Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Sex and the Clashes with Propriety

The question is, when you look at an image, what do you see? In the example just drawn - which is a combined edge detection and drawing - you can see a clergywoman thanks to the collar and possibly an academic thanks to the spectacles. These are all ideological signs, pointing away to a cluster of meanings. These alone would be relatively harmonious, but the figure is young and 'sexy' too, and shape is a reason. She is more shapely than the original, and the original is an Australian nude model.

There are artists who went into brothels and painted, and painted them in different states of private washing or in a bar, and then there were others who plucked out such women and painted them over and over again and normalised them regarding the situation. But they always carried something of that artist's relationship.

Most of my cartoon caricatures of clergy people for my blog have been blokes. In the end I got fed up with doing blokes all the time, and wanted to do more women. Lesley provided a high number of images with a challenge similar to that of my wife, in that she looks different in many of them. So I ran with that, and a small number of them were 'sexy' or made that way. Rachel then went to St Alks' Ball and joined in a fashion show, and went abroad, and they provided more source material - also because she has distinctive features, what she has referred to as the Spencer nose. If you look at my pictures I sort of get her and then more, some via edge detection, and some not. The sexiness she presents simply derives from the photos. There's maybe more front, there's an end to the dress, or rearranging, or following through a joke, but believe me it takes little to express what you can see.

Now she goes to a parish and parishioners are signing up to her Facebook pages. Suddenly there is that (I long saw it coming) arrived clash of propriety.

In urban society we can put about several personas more or less relatively protected. The patterns of relationships - who knows you - rarely cross. A scandal can generate publicity to bust some appearances made in some directions of behaviours and appearances perfectly acceptable in others.

Today the Internet reintroduces the village. Your different personas will be visible across different constituencies. Risk of contradiction is greater: the Internet is not all freedom, but brings back some restrictions of the village.

How many people know naturist clergy? I do. They also have a web presence, but you won't know they are naturists. I know a two lay preachers who are naturists, and indeed I painted her with nothing on. They appeared on a gardening programme and people who were apparently progressive got all up tight and stupid. Of course these clergy and lay people do not publish their photos for all to see, and you won't see my painting reproduced or the source material.

But sexiness is one further notch along the way from sometimes embarrassing bodies, because the Churches have such difficulty with the subject. They are bound up with the stuffy and duplicitous norms of Victorian propriety. They are safe. The safe approach in religion is to cover up, hide, deny, avoid. Don't tell is far wider than something with the homosexual community.

Recently I wrote a little about Sangharakshita and Charles Leadbeater. In those days of their sexual exploits, homosexuality was a very difficult behaviour to negotiate. These days there are paths open to propriety. But we criticise Sangharakshita because he was a teacher of people who he told was all right to join him for sex, and they took something on trust they did not want. He also displayed robes to Indians that suggested he was not sexually active (as part of his Buddhist discipline) when he was. His partners (if we call them that) suffered afterwards. What do we make of Leadbeater and his openly telling young boys to masturbate and enjoy it? Was he forward thinking, or just a pervert getting a thrill?

We have to be up front about sex, but also have it as consent. I have never been to a brothel, or indeed hired a prostitute (what for?), but I knew immediately when I photographed at a photographic studio in 1992-3 that the relationship between some photographers and models was that of inside a brothel. They would come back again and again, photographing the same repetitive poses, but believe they were having a conversation and some sort of relationship with the favoured young women. The women, however, were clever, because if they managed the conversation well the client would come back again. For them, they would work all day in some rubbishy job, or be a student, and this was a quick way to make money and have a better life. When David Blunkett introduced student fees for Higher Education, he increased the supply of models to such studios as well as dancers to bars and the rest. The studio women thought it great when they got their picture into the Daily Sport, but the real goal was The Sun, and to move up into higher paid work. Few did.

So the image, then, is powerful and seductive, but it is ideological. Now fashion shows are fluff and not very important, although people like to dress well. The Daily Mail article about Stephanie Nadarajah is tittle-tattle. A fashion show for clergy, in particular women, seems a contradiction again. Just wear black, or a simple colour - reserve purple (between red and blue) for bishops (except for Stephanie Nadarajah and no doubt very many). Fashion shows the body, and so there is the contradiction.

Except, of course, it should not be. In my view, theology derives from the body and the culture. We speak, and we have collective language. Religion is like art: we make it up and it is a construction around ethical considerations. As individuals, we are trapped in bodies: and a good place to start is with the unattractive and the dementia mind. But at the other end is the need to grasp and celebrate attractiveness, as part of our biological drives, of the dance between people that makes, in the end, coupling or more numbers in trusted relationships. Well, we hope so, in that no one will ever remove power and economic issues from relationships, because relationships have always been about power and economy. That's one good reason for my lack of success for so long whereas a Pauline Prescott hangs on to her husband for her self-esteem while he plays away with his secretary and feels very sorry afterwards.

So in measure I would say challenge the clash, and affirm the body and the sexual, but do it while the other person says yes, and at the hint of no don't.


Lesley said...

LOL - when was the last time you made me look sexy?

Enjoying your drawings.. feeling like I should do some more myself. Disappointed at how crap I am at the moment.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I'm sorry and concerned about your condition.

Does not the picture on this blog entry of you some years back but with a little more of 'later' put into the face make you look sexy? I thought so.

No, most of the time 'sexiness' has not been on my agenda, with your image (or Rachel as such - tried to be neutral) but if you want... No you don't. I don't mean this sexy in any stronger sense than already, even in a pleasant sense where the good looking would meet the curvy and enticing. But that last pic you uploaded, don't like that.

Rach said...

Ah, em, need to reread in case l am not 'getting' you, but l think l also go for this integration thing, as l expressed on my blogpost, l aim to be who l am where ever l am, want it all to join up, so-to-speak.

Less clashing than you think - only when the state of undress becomes a theme...

We can over-spiritualise and the past few years of thinking issues through have concentrated my mind more firmly on the incarnation - the embodiedness of Jesus. There have been so many misreadings of Paul's 'fleshiness.' David Runcorn is worth reading on these issues and Angela Tilby.