Black and Beautiful
Well, now for something different! Finally, there is a big, beautiful coffee table book dedicated to big, beautiful black men.
It is no secret that black men have been shamefully ignored by the porn industry. Another coffee table put out earlier this year by the indispensable German publisher Bruno Gmunder, was a part-memoir by Jim French, the legendary genius behind the porn shop Colt Studios. In my review, I mentioned in passing that French candidly remarks that he doesn’t feature many black men because they don’t sell as many DVDs as white models.
This has been a very controversial subject in the porn industry. In the larger world of modeling, black models like Tyson Beckford have reached parity with their male counterparts. But if there has been a full-length, well-produced, hardcover coffee table featuring photos of only black men, I haven’t seen it.
Peter Arnold has done every gay man -- and every woman and every straight man and anyone of any persuasion who appreciates sublime beauty -- a service. "Black and Beautiful" is exactly what the title says: a collection of artistic photographs of black men in all of their naked glory.
To get the question on the table over with early, yes, Arnold is white. So now, I suppose, some are going to claim "exploitation!" "Objectification!" "Sensationalism!"
Hmmmmm. Maybe. Can someone tell me when an artist reproduces a human image, he is not expropriating something from that person? Whether it is the Virgin Mary or "Odalisque," the artists’ handling of female bodies has been studied from every angle.
Men usually have received shorter shrift. There have been plenty of exegeses and doctoral theses and polemics on Michelangelo’s nubile, barely post-adolescent "David," or his gravitas god imparting life to a thinly muscular piece of earth about to receive the breath of life.
All Western representations owe something to classical images embodied by the Farnese Hercules. This Herc looks like like he’s been in training for the Mr. Olympia bodybuilding competition, in sharp contrasts to the kouroi, popular statues of idealized young men. Many of them depicted muscular post-adolescent men with wider noses, fuller lips and deeper-set dark eyes.
Roman artists and sculptures were truly color blind. Reflecting the far-flung empire, they portrayed the men of Rome’s North African provinces. In Rome itself, there were black slaves and at least two black emperors, Septimus Severus and Caraculla. Like the Egyptians, they were completely color blind. Common words didn’t distinguish between "whites" and "blacks."
This man’s portrait represents one of Arnold’s more stylized, both in the pose, one of action and assurance; in the intelligence of the expression, and in the glossed skin, which I assume went through some kind of enhancing.
The result is a restless intelligence set against the kinetic energy of his muscular body.
Note especially the play of the black-and-white camera: The shades of black to white are so starkly presented here, with all of his lines so smooth and shiny that this gentleman looks as though he could stepped out of a Brancusi sculpture.
Of the tiny sampling of photos in this review, the cover torso comes closest to approximating the work of the person who undoubtedly contributed the most in recent times to a radical re-examination of who art, Western art, the art market and artists viewed black men. If the first that comes into your head in "Mapplethorpe," then you too see the extraordinary influence that the great gay photographer of flowers, S&M and society portraits has had on Arnold.
For anyone doing such a book, Mapplethorpe’s images would be impossible to deny -- even if only to reject them. He started with tentative images, like the "Bob Love" triptych of 1979. But he would reach out into far less-traveled realms. His images of "Ajitto" barely two years later show how much deeper his appreciation of the aesthetics inherent in a well-define, muscular black torso. One of his famous works, "Ken Moody and Robert Sherman," presents the white man ghostlike in the foreground, the black his darker, mirror image.
Many read into this portrait a comment on race relations, but I see it more as a Whistler-like study in the power of black and white as primary colors that make the "Roy G Biv" spectrum seem specious and unrigorous.
Arnold has no white men for contrast. Instead, he uses the stark white background of each portrait; the often white-bright light shining on and off these glistening black torsos; and, not least of all, the play of light and dark in the musculature of his subjects.
This image shows a man, possible a dancer, whose body is defined and tight but not highly muscular. There are a lot of sleek men in this book, but the majority resemble their white physique model counterparts in their thick muscle mass.
Many of the models show off their athleticism in "action poses."
This detail shows, then, the more typical body type Arnold has chosen to photograph. I dread to think that some academic will build a whole thesis around this choice. I don’t think Arnold had any intention of making any kind of generalized comment.
It’s unfortunate that in our society, a black man’s body has to be analyzed, dissected for greater meaning. But when the odds-maker Jimmy the Greek commented that black Americans had been "bred" to be natural athletes, he was voicing one of the many attributions that have served to keep black men as a thing apart from Europeans.
The aesthetic appreciation of black men burst into controversy in (where else?) the pages of the "New York Review of Books" back in the ’70s. Sontag, who is famous for her profound investigations into the nature of the photographic image, was reviewing a photography book of the men of the Nuba tribe in Southern Sudan.
If the photographer had been anybody but Leni Riefenstahl, there would probably not have been such a long diatribe . But Riefenstahl, in two of the most important -- and most certainly the most controversial -- documentaries in film history.
Both of them were brilliant propaganda films that conveyed, through the use of startlingly artistic shots of the Berlin Olympics and a giant rally in Nuremberg, the mystic mission of the then-ascendant Nazi Party.
Sontag argues that Riefenstahl has taken the same racial theories about the superiority of the "Aryan" race and transposed it to Africa.
Arnold has obviated such deep water, fortunately, by presenting a wide variety of racial types. Africa is a huge, sprawling continent that was the birthplace of humankind. Its various peoples are far more varied than the Europeans.
That said, there remains one stereotype about black men that any book with frontal nudity is going to open itself to. Without expounding, I can say that this is one popular belief that, as far as I can see, isn’t refuted here.
I’m glad that Arnold did include frontal nudity, not only because these men’s penises are as much a part of their bodies as their hands or those amazing stomachs. Art has used male nudity to represent power since the Greeks. There’s even a phobia that’s been assigned for people who get squeamish or just can’t handle seeing naked bodies: gymnophobia.
What these images do is to take any immature silliness about the naked image and give the lie to the neurotics or prudes, simply by showing the bodies themselves.
Anyone who can’t recognize that Arnold has transformed these physical perfections into works of art should probably go looking for paint-by-number works of forests, or elves on black velvet.
For the rest of us, Arnold’s brave, intrepid foray has opened up a new way to appreciate all human bodies.
The religious philosopher Pascal said that man’s place in the universe is both infinitely great and infinitely small. Maybe so, but that doesn’t deny us the chance -- or the obligation -- to elevate our physical presence into the realm of the highest art.
All photos, 128 pages. Hardcover with dust jacket.
Price $88. Available from fthe publisher’s website.