Friday, June 26, 2015
Body Appeal (And Other Issues)
Is it narcissistic to photograph yourself instead of other models? Is modeling inherently narcissistic? I didn't believe I was beautiful until other people started telling me so, so it's not like I started out with an inflated sense of my own attractiveness. But over time, I've cultivated my beauty through hard work - via fashion, grooming, and fitness - like anyone whose career depends on their physical appearance might. I take self-portraits because I am introverted, and I have social anxiety, not because I think I'm the most beautiful creature to have ever graced the planet. And if a lot of people think I'm attractive, does it make me a bad person to acknowledge that - even take advantage of it - rather than insisting upon feigning a false sense of modesty? Am I not allowed to take even a reasonable amount of pride in my appearance? No, that's part of the truth about beauty, too.
(And while I understand how easy it is for attractive people to be unaware of their beauty, there's nothing more frustrating to me than a beautiful girl who won't even let you compliment her, because she doesn't believe that she's pretty. I appreciate girls who are confident about their looks, and not afraid to flaunt their assets. There's no greater crime than a beautiful figure being hidden under unflattering clothes).
Why do I photograph beauty? Because it moves me. It moves me and it thrills me. I suppose that when you photograph beautiful bodies, you're contending with a primal urge to copulate. I'm not saying that only a thin line separates the photographer and the model from rapacious intercourse - after all, if it were sex, and not beauty, that I was interested in, I guess I'd be a player or somesuch, instead of a photographer. But no, beauty is something that you see, and feel - but not necessarily touch. Some people might say, "what is the point of looking at beauty if you cannot take it?", but that has not been my experience of life. I see beauty all around me, practically every day, and the vast majority of it remains out of my reach. Yet, if I could just show the world what it is I see, how profound its effect on me is, that alone would be enough to satisfy me.
A lot of my photography is based around the concept of "aesthetic eroticism", which is a phrase I've gotten into the habit of using to describe the particular sort of aesthetic beauty that revolves around the human body, that therefore may involve an erotic component (as opposed to people getting turned on by pictures of beautiful sunsets). But what is eroticism? I find that eroticism is hard to define. It deals with sexual desire, but I don't think that it's as simple as that. It may be instinctively driven by the urge to copulate, but exactly what part, may I ask, of the appreciation of erotic art (not pornography) involves sexual intercourse?
Is there an overlap between sex and the beauty of the (especially unclothed) human body? When we admire Greek statues as skilled representations of the human physique, are we merely admiring the body as an amazing machine, or are we also recognizing its instinctual erotic appeal? I think it would be stunningly naive to suggest that the admiration of physically fit bodies has no erotic component, and yet these statues stand proudly in public museums all across the world, as a testament to the legitimacy of the experience of admiring them.
But like I've said, acknowledging the erotic component is leagues away from engaging in sexual intercourse (either with the statue, or just inspired by it). Certainly, some may react to the appreciation of a piece of art by engaging in sexually explicit activities (whether alone or with company), and that's fine as long as they're not doing it right there in the museum (unless it's a really progressive museum :p). But now we're talking about what people choose to do with the inspiration that art gives them, and not what the art itself involves. There will always be that one weirdo who feels the urge to touch himself when viewing the Mona Lisa, but we should not treat the Mona Lisa as if it were pornographic as a result.
So is it a legitimate practice to admire the human body, even in spite of its erotic component? When I say "legitimate", what I basically mean is that it does not require the special 'content filter' (in whatever form it may come in) that is usually placed over pornographic and sexually explicit material. "Legitimate" practices can be engaged in (or discussed) in 'polite' company, without restricting access (usually to children). Many people in modern society are of the opinion that nude bodies are not legitimate (by this definition), although nudism proves that belief to be arbitrary. And, besides, mainstream culture is infused with a certain baseline eroticism (what critics call the "pornification" of society and the media), even without the exposure of nude bodies.
So is the appreciation of the aesthetic eroticism of the human body a "legitimate" activity or not? And what about non-traditional bodies? If we acknowledge that the aesthetic appreciation of the human body may carry an erotic element, then is that necessarily true for any body? And should we restrict the kinds of bodies we can display as a result? If some people think it's distasteful to view older bodies with an erotic interest, does that mean we shouldn't depict those bodies out of deference to that view? Also, is there no legitimate reason to study or admire the bodies of children, therefore, on account of the possibility that somebody may exploit that opportunity for questionable reasons? (I happen to think the process of adolescence is nothing short of fascinating, and one of the ultimate secrets of the universe, but I am often made to feel like a criminal for having that view).
Even what eroticism may permeate our experiences as sexual creatures is not the same thing as sexual intercourse (however pervasive that activity may be). If there is an intrinsically erotic element to the unclothed human body, nudists once again prove that its expression in overtly sexual ways is not necessarily inevitable. Should we, then, treat it the same way? I ask these questions - and I'm concerned with their answers - because I do feel as though I am being "lumped in with the pornographers". And while some of my art is undoubtedly pornographic, most of it is not, and I put in a lot of effort above and beyond what any pornographer is willing to contribute to create beautiful works of art - that just happen to focus on the potentially erotic subject of the unclothed human body - and I feel like I deserve to be recognized for that.
I don't want to be seen just as a pornographer, but as a talented artist with an eye for beauty. And I want people to recognize that erotic beauty is not the same thing as sexual indulgence. It is purer, and prettier, and gentler, and altogether more moving on everything but a pure physical level. I want people to respect it as such, and I want people to trust me to apply my photographer's eye to other human subjects, confident that I will be able to find and bring out that same beauty I've found in myself, in others.
I feel like I'm stuck in a world where (almost) the entire population either cannot recognize beauty, or misinterprets it for sexuality. Never in my life have I denied the erotic element inherent in the beauty of people's bodies, but it just seems like so many people see the eroticism and stop there. I don't feel like I'm being taken seriously as a photographer of beauty - I'm just being taken advantage of by people who think I'm hot. And as long as the vast majority of people who respond to my work do so primarily on account of its erotic - and not aesthetic - appeal, I will be lumped into that category, and the people who may be able to appreciate my aesthetic eye, but don't care much for the erotic element, are going to look me over.
So far, I haven't cared much to appease the more prudish elements of society, but enough time has passed that I am beginning to crave wider recognition, and the sorts of opportunities that are not usually handed out to pornographers. I'm caught in a bit of a bind, because I don't in any way want to become conventional or mainstream - I think a large part of the value of my work comes from my unique and unyielding perspective. And nothing inspires me and inflames my passion more than taking pictures of beautiful bodies. But at the same time, I want to be taken seriously by people who maybe aren't ready to hear everything I have to say about the philosophy of art and human sexuality. And so I'm not really sure what to do...