(the lights aren’t on the cover of the book but this is what happens with photos taken in our kitchen and I quite like the effect in this case)
A book that looks at Art, inverting the male gaze, written by a feminist icon (old school) with opinions and erudition to burn…Her stated aim in writing this, “…to reclaim for women the right to appreciate the short-lived beauty of boys.” You can see how this is going to be problematic from the outset.
On the aim, I’m not sure anyone can describe this as a “right” for anyone. And were we to accede then surely it becomes (or already is) a right for everyone to “appreciate” anyone else. Not that I’m against the appreciation of beauty, far from it but when stated in this way it becomes loaded and it becomes problematic. Which, was probably Greer’s intention.
Of course, the book itself is less dramatic and more scholarly than that back cover quote may lead you to believe/anticipate. In the introduction, Greer states that she wants to reintroduce the idea that a man can be beautiful, as apposed to the more anodyne “handsome”, which does carry some sort of understood morally upstanding approbation alongside it, she insists on the right of men to be beautiful, judged simply by the surface alone…or at least “for a part of their lives”. Her delineation of this “part of their lives” when some men are beautiful is “old enough to be capable of sexual response but not yet old enough to shave” or in more detail, “his cheeks are smooth, his body hairless, his head full-maned, his eyes clear, his manner shy and his belly flat.” A “window of opportunity” she acknowledges as “narrow” and “mostly illegal”.
One of the salient points Greer is making is that pre-19thC this nude boy was the most represented nude type in art and in life. That women and girls were clothed, or in many cases in Art, where the picture was of a female, it would often have been modelled by one of these “beautiful” boys, with the details being fudged or covered by convenient draperies, because it was much easier and more pleasing on the eye, at least according to Greer, to get the boy to do this modelling than it would have been to get a “real” female to do it.
Published in 2003, and therefore it is safe to assume the subject of research reaching back several years before this, it already sounds dated, (and later patronising in a way that truly mimics the self-excusing explanations of those certain types of gentlemen who could observe female nudity “in the correct way”, by which they meant unsalacious I assume), when making claims in the introduction such as “Part of the purpose of this book is to advance women’s reclamation of their capacity for and right to visual pleasure. The nineteenth century denied women any active interest in sex, which was only to be found in degenerate types…” That troubling “right” aside, there’s not a great deal to get upset about so far, but noting the growth in popularity of male-strippers, she goes on, “…That healthy appetite should now be refined by taste. If we but lift our eyes to the beautiful images of young men that stand all about us, there is a world of complex and civilised pleasures to be had. Delight in the boy can only be sharpened by the pathos and irony of his condition of becomingess.”
“…complex and civilised pleasures…”
Over the course of the next 250 pages, replete with almost as many illustrations – often not particularly high quality – Greer ranges from Ancient Egyptian and Greek statuary through to images of Jim Morrison and Robert Plant not to mention “French Chris on Carhood” via Titian, Caravaggio, da Vinci et al, the scenery and the flesh is lush and beautiful and various, and her point is well and truly made. The main question remains, whether the point, as she set it out, was worth making in the first place.
In between the discussions of Art, with that capital “A”, there are some fascinating cultural snippets, such as Bill Bruford’s description of disco run by the National Front in Bury St Edmonds in the 1980s, in which 70 or so bare chested, skinny, sweaty white boys danced clasped together in a way that can only be described as homoerotic, while the women in the room sat to one side, not watching, smoking and chatting amongst themselves. All of which Greer aligns with Dionysian revels, states of euphoria and mindless violence.
Her central point, about reclaiming the right for women to gaze on the beauty of young men/boys, appears late in the book to be qualified against the difficulty, in our culture today, that women would meet if they were to gaze frankly, without embarrassment, on a beautiful man, making it an easier choice for them to gaze on the beauty of a boy: they are unlikely to be challenging or demanding in return. He is “in no position to object”, or put another way, “…biological maleness only takes to itself phallic activity and mastery when it assumes patriarchal power. The boy, being debarred from phallic power, is endowed simply with a responsive penis rather than a dominating phallus and can be sexualised with impunity.”
Judging by the multitude of examples of whey-faced and loose-limbed adolescents that she finds in the archives, Greer clearly has a point about the historical employment of young men as models of beauty. And of course what is acceptable to cultures changes over time. The problematic aspect of this book is that which she describes at the start as probably illegal, before going on to extol the ‘complex and civilised’ nature of the pleasures to be had.
One saving grace, as a tangent, was the introduction to me of Elizabeth Sargent’s poem, “A Young Lover”, which Greer describes as ‘a risk.’ It starts and finishes as below:
Five times a day is what he really likes
If he misses a day he becomes morose…
… and grows
A high tower of flesh Spike
Of living steel, into which the semen flows
Like tap water – nature’s loveliest sight
(At least to me) as I take happy hold
Of my young lover, my fifteen-year-old.