Saturday, 13 October 2012

On artistic androgyny 1

A few days ago on Twitter - that telegraphic conveyor belt of ideas, opinions, chatter, and literature - I posted the following thought:

All artists are androgynous by virtue of the imagination - and have to be, men, women both. Can't afford not to be.

Having posted the thought there I wondered whether I would quickly regret it. Je ne regrette rien is not the most apposite of mottoes for Twitter as many have found out. In the event it started a little discussion on Twitter and some more on Facebook, but nothing life threatening or prison-worthy. 

The thought occurred because someone had said something about my work to the effect that it was, to some extent, androgynous. The person suggesting this was gay and I suppose the comment was in that context, but it struck me as true as regards the work at least, and therefore of the imagination, and for all I know of the person too, in so far as one can know anything. As another gay friend put it in mildly propositioning me, We are all bisexual, and I didn't disagree, as indeed I wouldn't, and just pointed out, equally mildly, that my life had been based on the premise that I was oriented towards women, that being the direction my Life Erotic had taken me, most especially towards my much loved wife of the past forty-one years and for that and other reasons I would not be giving it up for a gay, or indeed any other fling. Boring, I know, but that's it. He was very sweet about this with a faintly regretful Of course, and so it stayed.


That is not entirely beside the point but it is not the main point. Nor was it gender politics. I think I have read, and in some way worked my way through, some forty years of that too. I know the positions and the passions they engender (forgive the pun) and anticipated being entirely waylaid by it. It doesn't mean the point is invalid, only that it is known, and that while it cannot entirely be detached from the aesthetics of the process - I am not naive enough to think that art is detached from life as it is lived on every other level - it does prevent discussion of some aspects of art that are interesting in themselves.

The conditions under which we discuss such matters have for a long time, as long as I remember, tended towards the Stalinist of the c 1949-1954 period, where any deviance from the politics of the collective was branded as bourgeois individualism, a term still radiant with power albeit under different names, and which resulted in the banning of the best and the encouraging of the worst artists and writers of the time. So, if in contemporary terms, this means being condemned with Hungarian writers such Ágnes Nemes Nagy, Sándor Weöres, János Pilinzky and others I am happy to be accounted a bourgeois individualist.

The responses on Facebook did not reach the full Stalinist position but, as I anticipated, immediately gathered at their posts for a brief skirmish on gender politics. At that point I stepped aside and said, Please go ahead without me.


Now that is out of the way to some expansion of the original thought. I am happy to be regarded as a partly androgynous artist because I think all the best art is. Clearly there are genres and markets for the overtly feminine and the overtly masculine. My contention would be that in what we might talk about as - God forgive me for use of the term High Art (I promise to wash my mouth out with soap and water) - the extremes of masculine and feminine sensibility are mixed. As with Jane Austen so with Lord Byron. If the authors did not possess a degree of androgyny in their imaginations they could not very well create substantial figures of both men and women.

How do we define the essential starting positions of masculine and feminine sensibility?

We might begin by considering works designed exclusively, or almost exclusively, for either sex. Naturally, we admit that the conditions to which these works address themselves are to a greater or lesser degree socially conditioned, but the socially conditioned is what we have to work with. To define essences is difficult if not impossible: much depends how we want to use them. They certainly have their political uses. Some of us are reputedly from Venus, some from Mars. Some of us are frogs and snails and puppy dogs' tails, some of us are sugar and spice and all things nice. Some of us are more likely to act in one, way, some of us in another. It doesn't take either genius or exceptional stupidity to see that these terms refer to expectations that are not only current but assumed. Artists operate in the same field of expectations and assumption while getting on with making things that respond to or at least include other aspects of being. 

That is a start. I think this will take another post to discuss a little more meaningfully, though I am not looking to solve any question or even fully to justify my feeling about artistic androgyny.

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