art may have had its roots in a similar urge to avoid the obvious and achieve effects which differ from conventional natural beauty.