On Naked Men: Penises & Art

by bjmuirhead

One aspect of art, and especially photography, which has interested me is the scarcity of male nudes, especially those which actually look at male bodies rather than giving a physical representation of social ideas of the masculine—all varieties of female nudes exist, and are easily discovered, but the same does not seem to be true of male nudes.

What fascinates me most, however, is the avoidance of the penis.

Of course, I am generalising, and I certainly have not seen every male nude in the world, but I have looked for and found very few photos of penises, but volumes of photographs of female pudenda.

In one way or another, labia are acceptable subjects for photography from pornography to “high art”, while penis and testicles are not, despite their inherent visual interest.

Of course, it seems clear that a part of the problem is that male genitals are patently sexual, and at the same time rather humorous. (There is no female equivalent, for example, to the “testicle crawl” inherent in male sexual excitement, an aspect of masculinity which has given many women great amusement—or so they have told me.)

Society as I experience it, holds nudity to be morally reprehensible generally, and vast portions of society extend this to the point that nudity is regarded as criminally offensive and essentially pornographic. Indeed, personal nudity is confined behind bathroom and bedroom doors for the most part. Other, more publicly available, nudity is often encountered in sexual contexts: pornography, sexually charged voyeurism in film, magazines, and so on.

Francois Jullien, in The Great Image Has No Form or On the Nonobject through Painting (translated by Jane Marie Todd, The Universtiy of Chicago Press, 2009) notes that where many societies have an established history or erotic art, this is not the case in “Western” societies; what we have is pornography, pure and simple, against which the wowsers and moralists have fought an ever more tedious battle. Pornography is, however, the only form of erotic art explicitly present in our society, and it is an entirely degraded form of “art” which aims for little more than the creation of sexual excitement. The next closest thing we have is the nude, which is under attack from many moral extremists and fundamentalists as being pornography.

I began thinking about these issues years ago, when I first shot male nudes, among which were quite a few shots focusing on the model’s genitals. (I still have these first shots on film, and will scan them into digital form eventually.)

Then the Bill Henson horror (I still don’t know how Hetty wasn’t sued for libel/defamation when she descried Henson as a paedophile) brought the whole thing about nudes back into intellectual focus for me, and led to one of my current projects—a series of photographs of the male penis in all of its states.

At the risk of offending, here are some recent shots, my first steps into this project which may, things being what they are, never find an exhibition space. And yes, the model is well over 18… er, 30… er… really rather old, in fact.