Monday, August 29, 2011

A fine bromance

Very often one good story begets another. In "Bodywork," an essay I wrote for the September arts issue of WAGmagazine, I charted the history of the body in art, wondering whether or not the male was truly the primary sex symbol through most of art history and whether women artists view men and women the way male artists do.

Is the history of art the story of the heroic male body
or the objectified female one? In the ripped and rippling
oil painting “Venus and Adonis,” Baroque master
Peter Paul Rubens shows himself to be an
equal opportunity employer.
Copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art
In the course of my interviews with Bartholomew F. Bland, director of curatorial affairs at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, and Helaine Posner, chief curator at Purchase College's Neuberger Museum of Art, other conversational avenues opened up, some of which I'd like to stroll down now. Bart noted that the cultural critic Camille Paglia has said women are less visual than men, which is how she answered art historian Linda Nochlin's famous question "Why are there no great women artists?" (Nochlin said it was because women lacked opportunity and discovery.) But in a sense, both women have a point. Women, neurologically speaking, have greater verbal aptitude than men but less visual-spatial ability. However, there's also no question that women lacked opportunity in the field of art, which has always relied on (male) patronage.

Writing, on the other hand, doesn't. One can always write, under a pseudonym, if you will, and submit work to a publisher who is none the wiser as to the identity of the author. (It's what the Brontës did.) So given women's innate verbal skills and the gender neutrality of publishing, it's not a surprise that women should excel in the literary tradition. And it's in that tradition that they have discovered the equivalent of visual pornography for men. I'm talking about slash, slash fic, slash fiction, fanfiction – call it what you will, but it is fiction about famous men in homoerotic situations written generally by women for women. Just Google any great bromance --Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson – or their current incarnation, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, or figure-skating frenemies Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir, or Olympic-swimming BFFs Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, and you will be introduced to a parallel universe in which these characters/individuals fall in love and have intense sexual relationships.

What's surprising to me as a writer and editor is not the specificity of the erotica -- after 30 years as an arts critic, there's very little that would surprise me sexually – but how well-written it is, at least from the standpoint of character, voicing, tone and dialogue. (The authors' sense of place could use some work, however.) How do we know these pieces are written by women instead of men? Well, we don't, even when the author identifies herself as female. It could be a ruse. But what suggests to me that much of this stuff is written by women – or at least has a feminine energy – is the emphasis on relationships. We meet not only the fictional Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps, for example -- who, by the way, end up married, just like the characters at the end of a Jane Austen novel -- but their parents, siblings, coaches and teammates.

Why would women want to imagine men they don't know in these situations? There has long been a tradition of historical fiction, of which slash is a subgenre, plus the Internet offers an intimacy, immediacy and anonymity that foster the artistic freedom, or license, for this kind of writing.

But perhaps it is also a way for women to get in touch with their masculine energy and erotic impulses, just as Paglia said that Emily Brontë did when she channeled Byron to create Heathcliff in "Wuthering Heights."
In any event, there is definitely a female ownership of homoeroticism, be it in Anne Rice's vampire novels or Annie Proulx's short story "Brokeback Mountain," which was made into a movie seen by an audience that was 80-percent female.

And unlike the male authors and audience, female writers and readers of homoerotica do not divorce their subjects from their humanity.

Which goes back to a question I asked in "Bodywork": Do women artists see men and women the way men artists do?

Ah, no.