How Art Has Depicted the Ideal Male Body throughout History
BY DANIEL KUNITZ
APR 5TH, 2017 10:13 PM
In the history of masculinity, it is money rather than muscle that tends to be articulated. Class or status has been the determining factor in the defining of male exemplars. Be it in the East or West, the epitome of a handsome man has generally been an idealized version of an upper-class individual, an archetype that has itself changed over time.
Because of this, people in many cultures have confronted muscle—today more commonly understood as a symbol of virile masculinity—as a problem. For much of history, muscles have been seen as vulgar, meaty indicators of labor; rather than strength they have suggested oafishness or, at best, potentially deviant self-regard.
Even today, we’re not clear on whether muscle is an indication of health or narcissism, menace or manliness. (And on women, they present a whole other set of problems.) The ideal man—the gentle-man—has no muscles because he does no physical work; he is also pale, because he has not toiled in the sun; and he is tall because he is well-nourished.
It’s a type that began to take shape in early 19th-century Europe, in England in particular, and held sway until very recently. Despite the more developed physiques found in Tarzan or James Bond films, athleticism has been far less esteemed throughout history than a body formed by ease, alcohol, and cigarettes. And while the first mass fitness revolution occurred in the early ’70s, the masculine figure it celebrated—the thin, jogger’s frame—remained aesthetically identical to the old upper-class ideal, if perhaps a bit less winded.
Things began to change only around 2000, with the proliferation of access to information about health via the internet. Today, the cost of access to the highest-quality food and gyms, as well as to the best information about how both ought to be used, has spiked. As a result, privilege is signified by figures with low body-fat percentages that showcase taught muscles, by the leisure to afford long workouts in expensive gyms, by eating regimens crafted by coaches and trainers, by tans that bespeak travel, and by fitted, expensive clothing that accentuates these advantages. The greatest attitude shift, however, has been toward beefcake.
The notion of muscularity was reintroduced to the world in the mid-16th century, with the discovery of what came to be known as the Farnese Hercules, a Roman copy of an ancient Greek sculpture. But, it had an extremely limited influence until the current era. Only after the myths surrounding muscle—that it contributed to heart disease, made one slow and inflexible, and was not something produced through training but was instead a God-given marker of a low caste—were debunked did it become a marker of health and prosperity.
Oddly enough, the withering of gender stereotypes was just as powerful a filter in changing how male bodies are seen. As the vilification of homosexuality became less intense, male bodies were increasingly sexualized—and men’s attention to their appearances became acceptable. All forms of male self-fashioning—from building muscle to sartorial extravagance to grooming—have become not just socially accepted but expected.
Doryphoros, Polykleitos, circa 440 B.C.
Along with similar ancient Greek statues of warrior-athletes, the Doryphoros, or “Spear-Bearer,” established a standard of male beauty that abides today in the West: the muscular, athletic mesomorph. Although common in art—from Michelangelo’s David (1501–1504) to Arno Breker’s fascist sculptures—the physique depicted was considered unattainable until very recently.
Chinese aristocrats, Later Han Dynasty, A.D. 25–220
In traditional Chinese paradigms of masculinity, the concept of wen (literary and cultural achievement) exists inseparably paired with wu (physical and martial acumen). Nonetheless, wen has been seen as more elite and has predominated since at least the middle of the Han Dynasty. The value of stillness superseded that of action, while physical activity was regarded as ungentlemanly.
Andrea di Bartolo, The Crucifixion [reverse], 1415
The advent of Christianity in late antiquity saw a valorization of spiritual over worldly values. Emaciation signified a pious denigration of the flesh, and the rigors of attaining it made the devotee an “athlete for Christ.” That wasting, otherworldly aesthetic recurs somewhat cyclically, popping up, for instance, among hippies in the 1960s and in the heroin chic of the early 1990s.
Donatello, David, 1428–32
Alongside, or perhaps in opposition to, the image of the hairy, testosterone-fueled muscleman stands a softer icon. As Donatello’s sculpture argues, a male with feminine graces can be both heroic and beautiful. That more effeminate model has had its artistic champions throughout history, from the figure of Endymion to androgynous rockers of the ’70s, to the photographs of Ren Hang.
Sir Joshua Reynolds, John Musters, 1777–c. 1780
Masculine beauty in the 18th century, as in the 16th and 17th centuries, was expressed in adornments—an attractively patterned waistcoat, a finely coiffed wig—more than through physical attributes. However, there are exceptions. In the age of horseback riding, tight pants showed off well-turned legs and fine hips, for instance.
B.J. Falk, Eugen Sandow, full-length nude portrait, standing by column, facing left, 1894
A German strongman, Sandow uniquely became known more for his physique than for feats of strength. In 1894, he posed for one of the world’s first commercial film strips, which was produced by Thomas Edison, and in London seven years later he mounted the world’s first bodybuilding contest. It would, however, take some three-quarters of a century before male preening became acceptable to the wider culture.
For more than two centuries, the traits associated with the European aristocratic man have been held up, whether consciously or not, as the sex’s most desirable. Thus, Humphrey Bogart, playing a down-and-out detective in the 1946 film noir The Big Sleep, looked more like a prince than a palooka. Here Prince Philip exemplifies the look: Thin, though hale, with the narrow chest and spindly arms of a man unaccustomed to lifting much more than a silver cigarette case.
Robert Morris, 1974 poster for Castelli show
The Castro clone look, which sprang up in mid-1970s San Francisco, valorized such working-class attributes as facial hair, blue jeans, leather jackets, and muscles. Although the clone look ought to be seen within the context of a growing, culture-wide appreciation of the working class at the time, it also marks an initial instance of public sexualizing of male bodies.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Arnold Schwarzenegger, 1976
Bodybuilding was brought to the broader public consciousness by Schwarzenegger and the 1977 film Pumping Iron. It offered an ideal of exaggerated musculature that was obviously unattainable, no matter how much effort one put in, without technological enhancement in the form of steroids and specialized weight machines.
Hank Willis Thomas, Branded Chest, 2003
While today’s muscular ideal harkens back to the Doryphoros, with its athletic figure, it has expanded to include men of all skin colors, races, and ethnicities. But, as Thomas’s work suggests, such bodies are increasingly branded—made dependent on various corporate entities, owned and exploited by them for the information the body contains, or objectified and marketed by us through social media, among other distribution systems.
Frank Benson, Juliana, 2014–15
Does the penis make the man? Benson’s sculptural depiction of the trans artist Juliana Huxtable illustrates just how blurry the sharp distinction between male and female has become. While some traditionally male features remain, like confidence, alongside traditionally female ones, like grace and smoothness, the work suggests that agency, the power to create oneself, has become the supreme ideal.
Keynes’s Art Collection Shows Why Art Investing Is Like the Lottery
BY ANNA LOUIE SUSSMAN
APR 5TH, 2017 8:25 PM
The famed early-20th-century economist John Maynard Keynes is perhaps best known for challenging the reigning orthodoxy that free markets generate full employment, arguing instead that the state has a role to play in helping moderate the swings of business cycle. His work—not just theoretical but practical, in the many roles he assumed on behalf of the British government—laid the foundation for modern macroeconomics. His ideas still influence policymakers today, especially those calling for government spending, or stimulus, in times of low economic growth.
But that was just one facet of this mustachioed polymath who often spent his mornings working in bed, propped up by pillows and surrounded by books and papers, and nights dashing about London with its famed Bloomsbury Group, a group of artists, writers and thinkers that included the likes of Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster. Keynes was an art lover and supporter, a friend of artists, and a canny art collector, whose collection of 135 works was bequeathed to Cambridge University’s King’s College.
It’s that slice of his extraordinary life that economists David Chambers, Elroy Dimson, and Christophe Spaenjers studied for their working paper, “Art Portfolios,” to better understand the long-run performance of art as an asset class. Keynes’s “portfolio,” or art collection, was amassed for less than £13,000. By 2013, it was valued at over £70 million, for an annualized real rate of return of 4.2% over the past half-century—virtually matching the performance of the total return on equities over the same period. So what does their analysis tell us about the art market?
By analyzing the performance of Keynes’s collection, and comparing it with the simulated performance of thousands of hypothetical art portfolios, they found that the art market was structured much like a lottery, with relatively few winners (artists and their collectors) reaping enormous gains, and the bulk of artists marginal to the overall value of the market. This will be entirely unsurprising to anyone who has stood on an Christie’s or Sotheby’s saleroom floor or perused the aisles of major art fairs like Art Basel or Frieze.
The art market has also largely eluded various attempts to estimate, measure, and index it. Historically, around half of transactions happen in the private market (in recent years that figure has crept higher), but publicly available auction records only include prices for works that successfully find a buyer. This can skew estimates of returns in auction-based indexes, although the exact nature of this bias is still being studied. In addition, consignors tend to sell works at auction when they expect a high return, meaning that auction-based indexes may overestimate returns due to this “selection bias.”
Keynes’s portfolio is somewhat unique in entirety avoiding these pitfalls, according to the authors. “It is one of only two complete, or near-complete, financial records of an art collection from initial purchase to final valuation,” they wrote, adding that it is the only one that also includes valuations at other intervening points in time. The other, the collection of Victor and Sally Ganz, auctioned at Christie’s in 1997, was noted for its “extraordinary financial value,” while Keynes’s collection, by contrast, had no particular renown. It also came with extensive documentation of the purchases and why he made them.
“To our knowledge this was the only one where we could really observe purchase decisions by an art portfolio, then track the value of the collection’s items over time,” said Spaenjers, an associate finance professor at the business school HEC Paris. “You see all these decisions being played out over many decades.…You can see how his purchase decisions changed with his personal fortune.”
And while it was not sold off, the collection has been valued over the years by insurers, auction houses, and finally through independent appraisals ordered by the study’s authors in 2013.
“In creating indexes, they’re always hypothetical,” said William Goetzmann, a Yale University finance professor who has previously collaborated with Spaenjers. “Lots of us have spent time trying to do indexes, but we really don’t know whether those represent the true return to investing…this has the special virtue that it’s an actual portfolio.”
Their analysis and comparison with hypothetical portfolios revealed several features of Keynes’s collection with implications for the broader market. One is the importance of the purchase channel. Keynes’s “winning lottery tickets”—in art world terms, paintings and drawings by the likes of Degas, Cezanne, Picasso, and Braque—were largely purchased at auction, where Spaenjers guessed he was able to spot bargains. (Incidentally, Keynes was also known to be an excellent stock picker.) The works he acquired through other channels, through dealers and on the primary market, underperformed relative to his auction purchases. Of course, Keynes wasn’t simply lucky; he had what today’s hedge funders call “edge,” insider tips shared through artist friends, including his one-time lover, the English painter Duncan Grant. Spaenjers said Keynes also appeared to time his purchases well, for example, buying works by van Dyck at auction when prices were low, or buying in Paris after World War I when the market was likely depressed.
Another characteristic of Keynes’s portfolio is its high level of concentration, with 80% of his total art spend going to just 10 works. In 2013, the 10 most valuable works accounted for 91% of the portfolio’s total value. “Changes in the total value of the Keynes collection are largely driven by changes in the market value of a few artists, such as Braque, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and Seurat,” the authors concluded. “Conversely, what happens to all the lesser-known artists…is not an important driver of returns.” Keynes’s portfolio performance points to an enduring quality of the broader art market (and, increasingly, the economy at large), that it’s a “superstar economy,” in which works by a few highly sought-after artists reap outsized returns. For example, the 20 best performing artists at auction have changed little over the past decade, topped by perennial names like Andy Warhol, Bruce Nauman, and Pablo Picasso, according to The Art Market | 2017, a recently released reportfrom Art Basel and UBS.
Savvy art investors, at this point, likely know that executing a “buy low, sell high” strategy is easier said than done, given that so few young artists go on to command serious prices at auction. But even a portfolio diversification strategy (the idea behind mutual funds that hold a wide array of equities) is hard to implement when it comes to art, as this study highlights. When so much of the value of Keynes’s portfolio lay in a handful of key works, and buying them required significant upfront investment, successful arts investment appears to be a game for the already well-capitalized.
Still, the opacity of the art market does leave potential for well-positioned and deeply informed insiders to take advantage of information asymmetries, such as knowing when a work might become available or where a willing buyer lies. And in the study’s simulated portfolios, constructed at random from a global database of auction transactions, roughly a third of even small portfolios outperformed the equity market, a function the wide range of performance (most of them significantly underperformed). The key variable, of course, was the presence or absence of one of the “lottery ticket” artists in the hypothetical portfolio.
“There’s such wide variation that you can’t really conclude [Keynes] was ‘skilled,’” said Spaenjers. “But what you do see from reading about his life and his decisions is that he was given advice by his artist friends. It’s the type of edge that probably still could today play a role, especially in the contemporary market.”