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Women as culture - click opera
February 2010
 
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Sat, Oct. 15th, 2005 11:06 am
Women as culture

Brian Eno—a man both refreshing and right, a rare combination—said in an interview about 15 years ago that it was important for him to have a studio in Kentish Town because it brought him into close contact with a stream of beautiful, fashionable young women, and that women were underestimated as cultural objects; it was just as important, Eno thought, to pay attention to the fashions and hairstyles of attractive women as to note what was playing at, well, the English National Opera (ENO). Perhaps more so.

On the face of it, that doesn't seem like a very controversial stance. It seems semiotic, democratic, and slightly erotic; the comment of a man who loves women, and loves culture, and is prepared to see women—or at least the strangers passing by his door—as culture. The logical extension of this is that one would "review" women, or the cultural signifiers they display, in exactly the same way as one reviews, say, a classic record by Caetano Veloso. And of course newspapers and blogs do this; papers have fashion coverage, and back in August I ended my Click Opera Beauty Week with a paen to the beauty of a girl called Nine.

Well, today I'd like to tell you that it's had a significant impact on the quality of my week to discover that Kumi Okamoto of Paris-based band Konki Duet has grown her hair long, as you can see from the photo above, where she's modelling a raw silk blouse from Paris Chinatown company Hoaly (reduced from €25 to just €16, hurry hurry!).

Of course, treating women as culture is problematical. Here are some of the problems, abstracted from complaints that arose when I "reviewed" Nine (not from Nine herself, mind you, but from "feminist" male friends of hers):

1. Women are cultural, of course, but they're not just culture. They're people too!
My response: But of course culture isn't just culture either. It's people too, and when you review it you hurt or help people.

2. How can you, as a man, distinguish your aesthetic appreciation of a woman from your sexual appreciation of her?
My response: I can't. The pleasure parts of our brains are so intimately connected with bodily pleasures—our appetites for sex and food—that it's silly to even try to disentangle the aesthetic from the sensual. But please don't assume I'm trying to seduce every woman I express appreciation of.

3. The woman may not like to be appreciated, and your girlfriend may not like you to speak about your admiration for other women!
My response: This argument comes from men, not from the women I'm "reviewing" and not from my girlfriend, who's quite capable of discussing the beauty of other women with me. The women in question have posted images of themselves in public places, seeking aesthetic admiration... as we all do. It makes the world a better place.

4. You're paying too much attention to how people look, and not enough to how they are inside!
My response: If you look at 2, you'll see that I don't dissociate the aesthetic and the sensual. Similarly, I tend to be endorsing what people do as well as how they look. Kumi, for instance, has made really wonderful pop records with Konki Duet, Shinsei, Crazy Curl, and so on. What's more, beauty (and this is something you can't see in photographs) is also about a way of being. I've known Kumi as a friend since 2001, and her way of being is simple (she works in a bakery), virtuous, sincere, serious, and slightly ingenue. These, along with things like body posture, voice, and so on, all add to the effect. Body and soul can't, in the end, be separated, and nor can a person's outside be detached from her inside, her surface from her depth.

5. Your "appreciation" might sit better in France or Japan than Britain or America, and might sit better in the 60s than now.
My response: You might be right there. One of the things that most marks one epoch from another, and one culture from another, is the way men relate to women. One of the most interesting parts of the discussion between curator Philippe Vergne and Atelier Bow-wow's Yoshiharu Tsukamoto linked from Thursday's comments section is when they talk about Yoshiharu's impressions of walking around Minneapolis, and how it compares with Tokyo. The main difference is sexuality: in Tokyo sexuality is open, on the surface, whereas in Minneapolis it's hidden, sublimated. Perhaps this explains, they speculate, why architecture made in Japan (and Europe) is more social, architecture made in America more psychological.

The kind of objections I'm rebutting here tend to come from Anglo-Saxon men, speaking, with what they think is a "feminist" mindset, on behalf of women they claim to be defending. I wonder, though, if this sort of "feminism" isn't part of the problem, not the solution. It comes from a culture where women are treated as private property, born with the names of their fathers, taking the names of their husbands, disappearing from circulation. This cautionary attitude to their public celebration might even be a kind of "veiling" of women, a desire to exclude them from the cultural process, to rule their sexuality or beauty out-of-order as a cultural signifier.

These problems arise more often in Anglo-Saxon cultures (you'll search English-language blogs in vain for the celebratory, non-sexist vagina seen on Toog's blog this week, for instance) because what poses here as feminism is actually a post-protestant, puritan attitude to women and to beauty. You see it when rockist music fans talk about music made by attractive women, and insist that the music's all that matters, or that attractiveness must somehow equate with superficiality, a link you could find pretty much anywhere, but I most recently found on Marxy's blog in a comment about Relax magazine. "For those worried about the current state of subcultural sophistication in Japanese youth culture," he said sarcastically, "you'll be happy to know the new issue of Relax is dedicated to that eternal source of depth and artistic inspiration: modeling." Somehow I think Brian Eno wouldn't be sneering; he wouldn't see a magazine about modeling as in any way diminishing subcultural sophistication. I'm with Eno; "Sometimes I think that Japanese hairdressers are generating more basic new forms than pop stars," I told Modern Painters magazine in 2003.

No apologies at all, then. Click Opera will continue to endorse beautiful women just as it endorses beautiful music, architecture, design and art. Some of which—unsurprisingly, really—also happens to be made by beautiful women.

145CommentReplyShare

deerscare
deerscare
Sat, Oct. 15th, 2005 09:27 am (UTC)

man, my boyfriend talks about how great your blog is all the time, so i added it to my list.. and so far it's been good + interesting - but this post really grosses me out. i dont even really want to try to explain WHY for fear of being labled some kind of insane feminazi, i'm also really tired and inarticulate... but yeah, ew.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Oct. 15th, 2005 09:34 am (UTC)

Well, I'm not against stirring up cultural debate on Click Opera, but it seems odd that a post talking about female beauty would gross you out. It's a shame you don't care to expand on why, too, because it would have been useful to hear a woman's objections to the celebration of female beauty rather than the objections of the male strawmen I've set up here.


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conorh
conorh
Conor
Sat, Oct. 15th, 2005 10:09 am (UTC)

From "Ikiru", which I watched for the first time last night-

During the scene where a drunken, awestruck Shimaru and his friend watch an exotic dancer- the friend says:

"That isn't art, that's something greater. Greater and more direct than art"


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Oct. 15th, 2005 04:06 pm (UTC)
finish the quote...

...to finish the quote you need three items. the last one is "uranium"...and that one tells us more about the art of women.
best,
r.


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33mhz
33mhz
The Queen of Overdub Kisses
Sat, Oct. 15th, 2005 10:10 am (UTC)

I've always found it rather easy to separate my erotic response from my aesthetic response, because there are men and women I find beautiful but not sexy, and men that I find attractive but aesthetically boring.

I agree with the premise that the intentional aspects of personal appearance are a legit manifestation of culture, and better yet, one that's about as pervasive and democratic as you can get. And I agree that the erotic is a legitimate source of inspiration.

What may have been "creepy" about your stance is the way these two premises are melded: Since it's specifically women rather than "interestingly dressed people" that are being "reviewed", the primary criteria for these reviews seem to be erotic, which cover both the aspects of their bodies/way of life that they can't change as well as the aspects that they can and have. Effectively, they're reviews of people rather than personal expression.

While I don't think it's strictly necessary or important to separate your aesthetic and your erotic response, it is important to keep separate the aspects of appearance/presentation that are intentional from the ones that aren't. I think most people would say that hairstyles (pubic ones, even), dress, body modifications or even an openly erotic performance are fitting subjects of review, most would balk at the idea of a review of (rather than aesthetic/erotic appreciation of) a woman's vagina.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Oct. 15th, 2005 10:19 am (UTC)

I've always been a bit puzzled by this argument that a distinction has to be made between choices consciously and freely adopted and things you can't help. For anyone who's read any psychoanalysis, for instance, it's obvious that our conscious and unconscious are all tangled up, and what we think of as choices might be compulsions. It's clearly a kind of self-policing to say that one should refrain from comment on things that are not willed, when not only is it not clear what's willed and what isn't, but one's impression is, in reality, always going to include both the willed and the unwilled, the free and the unfree parts of the person we're judging (the fact, for instance, that they're old).

Isn't saying you shouldn't judge things people can't help a bit like saying "Homosexuality is genetic, so they can't help it, so we shouldn't condemn it. If it's an act of free choice, though, it's bad!"


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33mhz
33mhz
The Queen of Overdub Kisses
Sat, Oct. 15th, 2005 10:34 am (UTC)

Like any binary, it's blurry: one could say that the form of one's body has been largely chosen by diet and exercise.

I don't think it's necessary to refrain from comment on anything at all, but there is a distinction to be made between a review and an aesthetic appraisal. Whether or not one can actually untangle the intentionality of some phenomenon, a review (at least as I've seen the word used) assumes a creator or creators and a series of intentional acts, even if they are simply there to frame an unintentional or automatic process.

While one can comment on the aesthetic virtues/faults of a vagina or even a cloud formation, writing a review of a vagina seems to me as absurd as reviewing the constellations in the night sky.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Oct. 15th, 2005 11:09 am (UTC)
Re: an aesthetic review of your aesthetic review

I rather like the tacky Chinatown look of the photos (and clothes)! It's funnier if you know that Kumi lives in the Paris 13th, right in the Vietnamese area. In the same room, as it happens, where Flo Manlik used to live in (and I don't want to ruffle any vaginas, but I suspect the sex on the Toog page belongs to Flo).


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Oct. 15th, 2005 11:26 am (UTC)
Re: I might delete this comment

Well, I don't think there are any more major theses on the way about Nine, but I did want to refer back to the objections you raised in August, because they're highly relevant to any discussion of what it means to "review people".


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w_e_quimby
w_e_quimby
hobbes
Sat, Oct. 15th, 2005 11:16 am (UTC)

All of this was great except for your very last paragraph. It made the rest of what you said seem trite, as though you really were writing it all because you felt that you needed to justify something that seems... inessential.

I especially liked the way you provoked me to think about the dichotomies of aesthetic vs sexual appreciation and psychological vs social ways of being, among other things.

I love beautiful women too, even though I'm pretty much a straight female. In my sincere opinion, I find in general that women are more aesthetically appealing than men in general.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Oct. 15th, 2005 11:37 am (UTC)
SWF seeks sights

Same here - it's easy to find constant fascination with women, as they generally invest more effort in a colourful presentation. (And easy to lose all interest in the North American male in his form-obscuring supersize outfits.) However I find my current muse is a gay high-schooler - I find his hair and makeup more exciting than most of the girls. I wasn't crazy about the vagina photo - as the underwear being tugged on with great effort seems a bit american-style puritan presentation. (Look! I'm showing you something forbidden!) Perhaps I'd prefer an understated three-quarter view, with no need to display the all-too-pervasive thong.
(Thongs - now that's something to be offended by, as champion of ergonomics)


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w_e_quimby
w_e_quimby
hobbes
Sat, Oct. 15th, 2005 11:53 am (UTC)

Also, Momus, in your comments about Nine, I get the feeling that you're being somewhat ironic and that you're making light of her indirectly through your praise.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Oct. 15th, 2005 11:56 am (UTC)

I'm not going to talk any more about... well, anybody whose name is a number. Consider her veiled from now on, veiled and out of circulation.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Oct. 15th, 2005 11:56 am (UTC)

Yes, hand over the keys to the art galleries to the dirty old men of today. Lets pretend it's something new to write about.


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besskeloid
Gary Robert Kelly
Sat, Oct. 15th, 2005 01:01 pm (UTC)

What does "dirty" mean?


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Oct. 15th, 2005 12:17 pm (UTC)

I don't find your answer to number 4 particularly convincing.

Lot of people's don't want to be judged on their appearance. As a short, fat, balding, ugly male I'm frequently wishing people woud manage to be less obsessed with appearances.

There's also something around luck versus achievement here. Being judged on music, architecture, design and art you've made is being judged on sometthing you've achieved, whereas appearance is genetic (good or bad) luck.


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butterflyrobert
RND
Sat, Oct. 15th, 2005 07:35 pm (UTC)

There's also something around luck versus achievement here. Being judged on music, architecture, design and art you've made is being judged on sometthing you've achieved, whereas appearance is genetic (good or bad) luck.

Perhaps, but having anything you've designed reach anyone substantial enough to judge it publicly (with any substantial result) is at the very least 50% luck.

And art itself always involves a healthy dose of luck, though I wouldn't dare try to estimate such a thing...


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Oct. 15th, 2005 12:34 pm (UTC)
a pretty girl is like a minstrel show.

I have an ear for music
And I have an eye for a maid
I link a pretty girlie
With each pretty tune that's played
They go together like sunny weather
Goes with the month of May
I've studied girls and music
So I'm qualified to say:

A pretty girl is like a melody
That haunts you night and day

Just like the strain of a haunting refrain
She'll start upon a marathon
And run around your brain

You can't escape, she's in your memory
By morning, night and noon

She will leave you and then come back again
A pretty girl is just like a pretty tune


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Oct. 15th, 2005 12:43 pm (UTC)
Re: a pretty girl is like a minstrel show.

I really think Stephin should have written that song about pretty boys instead.


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petit_paradis
petit_paradis
erik
Sat, Oct. 15th, 2005 01:38 pm (UTC)
art relieves constipation

http://www.news.com.au/story/0,10117,16925387-23109,00.html

"VIEWING and discussing art not only soothes the soul, it also helps cure ills like high blood pressure and constipation, a Swedish researcher said today."


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dr__ben
dr__ben
Sat, Oct. 15th, 2005 02:16 pm (UTC)
Paparazzi on the building site

That response from Nine's friends is really interesting, because it throws up parallels with the mainstream media's coverage of big celebs: Nine is a sophisticated small-scale cultural figure, courting sophisticated small-scale cultural interest. But just like when the gossips attack in the tabloids, you've given her the wrong kind of sophisticated cultural interest, and now her coterie is crying foul against you.

Maybe like Renee Zelwegger last week at the New York Times offices, she'll show up unexpectedly outside Momus Corp to give you a piece of her mind? Perhaps, if some terrible road accident befell her, we'd all turn against you for hounding her throughout her blameless life, but still keep reading the journal all the same?

I think the most irksome thing about your whole project here - which I'm cheerfully participating in - is that there's something sinister about engaging with beauty in such an intellectual way. It's the cleverclogs intellectual version of Hot Tub Ranking on Channel Five.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Oct. 15th, 2005 02:27 pm (UTC)
Re: Paparazzi on the building site

1. A woman overheard talking to her friend in the pub. "He kept going on about how I was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen." Her friend: "What, he was stalking you?" "No, no, he made no attempt to contact me at all, we never saw each other from one year to the next. But every now and then he'd post on his blog that I was still beautiful, or a good photographer, or something. It was awful."

2. Germaine Greer: "Women spend the first half of their lives being faintly irritated that everyone's looking at them, and the second half of their lives faintly irritated that no-one is."

3. "Granny was a great beauty in her day, people used to blog about her, you know."


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alisgray
alisgray
spoonful of sugar, pinch of salt
Sat, Oct. 15th, 2005 02:26 pm (UTC)

Once, for a year, I had a subscription to Vogue. (Incidentally, this was not while I was living in the "sublimated" sexuality of Minnepolis where I now reside, but in the much more macho and I suppose therefore more realized sexual climate of Albuquerque.) As a woman I found it difficult to feel beautiful while reading that. Being pretty enough to be an art object is such a classic and boring task for a woman. And, frankly, at least the Vogue style of beautiful is an incredible physical restriction. The pressure to be a beautiful object is to compete knowing you will fail. Even if you manage to be the prettiest girl available, you're still more than half object, generally to men who consider themselves forces rather than objects.

(And, though I really do love Minneapolis, I must say that "sublimated sexuality" is a fair assessment of the culture in general. "Polite" is another. I have never felt that I had to brandish weapons in public to keep from being harrassed in the street, a thing I can't say was true in ABQ. I am sad to say I haven't been to Tokyo.)

If the beauty that you're reviewing is not just sexuality, why not review beautiful men as well?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Oct. 15th, 2005 02:30 pm (UTC)

I did a mini-review of Marxy up the page. Summary: hott, girls (and boys)!


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jemly
jemly
jem
Sat, Oct. 15th, 2005 02:28 pm (UTC)

i think the fine line here is how people perceive objectivity.

There's a tendency toward cultural conditioning against objectivity--particularly as a way to form, balance, and implement morality.

ie "pornography is bad because it objectifies women as sex objects--don't watch it"
(nevermind the men !).
"hate the models because they objectify women and beauty--models have no substance and do drugs".

....therein fear of objectification creates a form of censorship.

so, as a woman, my first knee-jerk reaction to reading "women as cultural objects is anger. afterall, i have literally been fighting objectification since i was shat out of the womb.

but as i've grown i find objectification erotic, and, ultimately, inevitable.
i do not want to be hidden--and through this "censorship" (fear of objectivity), i'm, in turn, more objectified than being admired for any beauty i might possess ("inside" or "out"...)

you said it best here:
"This cautionary attitude to their public celebration might even be a kind of "veiling" of women, a desire to exclude them from the cultural process, to rule their sexuality or beauty out-of-order as a cultural signifier."


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jemly
jemly
jem
Sat, Oct. 15th, 2005 02:33 pm (UTC)

that said...
when you think of culture ultimately being created by men;
and then women (or rather...the way we "are"..i apologize for the grand generalization), being a result of that creation...
that does bother me.

i assumed that the reason why there is an extreme inbalance in this conversation about "men as cultural objects" is because...men create the objects--so to speak.

call me indecisive,
but i empathize with both sides of the spectrum.
as a woman....and as an object.


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