Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Pornography, Art and the English Hayden Kho

(In which the painter in me speaks.)


The moment I began to be more familiar with the horribly disfigured John Ashe from Harrison’s novel, I couldn’t stop myself from comparing him with the Phantom of the Opera not only because both half of their faces was hideous but also because of the darkness in them. Erik’s was passionate and murderous; Ashe’s was passionate and lecherous. I am still uncertain whether I consider Ashe murderous. But I blame him, albeit incompletely, for Suzannah’s misfortune and death.


What convinced me to buy this book is its inclination to art and artists, particularly painters in which I was restrained for being in a long time. As the secrets become known to me, an old debate among artists, and non-artists, rose again:

When is a work art and when is it considered pornography?

In our third year in the high school for the arts, we had a chance to have an exclusive nude painting session done not at our studio but in a private residence. The mere fact that it was done outside the school’s premises gave the experience a spirit of illicitness but it was nonetheless thrilling. We have painted her – our very professional model – the same way we do a bunch of fruits in a basket, only we are not allowed to touch our sitter.

When we got back to our dusty studio the next week, our professor asked our opinions –the only three girls in the group.

“How did you feel during the session?”

I was asked first. “Nothing,” I answered, “we’re artists anyway.” The other guys chuckled at the sound of the self proclamation. I looked back at them and we shared a moment of silent laughter through eye contact. We’re artists.

The other girls were asked too and replied the same way. Whether it was done to make our comments unified so as not to make a fuss or it wasn’t really a big deal for them as it was for me, I don’t know.

We studied each others’ works and told some their flaws and accepted our own. We looked at pictures of naked women – some solo shots and some showing them in the middle of busy painters. I noticed at once that the usual poses show women sitting on a bed or a couch with their arms on their sides for support as well as to expose their breasts, with one of their legs over the other to conceal what is necessary; or lying down with their head resting on their palm a-la Kate Winslet in Titanic; (Yes, with the signature necklace.) or just standing against a wall.

Honestly, I don’t find it pornographic, or even insulting, despite my professor’s deeper probing.

“Don’t you find it embarrassing, considering that it’s another girl you’re painting? Don’t you feel as though it was you being painted in the nude?”

All of said no. We reasoned out that it was not really us to begin with and that having them in the center of our attention is not for the sole purpose of staring at their nudity. It was all for the proverbial sake of art. For, as they say, a woman’s body is a timeless work of art. I took that at face value. Besides, those drawings and pictures were not meant to incite lust.

As for John Ashe’s collection of women who interest him, it was pornography. For one reason, the women whose pictures he took manifest an image of humiliation and insult. Although it was a consensus between the photographer and the subject materialized by the camera, I still couldn’t erase from my mind how the writer described what she saw in the woman’s faces. Regardless of whatever pose they were asked to do or roles they were asked to portray by this terribly rich, powerful and ugly man the camera still shows the real emotions beneath the surface. And the pictures could land on anyone’s hands – at the right price – without the negatives. Surely it was just another display of a fetish rather than of artistic expression. Ours, I believe is different. To pose in front of teen-aged painters somehow means a challenge to the inexperienced artists’ thin portfolios. The crowd, composed of disinterested stares and busy, paint or charcoal-stained hands gives less tension that being in an exclusive red room alone with the “artist”.

Ashe’s “interest” again reminded me of another man whose “journal” consists of videotapes of his intimate moments with women – with or without their knowledge.

Fortunately for John Ashe, he has a super discreet secretary and a power so palpable he doesn’t need to exert much effort to make people follow and be quiet. For Hayden Kho however, secrecy has a price which apparently he was unable to pay. Keeping dark secrets the way he did is like putting a living puppy in a thin box – it will always have its way out. Then he’ll wonder how on earth the truth is now ruining around him. (What happened to this poor guy anyway?)

Now, I am not having myself to be taken as a judge, I both dislike these men. As what my co-artist once pointed out, a woman’s body is a work of art, but I dare say that using it as a way to serve man’s baser instincts defies the art that I loved and that’s where another story starts.