June 17th, 2006


A naked man in Berlin

Here's an image, shot from a Berlin S-Bahn carriage, of a billboard advertising daily newspaper Die Zeit, currently running a series of articles entitled "What is manly?" You can see it in the context of the newspaper here. The naked male model is splashed across the front page, his pose Michelangelesque, a few teasing millimeters of penis visible in the chink between his legs.

In case I gave the impression, in my Trussed thrust piece the other day, that I have something against expressions of male sexuality, I want to say that I find the Zeit image a much more positive one than the O2 image of the mobile phone user making a fist-thrust gesture while watching soccer highlights on his "handy". Here's a list of reasons why I prefer the Zeit image:

1. There's no football involved.

2. The guy's a passive object, put there for our aesthetic contemplation.

3. Absence of "aggressive normality" in the Zeit image.

4. It seems to be part of a feminist project: that the objectification of women as sexual objects (which, let's face it, is not going to go away) would be a lot more acceptable if men were also objectified as sexual objects. Feminism, broadly speaking, has two projects: making women equal to men, and deconstructing patriarchy. This second project, it seems to me, is the more radical one, and has been neglected.

5. This is a recognizably European image, and I mean continental Europe: an image from Italian, French or German advertising of the last 30 years. (It could also be Scandinavian.) The UK and US, though, are still a bit puritan when it comes to naked men showing a chink of penis on billboards. This is the kind of image that says to an American tourist "You've arrived in another cultural zone".

6. There's a strong nudism-naturism component in German culture. A hundred years ago, the Berlin Expressionists of the Brucke school were heading out to the lakes surrounding this city and painting the naked people they found there in canvasses like Bathers by Otto Mueller and Bathers at Moritzburgm by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (himself, I think, rather a beautiful man, and a big hero of mine when I was younger; a photo of him appears on the sleeve of the first Momus EP). This is still a country where children play naked in city parks. The UK, to put it mildly, is not.

7. Unlike the O2 image, the Zeit image avoids what I call "Dionysus in the throne of Apollo" Syndrome; the encouragement of laddish, selfish, druggy, irresponsible behavior in consumers. I reject this because those authorities who encourage us to be Dionysian -- to lose control, but in a controlled way, strapped into planes or herded into football stadiums -- are not Dionysian themselves: they simply want to keep the control element, the rationality which underlies power, to themselves rather than see it spread through the population. Authorities who encourage us to be irresponsible (within limits, and in conformist ways) are contradicting the basic Existentialist message that we should each be responsible for our own actions, and control our own lives.

8. I persist in thinking there's something usefully Utopian in images of nakedness. I think there's a correlation between positive images of nakedness and humanism. I do think there will eventually be cities where we all walk naked, but I think it's at least a hundred years in the future, and it depends on humans liking humans more than they currently do, and accepting themselves better. We all need to become happier with -- and in -- our own skins.