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City Desk

The Object of Beauty

by Richard Brookhiser

I wrote for the weekly on pink paper for 20 years, and I still look at it from time to time. It was the city’s perfect high-low venue, running the gamut from auteur-theory film criticism to dirt diving (did it mock the dirt, or just grub it up? the satirist’s problem, from Martial on). The last issue I saw featured a Russian lad who is about to go mega. His project in the land of the free is to attend dance parties and take pictures of young women who take off some or most of their clothing for him. He also shakes up champagne bottles and spritzes the foam into their yowza-ing mouths, a service he calls the champagne facial. He then posts these pictures on his website. “I kind of had to build a character to stand out from everyone else taking photos” at parties, he told the pink paper. The character he built: “dark and making fun of sluts. . . . If you post a photo of a chick, no one cares,” but if you post it with an insult, “then you start a conversation.”

It sounds like the punchline of a Yakov Smirnoff joke — what a country! — but the young Russian is making a career of it. Thanks to the buzz his site generates, he gets paid to shoot parties; soon he hopes to do coffee-table books and TV.

What caught my eye in the story was a comment by the reporter that the young Russian “is hardly the first entrepreneur to convince a woman to take her clothes off.” The predecessor the reporter cited went mega in the late Nineties — a technological era ago — when he shot videos of young women who took off some or all of their clothing at Mardi Gras or spring break, and marketed them via infomercials. You all know the name of his franchise.

But so swift is time’s arrow that the reporter did not cite an even earlier predecessor, who went mega in the Seventies, two technological eras ago. He stalked the streets of the city in a silver-lamé jumpsuit, carrying a video camera over his shoulder — this was when video cameras were the size and weight of pig carcasses. He would ask young women to take off some or all of their clothing, and even to have sex with him, then pull together both his acceptances and his rejections and show them on public-access TV. I know about him because the great Keith Mano once followed him around, schlepping the video camera. In a lifetime of trying, Keith had found someone as indefatigable and in-your-face as he was (Keith was a much better writer, of course).

But the predecessors stream back even farther than that. Priscilla Buckley told me that she was once playing golf with her mother when a man asked to play through. Mrs. Buckley was notably cold to him, Priscilla asked why. “He is Harry Thaw,” Mrs. Buckley said curtly. Harry Thaw — the socialite who beat a murder rap by pleading insanity, now free on the links. The crime for which he had been unpunished: shooting the architect Stanford White in the restaurant atop the old Madison Square Garden. His motive: White had seduced Mrs. Thaw when she was a model and chorine, taking off some or all of her clothing, so that White and his artist friends could paint her, photograph her, or otherwise enjoy her company, many, many technological eras ago.

Eras change, the dance never. The young women may be chorine/models or dim-bulb pedestrians or drunken revelers or dancing publicity hounds, but they all possess the human form divine — more exactly, the female human form divine, which is divinest. Sorry, Donatello’s David, sorry, gay men: You’re outvoted, you lose. Women are what the world goes round, and we have been going round them since the Venus of Willendorf. Genesis says there is a father God back behind the generative process, but as far as we can see we all come from women and we just can’t turn away.

The young women who attract so much attention never change: They are all stupid. They have at best only the crudest notions of their own power, and never calculate motives or consequences. Giving a young woman a young woman’s body makes as much sense as giving ten teenagers Lamborghinis and telling them to drive in figure 8s around a parking lot.

The artists never change. They may be great architects or creepy auteurs or sleazy promoters or sleazy auteur-promoters. But they are bound hand and foot, sinew and synapse, to their subject, the female human form divine. Feminists and other moralists may say they are exploiters and users. They wield the paintbrush, box camera, video camera, digital camera; they occupy the power position, gazing the male gaze, which is omnipotent. Why then do they all gaze at the same thing, instead of, say, Arcturus? Whose position is truly powerful? Only the stupefying ignorance of young women prevents them from comprehending the stupefying emptiness of the men who cluster round them.

Empty, not untalented. The real abilities of artists are widely misunderstood. They are often credited with intelligence and, since the Romantic era, originality, but these are not their attributes. Most artists have no intelligence (and whether they have it or not is irrelevant) and none have originality. Their great merit is getting the job done. They work hard and they hit their marks. When some geezer, looking at art he dislikes, says, My three-year-old could do that, he is exactly wrong. Neither his three-year-old nor his 30-year-old could do that. Art is done by artists.

They need the guidance of patrons and tradition, though, or their art, however competent, will be meretricious: impulsive, lowest-common-denominator. Ride them with a whip and artists will give you Mary Magdalene or the Three Graces. Let them go and you’ll get sluts in clubs.

I knew the pink paper would not disappoint.

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