When people ask us why we decided to “get involved” in the business of male nudes, it’s easy to get cute. Who doesn’t like to look? Why wouldn’t we indulge in naked men? It’s like the sign in your aunt’s kitchen says: Surround Yourself with What You Love – and insert whatever vegetable emoji you like.
In reality, selling artwork that depicts naked men or male-identified persons is political. This has a long history, one full of fig leaves. While Greek statues depicted the male body’s athletic prowess – and while the Renaissance experimented with a provocative St. Sebastian and, as Mary Beard has pointed out, endless erotic Christs naked and in pain – the nude, in Western art, has traditionally been a man’s depiction of a woman. She is often vulnerable; she is often “caught” in a state of undress. She is meant not only to be seen, but to be owned – first hung on some wealthy man’s wall, and, later, owned by the state in the form of a museum, and exhibited before its citizenry. The history of the nude is a history of an inequality of seeing – an inequality that, even today, remains entrenched in our culture. Just ask any variety of actresses, who make their living in front of a camera, how they feel about the directors and producers who sit safely behind it. In any variety of “prestige” television, no one bats an eye at female nudity, but if an actor goes full frontal it’s a media event (lest we forget the most memorable moment of Game of Thrones: the first glimpse of Alfie Allen’s crowd-pleasing cock). Or consider, on social media, what slips through the “terms” and what gets suspended, scrubbed out, or deleted.
Much more disturbing is the inequality of seeing violence. Not only are women, for example, more likely than men to be depicted in “entertainment” as degraded, raped, murdered, or abused, but so are people of color, queers, and – above all – trans women. Even more alarming is the mainstream media’s embrace of collecting and distributing images and videos of black men murdered by police while white death remains privately off screen – too disrespectful, it is understood, to make public.
The distraction, as ever, is censorship – violence, it is said, cannot be shown. Sex, it is said, should be private. Yet if censorship were really about violence or sex, we would not see these disparities. We would not see, on social media, a disproportionate suspension and deletion of queer accounts – many of them artists – for depicting male or nonbinary sensuality in place of state-sanctioned female sexuality. We would not see artists disproportionately punished for asking us to look at men the way we look at women. There would not be a new, unwelcome consciousness among queer artists and sex workers – a consciousness of having to hide one’s desires in plain sight.
In a culture with an equality of visibility, there wouldn’t exist, for example, this new kind of closet – the image closet. Queer artists would not feel compelled to watch themselves, to modulate how they choose to present their vision. Across the board, an imbalance in what is seen reflects an imbalance in who has access – to power, to safety, to healthcare, to housing, to food, to loving families. All we ask, a bit cheekily, is for viewers to think about that the next time they see a photograph of men embracing, or the next time a cock scrolls by on their timeline. Do the right thing, and see it.