Francis Bacon, "Study of a Crucifixion #3"

Francis Bacon, "Study of a Crucifixion #3"

Another conversation today that sparked some serious thought about art, what it is, what it isn't, and what it can be.... I realize I am writing about ideas that I have written about before.  But if there is anything true about an artist, it's that we think about everything (or obsess?) until we have some kind of resolution we can live with.

I was on the phone with my best friend, and as is always the case, we got to discussing things that really matter to us. Our conversations are not light and fluffy, and that is likely the biggest reason she is my best friend. We've known each other since our early 20's and have grown up together (Yes, growing up doesn't start to happen until around 25 for most of us and continues on until, well, now.  But you can only know that looking back.)

Anyway, we were talking about my art and the direction it is taking and the directions it could possibly take, and we got to the idea of the depiction of the nude throughout art history. Of course, the female nude has been painted and sculpted vastly more than the male nude, for reasons we also got into. (Read my previous blog post from Oct 11/14 for thoughts on that....)

What is common, or mostly common to the depiction of the nude is that it is idealized to the point of being absolutely unrealistic. Even if one considers Rubens' nudes, the reality is that plump women were the epitome of beauty in his day, and being a thin woman was not considered attractive. Fast forward to today, and there is almost no degree of skinny that is too skinny. Granted, there are some painters and sculptors today who are depicting reality and know the importance of affirming all different kinds of bodies. But in popular culture, (and let's be honest, it is pop culture that rules the day), the idealized woman is still hyper-thin and about 19 years old. Even though we are seeing some small cracks in that ideal, I fear it is simply going to be replaced rather than obliterated. But women should not be so quick to judge, and can't complain about how superficial men are regarding how we look, when we buy into all of it too.

What we've seen and continue to see is the idealization of the male body as well. Men too have been set to an impossibly high standard throughout art history and in popular culture. Male actors and musicians, the leading men at least, must have that washboard stomach, and if they don't then there better be a nice fat wallet to compensate. I recently saw a clip from a David Letterman show in which Lenny Kravitz was explaining how he could not eat what other friends were eating at dinner because he had a new album coming out and had to get in shape (when is he ever out of shape?). Don't get me wrong, he's a good-looking man, but really, he's 50. When does his art get to be about his art and not his body? When does he get to sell just what he's saying? Surely his talent and giftedness is enough in and of itself. And if it isn't, what does that say about us?

Kravitz's comment made me want to cry. It reminded me of a man I was once in a relationship with who loved to work out and be fit (which certainly isn't wrong). He had started to gain a bit of weight, and he was concerned about it, even though it was hardly anything. He commented about it one day and I honestly didn't know what to say because I really didn't care. To fill the dead air, he quickly said something about my loving him no matter what he looked like. Since he took the words right out of my mouth all I said was yes, exactly. And somehow my position didn't seem welcome. We hold ourselves to such impossibly high and superficial standards that we can end up seeing unconditional love as unsupportive. We focus so much on the outside of ourselves that we end up wanting to be loved for it too.

Why do we allow ourselves to be objectified? And why do we allow it to be justified?

The Francis Bacon painting above is of a piece of meat in a slaughterhouse, abstracted of course. That it is titled “Study of a Crucifixion #3” drives the point home strikingly, so much so that it hardly needs explaining. It certainly asks us very personal questions, questions we often have a difficult time being honest about.  As I am asking myself what kind of artist do I want to be, and what do I want to say, I come back to Bacon's work, which was stark, visceral, and hard to turn away from. What he says in the piece above regarding objectification is hard to miss.

These issues touch at the core of all of us. What do we really want to be about, and known for? Don't we all want to be loved unconditionally? Wouldn't we rather be part of creating an atmosphere where that is possible? Or is it that we don't want to give unconditional love? Don't we all want to know we have the space to breathe and be flawed? As an artist, and as a middle-aged single woman, I know I do. It's a jungle out there, but it'd be nice if the lion could lie down with the lamb for a change.

As artists of all kinds, we inform the culture in deep and long-lasting ways. It begs the old question about whether life imitates art or art imitates life. It is both I think, as it is a cyclical process, but I believe artists primarily lead the way. We are the ones who can blaze a new trail, say things that are controversial, invite people to think differently and dare to go against the cultural current. And if we are brave enough, eventually enough people get on board to create a shift and a new way of being. What an amazing and wonderful task we have been given.

I need to go now and think about a series of paintings....