Culture and Kleenex
Honcho, the new magazine of contemporary art
Let me take a few moments away from writing my prospectus for The David Geffen Library of Pornography - organised somewhat like the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and housing an archive of porn magazines and films as well as providing detailed biographical data on and video interviews with the actors, directors and fluffers, info on studios, stills, books and outakes - to consider Honcho magazine, and its arts coverage. Under the editorial direction of Doug McClemont, Honcho has been running critical essays profiling contemporary visual artists cheek to cheek with its usual fare of not-always-toothsome boys letting it all hang out. Recent issues have featured Tom Burr, Charles Ray, Billy Name, Jim Hodges and Tony Fehrer, among others. In addition to the monthly ‘Honcho Featured Artist’ McClemont has been inviting people like Wolfgang Tillmans, Bruce LaBruce and Collier Schorr to shoot hardcore spreads.
What is going on here deserves consideration, but not because Honcho is doing something new. I have before me a still vibrant and, uh, handy issue of Body Beautiful, a muscle mag from May 1955. Radiant, proud as a boy who’s just lost his virginity, Richard du Bois - aka Dick du Bois, Mr America 1954 - graces the cover. He flexes, stretches, beams a knee-weakening smile, and tests the erotic waters of the pool at the Athletic Model Guild Studios. A few pages after the glow of Dick’s skin and the happiness of his sinuous curves, there’s an essay on Gustave Doré, with illustrations from various cantos of Dante’s Inferno. In the late 70s, Andy Warhol did a series of interviews with both the ‘straight’ Forum and reliably ‘gay’ Blueboy, the latter reproducing some of the most salacious of the ‘Torso’ series (1977), but not before providing this canny insight: ‘Andy Warhol’s renowned images - the brand name artefacts, the celebrity portraits, the deadpan films - have all, in their time, inspired controversy over the nature of “art”. In these four acrylic-on-canvas works from the “Torso” series (1977), Warhol uses the nude male as both the subject and content - a deft combination reminiscent of Oldenberg’s famous maxim: “Art should do more than sit on its ass in a museum”. Any art worth its name still causes a controversy over the nature of “art”.’ When Pop artists appropriated comics, they knew full well that numerous underground comicbook artists, in publications known as ‘Tijuana Bibles’, had put Minnie and Mickey and Nancy and Sluggo and others through every sexual position and combination known to man. It was as if to appropriate the material of culture to make culture of another kind (high or low, sexual or ‘serious’) was, whichever way round, the same move, the same gesture, and perhaps the very purpose of culture, the way in which it stays vital.
The appearance of Doré and Warhol in skin mags occurred for entirely different reasons. Body Beautiful had articles on art and artists to legitimate what it called on its cover ‘studies in masculine art’, since there was a justifiable fear, not just of censorship, but of incarceration for proseltyising ‘deviant’ desires. Blueboy wanted to have Andy in its pages for cachet, for his relationship with big-time glamour (Halston, Liz), and as an entrée to seriousness - for it is still the case that no matter how empowered and enlightened Americans think they have become sexually, socially there is still a virulent strain of Puritanism running through the bloodstream of the nation’s corpus. Depictions of sex are still most often seen as thwarting interpretation - remember during the Mapplethorpe scandal when art historians and critics were asked to speak about the importance of the photographs, they didn’t interpret the sex but seemed to be transfixed by the formal devices: angles, sheens, grisaille. That the appearance of ‘thinking’, of ‘meaning’ in the form of an essay on ‘art’ assuages such ur-guilt demonstrates that too many still think the difference between material that informs and material that arouses can be legislated, forgetting, or even worse, repressing, the fact that any pedagogic relationship is erotic (and has been since Socrates). At a time when, in New York City and elsewhere (on the Internet), cowardly politicians have successfully censored or attempted to censor pornography and its marketplace, it would be difficult to discern whether Honcho has decided to introduce art and artists into its pages for legitimisation or for cachet. Whatever the case, it must be taken as a brave and much-needed retort to such punitive legislation, accomplished for the supposed protection of children (who, of course, have no sexuality), regardless of the fact that it infantilises everyone.
Culture is erotic; it perpetuates and proliferates because it is used as an erotic - for pleasure, for release. Enjoyment is simply thought. An earlier porn mag, In Touch, can be seen as a model for what McClemont strives to achieve in Honcho. Covering punk concerts, movies and fashion while serving up fresh nudes, it submitted to the depth and breadth of the cultural thrust. McClemont believes in the eroticism of all forms of culture - the gamut of the visual - and of juxtaposition. It’s not as if the writing of Honcho’s regular art critic Bill Arning, or even the choice of artists, are always brilliant (at times they can be hackneyed and annoying, focusing a little too intently on faggotry as a thematic and bio requirement, and Arning’s prose often lacks the verve, gusto and acumen of Honcho’s hardcore video reviewer V. C. Rand), but the conceptual, utopian flair of the gesture takes my breath away.
Why isn’t there - why has there never been - a magazine actually considering and contemplating and confronting the entirety of (visual) culture? My guess is Honcho features art and artists because it makes an astounding profit from its usual display of dick and ass, and most art magazines don’t regularly cover pornography because they don’t make enough money to risk offending those who still think art and pornography are categories that can be easily separated - as if, when the lofty, enlightening ‘serious’ values of art are engaged, pornographic drives are nowhere around. Anyone still thinking this should reread Lolita and In Search of Lost Time; re-see Un Chien Andalou; reconsider Fragonard and so many others - if only to examine how, when things are at their artiest, their most stylistically daring, the subject is often carnality, the waywardness of desire and vision.
Desire is always wayward; its punishment always, finally, a censorship of thought. The art world in particular has consistently suffered from a profound mind/body problem: October was started in part as a protest against Lynda Benglis’ amazing Artforum ad - boobs flaunted, sunglasses venomous, dildo primed for the sublime. What Honcho gestures toward, argues for, is not unlike what Warhol, and perhaps Duchamp, tried to put into practice if the whole of his enterprise is considered: a democratic continuum of the visual. When the body is awake, vision and looking never cease. Responsibility to the vicissitudes of seeing demands not just attention, not even scopophilia, but a full-on embrace of what might be called scoporrhoea ? a never-ceasing gaze. Everyday this appears next to that. And it is beautiful. And it goes on without your attention. Juxtaposition is both an aesthetic and a way of life. Art has never had more salience than when it appears juxtaposed to, near the balls of, under the beneficent, clean aegis of Honcho’s December 1998 coverman, Pavel Novotny - because his body is only a stand-in for something like your own and represents all the things brushing up between the body that sees and the art that is viewed. Remember this next time you cruise a cute unknown in a gallery or a museum, where the beauties of the people around you are often more intellectually stimulating than the art purveyed.
frieze is now accepting letters to the editors for possible publication at firstname.lastname@example.org.