University studies (and naked bodies)

by bjmuirhead

Last year I spent four months as a PhD candidate at University of Southern Queensland. It was, without a doubt, the most frustrating four months of my life.

My research area, very generally, was the photographic nude, an area in which I work as often as I can find models. My supervisor, David Akenson, informed me (in a statement of ‘support’ for a scholarship) that the nude was an outdated subject which had been heavily criticised and discredited by feminist and postmodernist theorists, and was no longer of any real interest academically. He also said, of my photographic work, that it was of ‘limited formal interest’. He gave every indication of being dismissive of the project and the area generally. (Actually, at one time, looking at oneof my shots of male genitals, he actually did dismiss it as merely being a Mapplethorpe rip off. He actually looked at the image for less than three seconds, so could barely have taken it in at all.)

In an attempt to find me a supervisor other than himself, David referred me on to Karey Harrison, who told me that David had said that he couldn’t understand my ideas at all.

What I ended up doing was spending four months justifying my interest in the nude and trying to find a satisfactory description, not of the project, but of the nude, on the very simple basis that my project depended on such a description, but at every turn David said I would fail to gain my degree if I adopted that approach, or said this…

In as much as I needed David’s signature in order to be able to present my confirmation document, it left me with no choice but to try and find a way to put my ideas in a form he could understand and approve of.

It didn’t get much better when I was talking to Karey Harrison, who insisted that I adopt a very specific (cultural/postmodern) approach with which I did not and do not agree. Nor did she permit me to outline my desired approach and explain it without continual interruptions in which she told me I was just wrong. Had I adopted the approach Karey demanded,  not only would it have necessitated my adopting philosophic positions which I do not hold, I also would have been taken away from my actual subject area.

I haven’t given up on the work, but I am no longer sure that I want to pursue any of this academically, for fear that I may run into a similar wall of the postmodernism religion in art.

I’m not going to waste my time criticizing postmodernism here, rather I want to outline the very basics of my position, the basics being very simple.

The human body is the foundation of everything we know as human. We can define it however we want, we even can say (as both Akenson and Harrison said to me) that the human body is and never can be anything other than a cultural artifact, but, if it is a cultural artifact, then it is so only because it is the foundation on and out of which culture has grown and continues to grow. As such it is an important ‘thing’ to investigate artistically, and on its own terms.

By investigating the nude in its own terms I mean something other than the intellectual madness whereby an artwork featuring the body is explicable and approachable only via an intellectual statement by the artist or some other person with the appropriate theoretical knowledge.

To look at and investigate the body in its own terms is to approach it as the foundation of all that is human, of all that we know as human, and is to recognise that there inevitably always is something about the body that is objective, irrespective of (primarily cultural/postmodern) arguments to the contrary. It is to recognise the physicality and animality of ourselves as humans. Of course, this means recognising and thinking about aspects of ourselves which we in the West have been trying to deny for some few centuries now, and placing them at the centre of our self-awareness and self-concepts.

When we do this, and when we avoid pre-conceptions of what an image of a naked body is, then we begin to look squarely at ourselves and at the all important place that the body has in our lives and cultures. It is not the case that it is all just cultural artifact and interpretation. Would that it were, because then I could forget the thoughts I have and just get on with other things!

In any event, while I have continued researching and scribbling out more ideas, I’ve also returned to an old project, and taken some more shots of male genitals. I have enough of these now for a small exhibition, and so am looking for an appropriate gallery. (One gallery has expressed interest for an ‘adults only’ show, but as yet we have not advanced in our talks…I really must get over there and see them.)

The series, for better or worse, is called, To be a man. I hope the irony and humour of the title is appreciated. Here are a couple of the shots….

Muirhead-to be a man--lrMuirhead-to be a man-2--lr