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Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Male Trouble: A Crisis in Representation

Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Male Trouble: A Crisis in Representation:p.177: Lacan's distinction between the phallus and the a useful point of departure for a consideration of the conventions of the ideal male nude. The disparity between the symbolic power of the former and the moral, corporeal status of the latter may be likened to the difference between the authority of patriarchy as a social and psychic edifice and the contradictions, difficulties and frailties (historical and psychic) of masculine subjectivity. The less than heroic status of the penis in relation to an abstracted and elevated ideal of a sovereign masculinity also underpins the story-possibly apocryphal-of the day that a major American museum decided it was time for the fig leaves to be removed and the penises returned to the classical statues on exhibition.

The curator responsible for the classical statuary (so the story goes) had for years kept all the detached penises in a shoe box, each one numerically labeled to match it with its body. At a certain point, the curator's assistant, who was doing the actual work of reattachment, protested that one of the statues had been given a wrong part. The /p. 178 curator, taken aback by this challenge to her scholarship and record keeping, insisted that her numbers were accurate, her matches correct, until the assistant curator showed her that the part in question was, in fact, a thumb.

True or not, this anecdote points to one interesting but politely unacknowledged aspect of the classical male nude -the modest size of the genitals, a convention firmly established by the fifth century BC and never modified, either by those artists, like Michelangelo, who so powerfully imprinted the nude with their own idiosyncratic and visionary imagination, or by those like David, who sought to re-animate the antique model through the devoted study of nature. Penises, while obviously not as individual as faces, do come in various sizes, colors, and shapes, and while the standardization of all body part that is conceptually integral to the beau idéal, that this particular attribute of the ideal should have been determinedly modest in size requires explanation.

Insofar as the phallus is by definition a symbolic representation and the penis an anatomical reality, an investigation of the codes of the idealized male nude is necessarily concerned with the misfit between the overweening authority of the phallus -- possessed, we are told, by no one-- and the biological organ. For notwithstanding the ontological distinction between penis and phallus, it would seem far more reasonable to expect that the desirable male body of the patriarchal imaginary, in whatever epoch, should be equipped with more impressive organs, just as phallic emblems, such as Hindu stone lingams, often dwarf mere human proportions.

It is, of course, precisely the distinction between penis and phallus that accounts for such an apparent contradiction. For to whatever extent the penis can be said to represent the phallus, its bodily equivalent is at best provisional, if for no other reason than that the organ is flaccid more frequently than not. Although Lacan has himself been charged with phallocentrism, his insistence on differentiating penis and phallus parallels the distinction between biology and culture, between male human beings and the symbolic order of patriarchy. Accordingly, while the authority of the phallus may well be vested in the image of ideal masculinity, the power of patriarchy is so much in excess of its anatomical representative that the actual organ fails to carry its symbolic weight....

Berlin Painter, Ganymede (detail of red figure Attic Krater), early 5th century B.C.

Phintias, Satyr and Nymph ( detail of red figure cup) c. 510 B.C.


p. 180 [M]ore historical explanation of the disparity between phallic power and small genital might lie in the absolute and unquestioned authority of the classical model for later European artists. This authority, after all, underwrites the literal meaning of a canon, and for the artists of the eighteenth century, as for those of the Renaissance or Imperial Rome, the ancients had once and for all discovered the immutable laws and proportions of ideal physical beauty. In much the same way that the basic protocols of the female nude ( elision of the genitals, no body hair, and small round breasts) were rarely altered, so too were the aesthetic protocols of the male nude rigorously respected. Unlike later manifestations, Athenian conventions governing the representation of male sex organs were themselves structured by the beliefs, preferences and social and sexual practices specific to Athenian culture and society. Athenian men considered genitalia beautiful when small and taut, possibly because the socially sanctioned object of desire was an adolescent, not a mature man. Thus, it was uniquely the ithypallic satyr who was provided with an exaggerated, even caricatured, penis, almost always in a state of erection. For the male god, hero, or athlete the small, pointed and dainty penis was the rule, /p. 182 reflecting the cultural/sexual preferences of aristocratic Athenian men. Moreover, as the classicist Eva Keuls has noted, this aesthetic/erotic preference was even provided with a biological rationale, by no less an authority than Aristotle himself, who theorized that the small penis was more fertile than the large one because the distance for the seed to travel was shorter, and therefore had less time to cool.

Finally, the spectacular size of the satyr's genitals was an index not of his masculinity, but of his animality; cause for mockery rather than admiration. Indeed, and as classicists such as François Lissarrague have demonstrated, it was not the glorious figure of Hercules who was endowed with large genitals, but rather Geros, the emblem of decrepitude, or monstrous Pygmies. But where the depiction of penises may have been relatively unproblematic for the classical world, this was surely not the case for Christian Europe. Debates - ecclesiastical, aesthetic, and institutional-about the propriety or justification of nudity recur regularly in European art history, most famously perhaps in the deliberations of the Tridentine Councils. In the post-classical world, the body itself was a problematic entity, and the cultural desire to invest it with the most elevated and exalted values existed always in a cetain tension with its potential to disrupt or trouble them. Just as Freud argued that the products of civilization result from the sublimation and rechanneling of primitive drives and desires, so is the nude the aesthetic /cultural sublimation of the material stuff of the human body. The reluctance of post-classical artists to modify the canonically fixed dimensions of male genitalia is thus not only indicative of the remarkable and enduring power of aesthetic convention, but also of the anxiety that constellates around genitalia itself and its representation....

It goes without saying that the classical body is a male body, and it also goes without saying that it is a body thoroughly saturated with ideological significance. It received its characteristic attributes through a series of differentiations: from the female body, obviously and centrally, but no less definitively from the grotesque body. /p. 185 For Mikhail Bahktin, these two radically opposed fantasies of the body (located respectively in the ideal and the grotesque) corresponded to the worlds of elite and popular culture.The distinction between classical and grotesque bodies was, as we have seen, already operative in the ideal Greek nude, whose small genitals, in contrast to the satyr's, were one of the marks of its ideality, its luminous transcendence of the bestial or "low." In their study of "transgressive bodies," and in keeping with Bahktin's formulations, literary scholars Peter Stallybrass and Allon White point out that "the classical body denotes the inherent form of high official culture and suggests that the shape and plasticity of discursive material and social norms in a collectivity." The classical male body is "the radiant centre of a transcendent individualism, 'put on a pedestal,' and raised above the viewer and the commonality and anticipating passive admiration from below." Accordingly, one important aspect of the ideology of the classic male nude is its ability to signify both reason and law:

Taking its formal values from a purified mythologized canon of Ancient Greek and Roman authors the classical body was far more than an aesthetic standard or model. It structured, from the inside as it were, the characteristically 'high' discourses of philosophy, statecraft, theology, and law, as well as literature, as they emerged from the Renaissance. In the classical discursive body were encoded those regulated systems which were closed, homogeneous, monumental, centred and symmetrical.Gradually these protocols of the classical body came to mark out the identity of progressive rationalism itself.


Abigail Solomon-Godeau's discussion of the phallus and the penis provides a useful theoretical context in which to approach Robert Mapplethorpe's Man in a Polyester Suit.