Sunday, November 8, 2009

Manit Sriwanichpoom on a 'nude pictures gang' at the Museum of the National Gallery

Manit Sriwanichpoom. ‘Nude Pictures Gang’, in the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siam Rath Weekly News magazine, Yr.47, Vol.42, 2001.

I learned about the difference between artistic and pornographic nudes in university. Before that, the word nude [for me] was synonymous with the word ‘naked.’

“Hey kid, would you like to see some naked women? Some girlie magazines?” The voice of the vendor from a bookstall at Sanam Luang whispered behind us.

I and my middle school friends turned around and looked at the owner of that voice. “Hey, yeah, man, sure! But I don’t have a single baht on me.” I hurried to put the burden on my friend, knowing that no matter who pays, everyone gets a look.

We decided to follow the guy out behind his bookstall. He picked up some books for us to select. My friend and I saw pictures: the vagina of a white woman spread wide for all to see; a white woman with lips round a penis, the sperm all over her face. We looked and became very excited. We were still very innocent.

We had never seen anything so eye-opening as this. We crouched low, nervously looking around, afraid every minute that a proctor from school or a policemen in plain clothes would catch us. We could hardly choose for fear of getting caught. Hurriedly, we paid, took the book, and jumped on the bus to go home.

Pornography like this – underground stuff for guys like us whose pubic hair was just sprouting – was what we used to study sex. We had no idea about artistic pictures of nudes. All we knew was whether the pictures succeeded in making us feel ‘horny’ or not.

When we were old enough to wear long pants – jeans- and to study art, I had to learn to recognize that these images of naked women displaying their private parts in nasty poses, unbeautiful, stiff and hard, inviting sexual arousal, were pornographic. We didn’t call this art. By contrast, artistic nudes provoked admiration and reverence for the beauty of the human body. Or they showed aesthetic qualities of the human body discovered by the artist. They did not simply lead one to sexual lust. Speaking simply, you could say that art pictures don’t give you a ‘hard-on.’ The part about the ecstatic pleasure of aesthetic quality is another issue. Anyway, while studying art, my friends and I went astray, both with nude artistic images and naked porn.

It was very interesting, thinking it over, when I began to have a mind of my own, and began to divide pictures of undressed women into ‘art’ and ‘porn.’ Twenty years later, I know that the idea is naïve indeed. The so-called ‘mind’ itself is basically very deceptive. Paying respect to someone’s face and jeering at their back. On the wall of the reception room is an artistic nude to express cultivation, but there’s porn (books and videos) in the bedroom. We hide the embarrassing stuff. Actually, it is porn – rather than the more correct ‘art’ pictures – that may help solve many marriage crises.

So, if we look at a picture of a nude and want to decide whether it is art or pornography, a very narrow interpretation is required.
[Artistic] nudes tell us more – but what do they tell? They reflect a world of views and beliefs, political, social, cultural, religious, psychological and sexual, and the taste of the artist as well.
If you read the issue broadly, like this, the distinction between art and porn may become less important.

I have been trying to draw out some meaning from the works of art from the ‘Some Things About Nudes’ show by 10 artists – famous senior and middle range art teachers – ranging in age from 37 to 55. The show at the National Gallery on Chao Fah road just closed.

Some artists in the show presented women in a negative light. They condemned and criticized them. For example, the painting by Somsak Raksuwan, Woman, Fire and Lotus presented an image of a woman with her long hair unfurled, standing among flames with eyes closed, her plastic breasts teasing the audience. Lotus leaves and flowers burned. Somsak showed fire coming from the woman’s vagina, reflecting the fierce, provocative heat of the female. In another picture, the woman disrobed, her legs and feet pointed to the sky as fire poured out of from between them. The artist seemed to find satisfaction in making the pictures.

When I saw Somsak’s picture I felt very sad indeed because it reminded me that there are still many men like this artist who think that all evil and lust originates in women. They forget to look carefully at themselves and see that, in fact, all these kinds of problems arise from men’s own egotistical lust [literally, ‘penis’]. Instead of drawing the flaming vagina, why didn’t Somsak draw a fiery penis? It would have been much more appropriate.

There are more artists like Somsak –– like Panya Wijintanasarn. His work , Fighting to Be One, was in a brown tone. At the very top of the canvas a group of five gleeful women, seeing what was below, gave a ‘thumbs up’ sign to the audience. In the darkness at the bottom of the picture was a nude woman, her face expressing pain, her hands bound behind her back. Did the artist think that women fight for the chance to become sex objects like this? Who enjoys tying women up if not men like us?

Sujin Trinarong really hammered in the ‘sex object’ theme by comparing women with flowers such as roses or lilies. He painted a woman in blue-black tones lying naked with breasts exposed and vagina gaping, her face smothered under flowers, seemingly accepting everything without protest, the willing object of the pleasure seeker.

Nondhiwat Chandhapalin, a very senior artist and very pious, pictured women as a threat to [male] virginity. His work, entitled ‘กายานุสติ กัมมฐาน’ (‘the meditative body’) was a pure white plaster sculpture of a young monk, sitting in meditation before a bronze statue. A pair of writhing, nude, twin girls was also present. The setup reflected the artist’s idea very well. He wanted everyone to see what kind of person he is. The young monk is the artist himself, who works at quieting his mind and purifying himself in the midst of lusts and desires.

It looked as if these artists regard woman as sex objects, just as porn magazines do, though such magazines are usually scolded and condemned, while these persons presented their work as ‘art,’ which is assumed to be ‘high’ and to lift the mind. I think porn magazines are more daring. They don’t beat around the bush and they don’t try to teach any holy principles. Porn doesn’t preach or annoy; it presents people as gorgeous sex objects, lively and imaginative, as befits professionals.

There were works by another group of artists who really wanted to praise and revere the beauty of a woman’s body in a humanistic way, as A. Silpa Bhirasri taught. Unfortunately, they showed no more determination than anyone else. They hurried their pictures along, without feeling or emotion, simply showing off their technique – as in the paintings of Somwong Tapparat and Sarawudt Duangchampa. Neither of their works showed any attempt to study light and shadow, to organize art elements, or to look for new angles – except to print out the image on canvas, using a computer. But that was not difficult.

Sakwudt Wisetman’s work was the only one I saw which expressed the beauty of his model in a praiseworthy manner. He organized his elements well, posing the model, using line, good proportion and anatomy, and creating a bit of mystery by covering the woman’s face with a red veil.

In a case like this set of pictures, discriminating between art and porn becomes meaningless. What counts is the artist’s attitude toward women, which is critical – especially among persons who are university teachers - which leaves one quite deflated in this case.

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