A real pain in the art

Bondage, humiliation, rape... Today's cutting-edge artists and film-makers are gleefully breaking taboos in the name of sexual freedom. But, asks Charlotte O'Sullivan, if that were really the case, wouldn't the eroticised object sometimes be a man?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In Lars von Trier's new film Dogville, Nicole Kidman finds herself used as a sex toy by a bunch of villagers; she's raped, and chained, via an iron dog-collar, to a rusty wheel. Von Trier is famous for treating his heroines like dirt; at a Cannes press conference, he noted: "I don't think it's as interesting to have men who are tortured, but that's a personal thing." Back in London, justifying the exhibition Down Under, the photographer David Bailey explained why he had chosen to get up close and personal with vaginas: "As a subject, the thing that you notice is how individual pussies are... much more individual than cocks."

Lucky old women. When it comes to life in the raw, it seems that nine out of 10 artists prefer to focus on the female form. And if that fascinating female form is imperilled or in pain - why, so much the better. In Steven Shainberg's US indie movie Secretary, we watch a romance unfold between a sad-sack typist, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, and her control-freak boss (James Spader). A lot of slap and tickle follows, but it's Gyllenhaal's bottom that turns red and blue, her anatomy, not Spader's, which gets exposed.

Sneak a peek at the work of old pioneers currently being resurrected, and you see the same logic at work. Over at the V&A, the work of the Seventies French fashion photographer Guy Bourdin is pulling in the crowds. Guy loved to show pale girls in red lipstick, high heels and various states of undress, stiff and glassy-eyed as dolls. Or dead meat (one photograph, called Hanging Woman, shows two females, one strung up, the other draped over a box, her throat cut). Menace is all around, in the form of shadows and forests, but men are left out of the frame. The female models steal the show, even if they're too insensible to know it.

It's easy for paranoia to set in. We're not talking about the patriarchal mainstream here, but the supposedly subversive cutting edge. Yet notice how all the "creators" concerned are male (even the poster for Secretary was designed by a man; one who boasted that his image - of a woman in high heels and mini-skirt bent over and ready for a big smack - would be "controversial"). S&M, nudity and rape: these are the subjects deemed provocative by the art-house set. And men are invariably the ones barking out the orders, and women the ones being told what positions to assume.

Nor is it reassuring to learn that Bourdin, for example, took great pleasure in frightening his models, subjecting them to freezing-cold baths, or flesh-impaling contraptions. He wanted to cover one group of models entirely in glue so he could sprinkle them with pearls. On being told that the girls might die, he exclaimed: "Oh, it would be beautiful, to have them dead in bed." One of his models noted of his peculiar sense of humour: "If you reacted badly, he would push you until you cracked." Another, Sybille, went on to become his wife, but found herself suffocated by his attentions (he didn't like her to leave their apartment). In 1981, she hanged herself. Bourdin's work, as has often been noted, has a fairy-tale quality. In reality, he was a veritable Bluebeard; he doesn't help us to understand misogyny, he personifies it.

And what of the men drawn to these "graphic" images? A quick glance at Down Under's visitors' book paints a predictably sticky picture. Alongside Bailey's black-and-white vaginas are a series of shots by Dazed and Confused lensman Rankin, showing beautiful, naked young girls (perfectly coiffured and made up) going through the ecstatic motions. "Girls very nice and lovely," observes an articulate punter. "I loved Rankin's images of the sultry, lip-smacking, finger-licking goddesses," writes another, before identifying himself as a "poet/photographer" (as if we couldn't tell). And my two favourites: "Very inspirational. It makes you want to go out and take similar photos" and: "This simply proves that women are the most lush. Feminists, don't get offended." Oh, OK, then.

The message is plain: the punters love Rankin's airbrushed little fantasies. By contrast, they seem notably less certain about Bailey's more honest, inquiring close-ups. The folds of flesh in these pictures look like old raspberries, or elephant hide or oysters (a photograph of an oyster is wittily included in the series) - some juicy, some dry. The rude bits look real, in other words. Way too real for the Rankin crowd. "Black-and-white details too clinical," grumbles one. The exhibition began in April; by last Friday, only three of Bailey's unkittenish "pussies" had sold. Only three of Rankin's goddesses hadn't. Two lads, having a bit of fun, suddenly look worlds apart.

That's the trouble with generalising about smut: you can't. Take the idea that only men are capable of dreaming up sex martyrs. Or appreciating them. Dogville's Nicole Kidman, for example, has talked about how much she enjoys going to lap-dancing clubs and watching the acts. Meanwhile, Secretary is based on a three-page story by the US writer Mary Gaitskill, herself notorious for her forays into S&M and the sex trade. As Maggie Gyllenhaal recently pointed out, the story is very different from the film. "In the movie, the relationship between the girl and the lawyer doesn't feel perverse and abusive. In the story, it is kind of sick and weird, but the girl is still turned on by it. [Gaitskill's] message is sort-of 'So what do you make of that?'"

It's been reported that Gaitskill doesn't like the movie, but when she spotted Gyllenhaal in a restaurant soon after the film's release, she came over and gave the actress her number. It was Gyllenhaal who decided not to follow up the contact. Gaitskill, like many other high-profile women radicals (the French directors Catherine Breillat and Virginie Despentes; the American academic Camille Paglia), has no interest in the idea of "romance".

She's a tough cookie, and whether you see this as a step forward or back, it means she puts her heroines through the wringer, with no release. Gyllenhaal couldn't - or didn't want to - relate to that. She was freaked out by Gaitskill's hard-core take on desire, just as she was later horrified by the film's soft-core poster. She believes there's a third way of looking at the tensions between men and women, and you can't help but admire her optimism.

All one's asking for, though, is a little balance. One doesn't mind seeing violation or voyeurism eroticised, but why not, just for once, have a barely dressed male as the object of desire? Can't women look at men with a mixture of empathy, passion and cruelty? Can't men - yes, even straight men - allow themselves to be moved, and intrigued, by another man's vulnerability?

If creative types insist on getting up close and personal with the human body, there needs to be more variety on display. On top of everything else, misogyny is boring. It's not about taking a walk on the wild side, it's about curtailing appetite. It may seem as if there's a surfeit of sex in our culture. In fact, we're all of us - men and women - being starved into submission.

'Dogville' goes on release later this year; 'Secretary' is out now; Down Under, Proud Camden Moss Gallery, 10 Greenland St, London NW1 (020-7482 3867), to mid-July; Guy Bourdin retrospective, V&A, Cromwell Road, London SW7 (020-7942 2000) to 17 August