This weekend, a friend of mine and I talked about art.
Specifically, we talked about creating art. He’s a straight, cis-male photographer, and at one point I suggested that should he work on shooting nudes, it would be useful to his work overall if he shot men as well as women.
At the time, I didn’t do a great job explaining why. I’ve had some time to think about it now, and a lot of it comes down to this: art demands individual vision. Often, we sharpen the individuality of our vision by doing the things we don’t naturally want to do. They help us learn to see more clearly, and to see things that perhaps we don’t when we work within our comfort zones.
(Likewise, there’s an enormous amount of privilege involved in feeling that, for example, as a straight male, you only need to depict females in your art. That’s another post, for another time.)
In high school, I attended a profoundly rigorous arts magnet as a writing major (I didn’t audition for the dance major Because Reasons, which is also a different post entirely). Even being accepted into the program was no mean feat—but I think it’s fair to say that we all began with a fair amount of natural ability and only the bare minimum of skill.
In the first semester of the first year, we were all required to take a course on the fundamental mechanics of poetry. The course in question required us to learn and work within a number of highly-specific technical forms, from villanelle to sonnet to sestina to haiku.
At the outset, it seemed extremely dry—but it was a requirement, and so on we went.
Over the course of that semester, we learned an incredibly valuable thing: although poetry is expressive, it is also specific. Whether or not we enjoyed working within the strictures of the forms in question (I love writing sonnets and haiku, personally, but could take or leave villanelle), their strictures forced us to make decisions.
As writers, those decisions sharpened us. They honed our ears and our eyes; our senses of rhythm and meaning. They taught us to be specific, but also taught us how to say things by leaving them unsaid.
It was very, very hard work. It forced all of us to learn to take our visions and voices and cram them into someone else’s form, often with an assigned topic (which was inevitably very specific: write a villanelle about a window; write a sonnet to a garbage truck). We were constantly reading, writing, workshopping, revising, re-workshopping; sometimes to the tune of five poems assigned Monday and due Tuesday, with revisions due Wednesday and further revisions due Thursday (and that’s not counting the reading assignments!).
Not everybody survived that semester in the program. The rate of attrition was high: many more people want to write than want to revise. Writing poetry entirely for your own satisfaction is a totally good and valid thing, but if that’s your only goal and you hate the idea of revision because you feel that poetry is all about feelings and revision somehow betrays the feelings that went into the piece, you’re probably not going to like the workshop process that takes place in that kind of setting.
Basically, it’s not at all about validating your feelings. Instead, it’s about: “Why did you use the word ‘jump’ there?” and “The tense shift in stanza 3 feels unintentional, and seems kind of distracting,” and “The third line in the second stanza is awkward, but I’m not sure what to suggest to fix it because I don’t actually understand what it’s trying to convey.”
At the end of the day, though, the writers that came out of that program were very solid. We entered and won serious competitions; we applied to and won scholarships to extremely competitive colleges and universities. We published. We wrote and wrote and wrote.
We all arrived on day one with ability, but ability wasn’t enough. We also needed skill, and we needed to find our voices as writers (which is far less airy-fairy a process than it sounds: it’s not about woo, it’s about diction, scansion, mechanics, tone, experience…). We gained skill and found our voices in no small part by working within the restrictions of form: just as a ballet dancer begins at the barre, or an equestrian begins in the ring (or even on the leadline).
I entered the program as a writer who was primarily uninterested in poetry. I liked fiction and wanted to hone my ability as a writer of fiction. Ironically, it turned out that I was much, much better at poetry than at fiction—which is to say that although I created breathing characters and wrote beautiful and vivid prose, the mechanics of plot would continue to elude me for quite a while. They still elude me whenever I’m not paying very, very close attention. So much of writing fiction is deciding which moments from your characters’ lives to leave on the cutting-room floor, and (SPOILER ALERT!) you’re going to wind up leaving most of the moments. Ugh.
The kinds of decisions imposed by writing formal poetry improved my craft overall, however: they made me better at making music from language, but also better at making decisions about things like plot and character in fiction; better at evoking the specificity of place that makes setting real; better at discerning which details to include and which to leave out. It’s about showing the reader that this isn’t just a burger, but a burger that sizzles on the tongue full of every lingering evening in July; of the faintest smoke of every campfire (always tempered down to coals) breathed back across the sun-warmed grass by a cooling breeze off the iron-scented lake…
In short, I didn’t want to write poetry: but the program forced me to, and it made me better at what I actually wanted to do, which was write fiction (the fact that it made me a rather good poet is kind of a bonus, really).
Having to do things I didn’t want to do as a writer forced me to see and hear things I wouldn’t otherwise have heard or seen. It also helped me figure out what was my voice and what was an echo of other voices that I was simply used to hearing.
When we do only the things we want to do, it’s easy to see only the things we want to see. The danger in that is that it very quickly becomes trite: there’s a specific style of imagery very, very commonly created by straight, white men painting, drawing, or shooting women that is downright boring to everyone else. It may be authentic, but it’s also unoriginal. We’ve seen it. Really. Yawn. Even when well-intentionted, it devolves pretty quickly into cheesecake, simply as a function of its ubiquity.
The same can be said for some of the work produced by, for example, gay male artists—but it’s not as common, and I suspect that’s because chances are good that every gay male artist who prefers to depict guys has been asked a million times, “Why don’t you draw [or paint, or shoot] some women?” and heard almost as frequently, “Why do you paint naked men? Nobody wants to see that.”
Moreover, every gay male artist alive in the Western world has been bathed in the female nude essentially his entire life, while all too often the male nude is still an opt-in: without even trying, you can live a long time without seeing the male nude depicted in art, but the female nude, depicted in a handful of familiar poses, is everywhere.
- Until pretty recently, you could even get through an entire art-school education without being forced to really reckon with the male nude. There’s a whole bunch of posts there, but I’m sure lots of other people whose grasp of history is better than mine have already written them. And none of this even begins to address nonbinary people, or people who live at underrepresented intersections of queerness and race, and so on. Those angles, too, have indubitably been addressed by other writers more effectively than I could address them here.
I’m not going to be so prescriptive as to say that art only happens in the places where we are least comfortable. I mean, it does happen there—it just happens in other places, as well.
But when we force ourselves out of our comfort zones as artists, we also learn to understand our comfort zones in ways that allow us to work within them with greater originality and clearer vision.
Working outside of our comfort zones forces us to be more honest about our own vision. Especially where the human nude is concerned, it can move us beyond “I get a thrill out of looking at this.” (Which isn’t, as far as I’m concerned, an invalid impulse: it’s just all too commonly-represented an impulse, and perhaps a bit thin.) It also helps us see our weaknesses—even as they pertain to the work we do within our comfort zones.
I suspect that this is probably all the more true if you’re a straight male visual artist with a lifetime of being bathed in the work of other straight male visual artists. It’s like visiting another part of your home country and realizing that you have an accent: when you step out of your typical milieu, you hear or see the way in which that milieu marks your work. That allows you to make conscious decisions about those markers.
- if you’re not sure what I mean, go look at the vast majority of nudes displayed in American museums; the billboards displayed in almost any American city; etc. This post will still be here when you get back.
This is especially true if your particular comfort zone happens to be concurrent with the dominant thread of culture where you live.
By way of analogy, if you’re a country musician who lives in a place where you hear country music in shops and restaurants and on the majority of radio stations, you stand to gain a lot by taking time to listen to other streams of music. If, on the other hand, you’re a classical musician who lives in a place where country is predominant, you’re already gaining a lot of exposure to at least one stream outside of your own (but you should definitely make time to listen to some hip-hop, or Euro-metal, or whatevs!).
You probably won’t enjoy everything you hear when you go off on a musical adventure. In fact, it’s almost guaranteed that you won’t—musical styles are very much like different languages, and often you have to listen for quite a while before suddenly something in your brain goes, “Oh! This is music!” and starts to enjoy them, or at least appreciate them as more than “just noise.” But you might come away with a better understanding of what ingredients you find compelling in the music that you do like, and over time you’ll broaden your ear in a way that will help you figure out which parts of your musician’s voice are yours and which are, in fact, actually the voices of, say, Shania Twain or Garth Brooks.
None of this should be taken to mean that straight guys should never make images of women: just that straight guys who step outside of the comfort zone of making images of women are, I suspect, very likely to end up making better, more original images of women.
Likewise, this isn’t to say that male heterosexual sexuality has no place in art: it does. It’s just that we, the entire world, have already seen an awful lot of it, and it’s much more interesting if an artist has something original—and honest—to say about it.
Which brings me to the last point I couldn’t figure out how to express. Too often, we try to be original by, you know, trying to be original. Which, in turn, almost always results in “just doing the opposite of the thing that you see all the time.” It’s very much like shouting, “TRY TO RELAX!” at someone who’s having a panic attack: frequently ineffective, and often entirely counterproductive.
Back to the aforementioned library of familiar poses featuring women seen through the eyes of heterosexual men: none of this means that nobody should ever draw, paint, or photograph those poses again. Just that it would be nice to see them done with honesty and clarity of intent (even if the intent is, in fact, “Hehheh, boobies!” … if I’m to set myself up as an arbiter, I’d rather see an honest, “Hehheh, boobies!” than “Hehheh, boobies!” dressed up as “The Womanly Virtue of Patience” or whatever the heck).
Sometimes part of figuring out how to be original is reacting against what’s already been done. That’s fine. Sometimes work that reacts against what’s already been done is, in fact, a kind of blunt instrument for intentional commentary, and that’s also fine.
In the end, though, there’s so much territory beyond all that: in the end, I suspect the most original works are generally works that never involved any thought of originality. They are simply clear, and honest, and present.