Sometime in early March I was walking across the Tufts campus and saw a flyer asking this question “Manliness: What is it?” I picked one off the wall that it was loosely taped to and tucked it into my pocket. I absolutely wanted to know what manliness was in 2010, especially since I have been a card-holding member of the gender neutrality fan club for at least 20 years. Still, being female I had very specific ideas of what manliness was but have not been able to corner any of my manly friends into disclosing their views, in fact the very word made them uncomfortable. I do know that several of them exfoliate, wax, and help with the kids and housework; yet, nevertheless consider themselves loaded with testosterone. They watch and participate in sports, drink beer and emit bodily noises.
Before I launch myself into the abyss, I want to disclaim any serious research that I may have done and note that none of the following material is a reflection on the founding fathers of BR&S. Thanks go to one of BR&S’s avid readers who suggested that I always disclaim.
I carried the flyer and my curiosity around for a month and found that I had missed the talk by Harvard Professor of Government,Harvey Mansfield with whom I share the unfortunate trait of saying the unspeakable, taking the wrong side on most things and generally shooting my mouth off before checking with the status quo.
In 2006, Mansfield wrote a book titled, Manliness, in which he explored the complex nature of manliness as viewed by men and women, and the impact of the sexual revolution on traditional masculine virtues. Manliness has gone underground, has become “unemployed” is what he wrote. One of the few conservative voices in academia, Professor Mansfield, now in his 70s, still takes on all the taboo topics at Harvard, and the more controversial, the better he likes it. My kind of man.
But my interest is not so much in the bulging biceps I see trotting around my gym in the South End, but the manly approach to art making. The questions that plague me are whether it is possible for women to take their more adaptable, more contextual, more sensitive natures and not just evolve into aggressive, outspoken sexual predators but be capable of smashing china and incorporating it into a painting. The unfaltering confidence of Julian Schnabel is one of his more irritating flaws. I compare the attitude of his work with that of Cindy Sherman, whom I wouldn’t recognize if she walked into me, and who uses her spectacular work to hide behind it. What unites these two distinct artists is that their art also parallels their approach to solving life’s problems. What separates them is Schnabel’s in-your-face caveman masculinity vis-à-vis Sherman’s presentation of herself in disguises.
Is gender neutrality in art an experiment in progress? And does it result in the watering down of what’s best in both sexes? Are women better at being men than men are at being women? We think of manliness as encouragement of wayward passions, of irrational behavior that leads to war, of not apologizing, of feeling superior and feeling in the right about everything. In politics we think about George W. Bush is cavemen-in-your-face, as opposed to Barack Obama, who is still a puzzle even to his most fervent supporters. Is he the sensitive man who looks for consensus, the pensive academic who believes that problems can be talked out? How odd is it that he succeeds best when he borrows a page from Bush: takes charge with a firm stance and is less conciliatory. Confusing, huh? Is manliness at work here? The best case in point is John McCain, a genuine war hero with a gentlemanly-but-very male attitude during his best years and who is now utterly confused. He is taking the bully position that he hopes will get him elected, (anti-immigration,) and acting in a too manly a manner at a time when it is highly unfashionable. (No, I don’t want to discuss Sarah Palin, male, female or vegetable.)
Back to art. I am very intrigued when artists play with the masculine/feminine issues. Boston artist Hannah Barrett has painted excellent, masterful portraits transposing the heads of the men in her family with those of the women. The more recent works at theGibson House Museum that boldly question manly/womanly traits, clothes, and all the other relevant characteristics are riveting. There is courage, nobility, generosity, strength, skill, confidence and honesty in those works. Manly traits? The best of both sexes? Dammit, who cares, it all just works. Nobody is hiding anything, especially Barrett who is openly gay, dresses in suits and sports a short, boyish haircut. So back to the question: manliness: what is it? Can anyone harness it for the good of humankind and especially for art’s sake? It would appear that a good dose of art-testosterone is not necessarily accompanied by an urge to bomb a country. It could just be the beginning of the end of bullshit art making.
Image of Julian Schnabel was found here
Barrett image via the artist’s website.