BERLIN — A week ago, Vice magazine gambled on a potentially-sexist-but-potentially-thought-provoking fashion spread — and lost. “Last Words” featured fictionalized portraits of female authors looking unaccountably sexy moments before or after their suicides: a slender Sylvia Plath poised before an open oven, an immaculately made-up Virginia Wolf wading in a picturesque river. Predictably enough, the spread provoked vitriolic backlash in the world of feminist journalism. Slate’s Katy Waldeman denounced “Last Words” as “foul,” and Helen Lewis of the Guardian described it as an exercise in “raging tastelessness.”
Community consensus seems to be that there are indeed tasteful ways of grappling with difficult subjects via the photographic medium — and that Vice’s fashion spread (“Issa dress, Morgenthal Frederics glasses, Jenni Kayne shoes”) was not one of them. Amid much uproar, Vice removed the piece from its website.
I’m as glad as the next Judith Butler fan grrl to see the last of “Last Words,” but I wonder if we haven’t been a little hasty in our criticisms of Vice. It isn’t easy to navigate the complex world of female portrayal — to gracefully tread the thin (occasionally anorexic) line between popular appeal and aesthetic or idealistic integrity. Fashion photography, the lovechild of highbrow art and commercial interests, presents a particular challenge.
Yesterday, prompted by a brutal heat wave to seek refuge in likely-to-be-air-conditioned places and additionally motivated by the Vice controversy to seek feminist fashion photography, I visited the Berlin Museum of Photography, where I saw a Helmut Newton exhibit titled World Without Men. Other than air-conditioning, I don’t know what I expected when I meandered into the gallery: I certainly wasn’t naïve enough to suppose that a successful fashion photographer would defy the aesthetic norms of advertising in order to make some sort of bold feminist statement. Nonetheless, the exhibit’s title suggested that it might harbor a subtly feminist agenda, or, at the very least, take an interesting aesthetic approach to the female experience.
It didn’t. The preponderance of pictures depicted traditionally attractive — read: impossibly thin — women in suggestive poses and scanty attire: Bronzed belles in bathing suits laughing on the beach; a femme fatale in black, ample bust bursting over her scandalously low neckline; and, an especial affront to my progressive sensibilities, a waifish nude splay-legged before an enormous laundry machine.
I struggled to detect a hint of the subversive in these conventional images — and concluded that it wasn’t there. Men may not inhabit World Without Men, I thought, but they’re at least next-door neighbors: Newton’s photographs, which satisfy the most obvious and orthodox of male erotic expectations, cannot but recall the audience whose fantasies they realize. Insofar as Newton’s fashion photography targets female consumers, it appeals to women who hope to appeal to men.
I was disgusted. And the museum wasn’t even air-conditioned.
Later, licking a rapidly melting scoop of ice cream, half-reconciled to the extremities of the Berlin summer, I began to suspect that I had judged Newton too harshly. At least some of the photographs in World Without Men could be interpreted as critiques of female objectification, provided their viewers had feminist leanings and a charitable outlook: In one picture, a man in a suit holds a naked woman by a cord that is tied around her wrists; in several others, women dressed as robots resemble the post-industrial machinery with which they are portrayed; and in “Sie Kommen,” one of Newton’s most iconic works, four businesswomen dressed in suits in the top frame appear naked in the bottom of the picture.
These photographs can certainly function as a criticism of the sexism that habitually plagues the media. They can be reasonably read as satire, as commentary on the ways in which representations of women tend to instrumentalize the female body and, finally, as a celebration of female sexuality. But they can be read with equal validity as an endorsement of the flawed world that they depict, at least insofar as they are a reiteration of the familiar sexist motifs that their viewers encounter so relentlessly.
Whether World Without Men is a promotion or just a portrayal of female objectification, the fact remains that the exhibit reproduces, and therefore reinforces, the sexist worldview propagated by fashion magazines, advertisements and the media at large. The mere representation of female objectification seems to me to constitute a sort of complicity in it: to represent objectification is, in some basic sense, to objectify.
Conversely, however, it would be difficult for an artwork to condemn the status quo without portraying it. I wonder if there are any effective criticisms of sexism that aren’t vulnerable to misogynistic interpretation. After all, even paradigmatically feminist works like “The Bell Jar” describe instances of heinous chauvinism. As long as art itself refrains from explicitly clarifying its agenda, it can be understood as supporting what it intends only to depict.
On the one hand, then, representing sexism is a prerequisite to calling attention to it, much less successfully combating it. On the other hand, one more picture of an attractive nude bound at the wrists is the last thing the world needs.
While I agree that Vice’s particular treatment of a difficult topic was, as Jezebel’s Jenna Sauners put it, “almost breathtakingly tasteless,” I’m not sure that there is always a refined alternative to Vice’s offensive approach — at least, not one that images alone can furnish. If art is to condemn sexism, it must first depict what it critiques. And, because sexism is distasteful, problem-pointing art does not shy away from distastefulness. An exhibit that represented women as universally empowered would gloss over the unsavory aspects of social reality, and it is precisely these aspects that demand our aesthetic attention.
Unlike literature, visual art does not have the privilege of explaining itself. It is powerful in virtue of the wordless impressions that it evokes, of the lingering questions that it provokes; it is not powerful in virtue of the careful arguments that it constructs. Interpretive ambiguity is therefore a risk intrinsic to the medium.
I’m not sure that there is a definitive answer to the question of whether “Last Words” or World Without Men are sexist or insensitive. They certainly provide misogynists with ample opportunity to objectify the female body — but, as these musings demonstrate, they also provide feminists with ample material for more enlightened debate. Whether they are affirm or merely depict the status quo is largely up to their viewers. Ultimately, I think, it’s our responsibility to glean a feminist message from World Without Men.
Well, except for the one with the laundry machine.
Helmut Newton: World Without Men continues at the Berlin Museum of Photography (Jebensstraße 2, Berlin) through October 13.