Masculinities And The Vulnerability Of Displaying Art

4 May
detail counts castle

Detail of ‘The Count’s Castle’

Cultural ideals of masculinity and how men ought to be often centre round notions of strength and power, stoicism and determination, being the provider and protector.  Hegemonic masculinity is a way of understanding gender and power relations.  It is a cultural ideal of masculinity, which is characterised by toughness, fearlessness, power, control and maintaining the dominant position in society.  Hegemonic ideals of masculinity are often perpetuated through media and film, but they are ideals most men will never attain.  Nor do most men necessarily want to.

Cultural ideas of masculinity, like hegemonic masculinity, tell men they must not display weakness or vulnerability.  To reveal characteristics such as these, men run the risk of having their masculinity called into question.  Men who display emotion, vulnerability or weakness may be chided as being ‘sissy’, ‘soft’ or a ‘woman’.  These are the cultural expectations of men and masculinity that surrounded me as I grew up.  From my primary education through to secondary education, I jostled alongside other boys; surrounded by these notions of what it was to be a man.  Boys pushed and punched, they tested and teased, they sought out weakness and they exploited it.  I learned along side other boys, not to display vulnerability, but vulnerability was something I would experience again and again, as I began to pursue a career in the visual arts.

From an early age, I have always loved drawing and painting.  It was a form of escapism and respite for me as a boy.  It allowed me to distract myself from that around me; it helped me build resilience, it kept me out of trouble and off the streets.  Art became one of my passions, eventually leading me to study at the National College of Art and Design.  However, I always experienced anxiety and felt an incredible vulnerability when displaying my artwork.  I never had a problem showing family or friends something I had drawn or painted, but publically displaying my work I always found difficult.  In many ways this is no different than other mediums; actors and musicians must experience the same sense of anxiety as I did about displaying my work when they perform for others.

For me, displaying my art put me in what felt like an incredibly vulnerable position.  You spend considerable time working on a piece, you emotionally invest in creating it, and to display it, is then to display your emotional investment.  Through your art you reveal something about yourself and your emotional state of being.  The spectator may see the subject matter, but you as the artist, see a part of yourself.  Your work is a part of you and you it.  In this sense, I always found displaying art, a process of revealed vulnerability.   Art is generally made for display, it is a significant part of the artistic process, which is hard to avoid.  Through my artistic training I regularly had “crits” (critique) with tutors in college, this process of receiving constructive criticism helps you detach from your work and focus on technical or theoretical aspects of what you’ve created.  It trains you for discussing your work with spectators.  But a bad crit can be emotionally devastating, as I and many others experienced.

Looking back at the work I created as a young man I see a struggle within the work; a struggle to find who I was back then, and at the same time a struggle to hide my vulnerability.  Ironically, much of my work at that time explored the idea of revealing things, which may be hidden – picturesque landscapes hidden behind dark and surreal imagery.  At this time I was interested in masks and their metaphorical meaning.  I used bats (in the sense of vampire myths) as symbols of transformation.  On reflection this was a transformative period for me.

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Looking back at the work I created then, I see how these paintings capture my internal struggle.  Dark and surreal imagery are symbolic of cultural ideals of masculinity I was grappling with at that time, whilst revealed landscapes represent the emotive and vulnerable self.  There is a tension in these paintings between chaos and silence, reflecting a tension that existed in me at that time.

Reflecting on my early work reveals much about my understanding of masculinity back then, and who I was as a young man.  These paintings are windows back in time, to someone I once was.  Having aged I’ve grown in confidence.  I don’t feel the same degree of vulnerability anymore when displaying work, and I think part of this is due to me knowing who I am now as a man, and being ok with that.   Being ok with vulnerability.

My masculinities studies have veered me away from the visual arts somewhat, unfortunately I don’t get to paint or draw as much as I would like to.  Occasionally I try to incorporate drawing and painting into my PhD studies, as it helps me as an analytical tool and is useful when mapping out ideas.  I have used painting as a way of communicating my research findings and this has been useful in expressing my ideas about masculinities to a broader audience.  Art works are the culmination of a range of processes and activities.  Howard Becker (1982: 5) reminds us about these and offers something worth considering the next time we as spectators view art – “think of all the activities that must be carried out for any work of art to appear as it finally does”.

Think of the artist’s revealed vulnerability.

© Clay Darcy, May 2016.  All artwork copyright of Clay Darcy – All rights reserved.

Clay is a PhD Candidate at the School of Sociology, University College Dublin.  If you would like to view more of his artwork visit – www.claydarcy.com.  This blog was originally posted at www.irishsociologyblog.com on 04/12/2016.  The idea for this blog came many moons ago, originating out of a fantastic conversation in NYC with an amazing masculinities scholar Sarita Fae!

Reference: Becker, H. S. (1982) Art Worlds.  Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

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