Bjørn Venø : MANN and the meaning of masculinity in the 21st century

Although born in leafy Chaltham, Bjørn Venø spent the majority of his childhood living with his parents among a small island community in ruggedly idyllic Sejle, on the Norwegian west coast. While in Norway he studies Film and Media, Epistemology and Philosophy of Science as well as being conscripted by the military where he worked for the Norwegian Naval academy’s Internal Television. In 2003 he returned to his birthplace and took a BA in Photography at UCCA in Rochester. I will be looking at some of his most recent work entitled MANN.

MANN is name that could conceivably belong to a new brand of aftershave, purporting to help the male consumer achieve the ideal balance between suave and hard-bodied. Indeed, Venø‘s high production values could be those of the marketing campaign for said aftershave, were it not for the cathartic and confessional content of these tableaux vivants. As he plainly states, Venø is ‘exploring what it is to be a man’, and he does so in a disarmingly honest manner. A passage from his website tells of the mythical masculine paragons and paternal ideals which formed Venø ‘s childhood identity:

‘”I’ve sailed the seven sees, been imprisoned as a pirate in New York, cooked old leather shoes for the African king, fished sharks and sailed deep in to the Amazon” These are the tales of Bjørn Venø’s father from the days men were men, men like Roald Amundsen and Thor Heyerdahl. In those days men did not suffer anxiety and depression instead he bit his teeth, clenched his fist and thought his way through adversary with sheer will alone.’

Central to MANN is a series of photographs consisting of three chapters: 1. Sirkel (circle), 2. Paradigm and 3. Behold. These three words seem to sum up the endeavour: the cyclical return to the locale where he spent his formative years, the masculine ideals and fantasies that he took up with naïve openness and the eventual paradigm shift which resulted from his confrontation with the oft-disappointing realities of adult life. I take behold to refer to the unflinching candour with which he lays himself bare, also a word with an edge of behold which carries though his various confrontations with his parents.

In a video accessible via his website, Venø talks us through Sirkel, first stating the nature of his project: ‘[it’s] about male identity, I feel that male identity has not been explored to the same extent as female identity’. When one thinks of gender politics in art, names like Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Tracy Emin spring to mind; although there are likely some other male artists looking at similar themes, at least in popular knowledge there seems to be a dearth. He goes on to discus how he feels. ‘You may be a big muscle-builder, confident and secure. Me, I have fleeting moments of confidence…rest of the time, I wonder: What the hell am I doing?’. A considerable number of us feel utterly rudderless at one point or another, so why is it that the male gender has more trouble expressing it? Why indeed is self-assurance equated with the heavily muscled body type? I’ll try to address these questions later. ‘there came a point..when I guess I grew up and realised that adulthood. Or adults are worse off than children. It’s this point I am trying to capture in Sirkel’ He proceeds to run us through a number of photographs from the chapter, re-enactment of childhood fantasy, his voice ballooning with mock bravado. Sounding now like a blockbuster trailer narrator: ‘here I am on a Mountain… building a spaceship out of Lego, to reach the stars… and at the same time I have pants down on my knees’. The juxtaposition of heroic boyhood fantasy and nude humiliation epitomises for me, this awkward transition from childhood to adulthood.

Paradigm has Venø in strained nude poses in the rooms of houses he occupied as a child. In one shot, he’s precariously balanced with his lower half on his childhood bed and his torso and arms resting unconformable on the floor. The room is small and replete with Star Wars merchandise and other boyhood memorabilia. The marriage of adult body with a space that was home to so many childhood reveries and where he likely went through puberty is clearly a vertiginous one. In my view, the most arresting tableaux from Behold, is the one in which a formally dressed Venø stands at the doorway of a shed occupied by his father, who is father chopping wood in a utilitarian overall. Venø looks menacing and somewhat dashing and the eye contact with his father is wrought with tension. Not only is there the obviously Oedipal dimension, but it strikes me as class oriented as well. The now grown up and educated sophisticate confronts his father, a strong and hard-working man with little time for such nonsense. According to the artist’s statement, this series was influenced by Surrealist stream of consciousness prose and performance, where an attempt is made to minimise the influence of years of social conditioning that normally mediate our behaviour. He quotes Rousseau: ‘Our wisdom is slavish prejudice, our customs consist in control, constraint, compulsion. Civilised man is born and dies a slave. The infant is bound up in swaddling clothes, the corpse is nailed down in his coffin. All his life long man is imprisoned by our institutions’. Maybe the notion of the noble savage isn’t quite apt here, but he has given us glimpses of the ideal, an ideal that by nature, cannot be fully realised.

Venø also writes a blog, and unsurprisingly it quite candidly records his dreams, preoccupations, anxieties and despondencies. One illustration in particular caught my attention: ‘The blue house in the Grey [C]ity’ . I’m not sure if it was his intention but this really reminded me of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman; Willy’s house is surrounded by tall apartment complexes which he vehemently despises and that symbolise the reality of his ineptitude as a businessman. The play seems relevant because it is full of bluster an illusion, mingled with abject misery and until the end no attempt is made to try and confront reality. It’s deeply sad because in the face of such a harsh working environment some sort of optimism is needed simply to keep going but optimism turns to hubris and hubris to sackcloth and ashes. Willy eventually commits suicide so that his son Biff might benefit from the insurance windfall. At his father’s funeral Biff repeatedly laments that he never knew who he was, which is interesting because it underscores the distinction between power as externalised achievement and power as self-esteem which I’ll go into later . Male achievement is a huge theme in that play, the immense aspirational pressure and the examples of ‘great men’, ‘leaders of men’. There’s a scene where Willy confronts himself in a mirror and is all insecurity and self-doubt and his wife attempts to sooth him. The play was written 1949 and there was more of an emphasis ‘deeds’ or ‘greatness’ and less on body image, but emotional inarticulacy and pressure to adhere to macho stereotypes were still were always issues for men.

Male Identity

I’ve always been afraid to discus male identity, because patriarchy benefited men so it could be argued that feminist social reconstruction just evens the score and that men are unlikely to be subjugated, so why whine about male identity. First, I’m no more responsible for the actions of men in history than those of women in history. Second, I think that patriarchy created pernicious roles for men as well as women. I’ll admit that in men’s case it might be more about emancipating the body and sense of identity, more about forgetting cultural debris than about securing men’s rights. Certain roles that can be imposed upon men are relics from a bygone age of male privilege that no longer have any real legitimacy and can often lead to self-loathing, like the notion of the ‘strong silent type’ which seems to me just another way of saying ‘emotional cripple’. At the all boys school I attended there were few norms that encouraged expression or sharing of feelings, It was only manly if you’re feelings overflowed into violence. There was a prejudice against academically interested boys, and what seemed like a real drive to perpetuate the the stereotype of the male as an ignorant slob. Speaking from my experience as someone born in 1990: with the turn of the century men have become more and more objectified, male role models are more carefully presented, more frequently photoshopped, spend more time in a gym. Frankly, it makes me feel uncomfortable with my body and I’m not asking for sympathy I’d just really like to see more evidence of men expressing their feelings about it.

Now the difficult thing about this topic is that there is both biology and sociology, sex and gender at play and there is a tendency for the line to become blurred, if such a line exists. I’m going to go for a sociological approach at this point Why? Because I believe that both hard science and human science have important things they can teach us, and that our society is sufficiently advanced for the social to play a greater role in determining who we are than the biological. Regardless of how we’re socialised we experience having sexed body and a sexuality of some description, so it’s not entirely social. However when you learn that you’re a male, female or transgender person, that’s when the social side begins. As a general rule, if it’s learned or communicated then it’s a social construct. I’m now going to conduct a thought-experiment: Suppose I’ve been taught this identity: a ‘male’, in 21st century western society. In a lot of ways this part of my identity determines how I see myself and interact with those around me, but there is no essential manhood, there is no kind of manhood that is in some way prototypical or original. What then do I do with this identity? Do I just accept it as ‘natural’ and indulge in some comforting myth to justify this belief, a myth like biological essentialism. It’s hard coded into my DNA or my anatomy, I might tell myself, and therefore my destiny, rather than a complex mix of being both soft-coded and hard-coded into my identity and body respectively. If I’m not convinced by a myth like this then the question of what it is to be male is an open one: I have learned this gender now, and although I didn’t make it, it’s mine so surely I can do whatever I want with it.

In my view there are two hypothetical avenues open to me; I can either attempt to cast my gender aside and have nothing to do with it, or endeavour to alter it to something I’m more comfortable with. The problem with the first option of abandoning my gender is that gender is a dominant social system and won’t disappear at my command. Not only is it a dominant social system, but my gender is signified by my body as well as my behaviour so barring drastic surgery there seems to be no solution. Furthermore, it’s a binary system, operating on a male/female paradigm so the only way to abandon ‘maleness’ would be to adopt behaviours commonly viewed as female. Any changes that I make to my behaviour that don’t fit into the male/female duality would simply not be viewed under the heading of gender. Perhaps they would be seen as indicators of a particular sexuality, class, ethnicity or possibly something outside of these other dominant socio-political systems. Similarly, if I were to opt for the second strategy of altering what it is to be male, I would still be caught up in the male/female dichotomy so any major changes that might be perceived as gender changes would have to be the adoption stereotypical male or female behaviours. I could either entrench my perceived ‘maleness’ or adopt female behaviours and be perceived as a ‘nancy boy’. Neither option appeals to me, the first seems contrary to my aims and the second seems to reinforce the gender duality by committing the ultimate transgression of straddling the divide and becoming a ‘boy’(not a full grown man), marked by the word ‘nancy’ (generic female name). It seems that there is no way for a solitary individual to avoid gender, so a third option becomes apparent: One would have to communicate and get actively involved with a socio-political movement.

Masculism

Such movements do exist, many of them are branded as masculist. Masculism, like feminism, is a loose label which can be applied to a wide range of social and political practices. There are many separate aims, ideologies and motivations, and this very heterogeneity makes it risky to say ‘I’m a masculist’. People might think that I was a masculist on reactionary grounds, and wanted patriarchal gender roles to be restored because I believed that was the natural order of things, possibly backing this up with references to a religion or ideology. If I am to propose a masculism, I will state outright that it will not be reactionary or motivated by any religion. Instead, I would propose something along the same lines as the ideas of American author Dr Warren Farrell whose research into gender issues began in the 1960s, when he focussed primarily on women’s issues, but as time went on, he became aware as what he saw as a fundamental flaw in gender politics. Namely that it was a one party system, that men’s issues were under-represented. Some may argue that feminism within politics is or was merely a counterweight to an overwhelmingly patriarchal political environment. This is debatable as a lot of political decisions affect both sexes similarly and few if any organisations exist which deal exclusively with men’s issues. Furthermore, it assumes that patriarchy as a system actually benefits most men, rather than a hegemonic elite. What also concerned Farrol was that although woman had been encouraged to question their role in society and had acquired a greater freedom in terms of work and family, men were still trapped in their traditional role as breadwinner. In his 2001 book The myth of Male Power: Why Men are The Disposable Sex, he went further, in putting forward a convincing case for male subjugation that focussed on how men are socialised to value themselves less as human beings.

In brief, the reasons for the devaluation of men are biological in that they are based primarily on the survival of the species, they could be summarised by saying ‘Eggs are expensive, sperm is cheap’. Firstly, male participation in childrearing doesn’t necessarily have to extend beyond conception, a man was therefore free to perform his oft-touted role as provider and protector. Concurrently, the female role evolved out of a need to nurture; long gestation periods and times spent nurturing children meant that she was more valuable to the species out of danger. The male who could fight off competition and provide the most was more likely to pass on his genes by impregnating more females. Some died trying and leaving more successful males to breed. Simplifying heinously, I could say that this general pattern continues right up until a society becomes industrialized. The more technologically advanced a society, the more freedom and control people have. Better sanitation, better healthcare, less need for manual labour so more time for education and leisure for both sexes. More specifically: lower instances of death during childbirth and infant mortality. As we were less concerned with survival, woman had more or an opportunity to express their discontent with their lack of opportunities. In Western Europe this began when the non-domestic worlds of industry, politics and so on were male dominated. Thanks to the efforts of many feminists of both sexes, the disenfranchisement of women has been tirelessly addressed, and much progress has been made. This, one would think, is a great opportunity for men, to embrace the choice not to be the men of an antiquated patriarchal system. Men can take more of an active role in childrearing, home-making and seek their own fulfilment rather than just competing for resources. When survival was paramount, men needed to put themselves at risk, to competing for resources and dying in great number in wars. Power to put oneself at risk is not true power, it’s a form of weakness, this is the myth of male power according to Farrell.

True power is the ability to control one’s own life, and that means having enough self-esteem not to put oneself at risk because it is believed to be somehow mandatory. Men are socialised not to show weakness and not to be in touch with their feelings because this was once a survival requirement. Ironically, it seems that in present times, that quite the opposite is required. Women have a consistently have longer life expectancy than men. In the UK in 2009 a newborn boy could expect to live for 77.71 and a girl for 81.88. This gap might be explained with reference to male risk-taking behaviour. Boys are often socialised to feel that they are the ones who should initiate sexual relationships and that they should provide gifts and financial support to partners. At the same time they are socialised to cut themselves off from their feelings, as doing so will allow them to take the necessary risks to achieve the aforementioned ends. Widespread understanding of male role simply hasn’t evolved to the same extent as the female role, and men need to be made aware of the options open to them. A powerful indicator that something is wrong is that in the UK, based on an average spanning the years 1991 to 2008, compared with females, males make up 74.74% of reported suicides. Almost thrice as many males suicides would indicate to me a greater occurrence of psychological problems within the male sex, the fact that when we compare males and females aged 15-44 the proportion of males suicides increases to a staggering 79.45% gives some credibility to Farrell’s claim that young men commit suicide at an age when they are coming to terms with their adult gender role. Boys and men aren’t socialised to talk about their problems, the existence phrases like ‘man up’, ‘take it like a man’ and ‘Be a man!’ all attest to this.

My main problem with the male gender role is that being a man is considered something that one should earn, through taking risks. I believe that you’re a man whether skinny, fat or muscular, an artist, banker or builder, monogamistic, celebrate or prone to promiscuity, employed, self-employed or unemployed, gay, straight or bisexual, sporty or bookish. The notion that manhood should somehow be earned is a dangerous falsehood, and encourages poor self-esteem and a higher instance of risk-taking behaviour. Other men’s issues that Farrell alludes to include a much greater proportion of men in professions with higher rates of occupational mortality such as rubbish collection, mining and construction; the lack of funding for specifically male health problems such as prostate cancer; the impetus mainly resting on men in the event of a military draft; higher rates of violence against men, domestic and otherwise; lack of father’s custodial rights, the tenancy of divorces to financially cripple men and alienate them from their children and rape shield laws which can favour woman. Above all there is a push for communication between the sexes, in particular for men to acknowledge that women’s strength is that they are comfortable to appear weak and that men’s weakness is that they are uncomfortable unless they appear strong. I have long-held sympathy for feminist causes, particularly in developing countries where woman are still oppressed and believe that a form of masculism is complimentary and not contrary to this belief. I am in favour of Farrell’s brand of masculism and fully support the idea that masculism and feminism should at some point fuse to form gender equality, or gender egalitarianism.

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