Art and the changing face of manhood

Art and the changing face of manhood

In April, our outgoing Sergeant Major presented us with a small token of his thanks for two years well spent overseeing our squadron. It was a vast painting, depicting Major Waters VC, of 218th field company, the Royal Engineers, during the second Battle of the Sambre in WW1. He was bridging the Oise-Sambre Canal under heavy artillery and machine-gun fire at close range, despite being the only officer left alive. He had been working on cork floats under such intense fire that death seemed certain. The subsequent success of the operation, it is said, was entirely due to this man’s valour and leadership.

As a soldier myself, I thought that perhaps this painting captured, more beautifully and succinctly than anything I had seen before, the expectations that the modern man seems to have placed on his shoulders. Vigour, ruggedness, dynamism, valour. All of these qualities that Major Waters embodied spring to mind when we reference one’s ‘manhood’.

Without even knowing it, many of us still attach the same stigmas, the same expectations of virility, power, physical strength and emotional coldness to the male sex. Our subconscious expectations of the men in our lives are portrayed nowhere more strongly than in paintings like this. Where those who embodied the obvious traits of masculinity are venerated (justly so, in this case, I might add).

However, things seem to be changing. No longer are what one might call ‘traditionally masculine’ qualities being idolised through art as they were in Major Waters’ time. Instead, those like Zak Krevitt, an NYC-based fashion and fine art photographer with a focus on the ‘queer’ community, are now coming to the fore. Krevitt is first and foremost an artist, observer and explorer. He describes himself on Twitter as a “human puppy in Brooklyn exploring anthropomorphism through a queer lens”.

Krevitt’s study of society and its ‘queer’ aspects, through the medium of photography, has quickly grown to become representative of a society that increasingly values self-expression. He does this by taking what is on the inside and airing it publicly for all to see. In Krevitt’s case, through his photographs, and in the case of his subjects, it is often through BDSM.

Krevitt talks of “decontextualising and recontextualising images that are simultaneously foreign and familiar” through his work. Consequently, he has begun to portray a new breed of modern man. This is achieved through showing a distinct absence of these ‘familiar’ qualities of masculinity we have come to expect. In his shocking, sometimes explicit snapshots, he depicts a type of man who is unafraid to release and explore his sexuality. A male freed from the pressures of continuing his bloodline and not frightened to express himself publically.

The archetypal man thus could be said to be dying. He who is a ‘man’s man’ – omnipotent, macho, the epitome of strength – nowadays seems to be no longer relevant. He is being pushed out by this new breed of self-expressive man. Banished by the new, acceptable face of masculinity and manhood. Now, we see this new reincarnation everywhere: the man who is not afraid to indulge in traditionally female diversions. To worry about his appearance. To look after his body. Or to be in touch with his emotions.

So is there any space left at all for the traditional ‘man’s man’? Indeed, instead of conforming to a traditional gender binary, as women become freer, men, too, seem to be revolting against the stereotype that society imposes on their sex. Thus, the concept of a man as being, by his nature, an inherently masculine figure no longer seems to fit.

Artists, too, have begun to subvert the gender binary and even redefine what could be considered art. Take Paul B. Preciado’s (formerly Beatriz Preciado) recently launched project “Testo Junkie”, which they detail in their new book “Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs and Biopolitics in the Pharamcopornographic Era.” Preciado started taking testosterone as a recreational drug. The self-managed use of the hormone is what they refer to as ‘gender-hacking’. This, for them, is a way of subverting our prescribed social identities and what society expects of us. Rather than an active method of trans-sexualism born out of a desire to become male, Preciado describes their course of testosterone and their masculinization as being a way of rebelling against, even fooling, what society expects of them.

So what does all of this mean for the traditional ‘man’s man’? With the evolution of the male into the more ‘modern’ being we see today, drifting further and further along a fluid and far-reaching spectrum of gender, further and further away from the stereotype, the concept of masculinity is now no longer simply an objective standard to which all men must conform. No. It is indefinable, ever-changing, moulding itself around the expectations of society. And in many ways, rebelling against them. It is thus subverting the hyper-masculinised notions of manhood we all subconsciously retain.

It just remains to be seen whether this new breed of man – more liberal, emotionally expressive and bold – can carve out an established space in the busy throng that is the so-called ‘progressive’, western world.


Written by Ben Glaister,


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