October 15th, 2005

operesque

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.