How did you come up with the idea to create (let alone publish) a list of 20th century male artists you would/would not “bone”?
The art world (and the comics world) have serious gender parity issues, and talking exclusively about how a male artist looks and disregarding his accomplishments is a way of obliquely poking fun at this idea of male genius in the arts. Certainly, addressing the canon in this way is obscene, but it feels like awarding myself agency in an arena in which I often feel helpless. Plus so much of art history is men painting women they want to have sex with: Cezanne’s wife, Gauguin’s coterie of Polynesian children, Vuillard’s mom… I want to reverse that gaze.
There’s also a history in art of neglecting the work of women in favour of men’s work. Janson’s History of Art, the book used (still) as the text in many art history survey courses, including my own as an undergraduate, included no women when it was first published (1962), which H.W. Janson defended by basically saying women can’t paint. Now, of course, there are women included in that text, but there are still people (Georg Baselitz, for instance) who continue this argument. And the same is true in comics!
A 2005 survey exhibition and book, the Master of American Comics, intended to solidify the comics canon, included not a single woman, and last year, the director of one of the biggest comics festivals in the world said that there aren’t really women in the history of comics, just as there aren’t really women in the Louvre. This is patently untrue, and it’s destructive.
Part of what was appealing to me about this book was that it’s absurd to cast the accomplishments of the artists I chose in the light of their appearance, but the other part is that I’m extremely frustrated working in the arts, living in this world. I mean, there is a strong possibility that the next president of the US could be someone who has literally said “you have to treat women like shit.” It’s impossible not to be frustrated, sad, exhausted.
How did you choose which artists to consider?
I gave myself the parameter of working within the age of photography so that I would not have to be concerned with how self-congratulatory an artist’s self portrait might be. I also wanted to limit myself to dead artists, in part because I didn’t want to hurt any feelings, but also, and primarily, because I wanted to really throw myself against the canon. If I were picking young and/or living artists, they might not be as immediately familiar to readers. I wanted to pick the biggies, the famous ones we’ve all encountered in our art history classes or who would be familiar to readers through popular culture.
Did you set any additional limitations for your sexual scope?
One major condition that I gave myself was that I couldn’t already know what the artist looked like. So, no Picasso, Warhol, Pollock. It was also important for me to include a significant number of Canadian artists. I’m Canadian and completed my undergraduate degree at Concordia University in Montreal, so much of my art historical training involved the Canadian canon and I wanted to pass that along. It’s also amusing to me to subject an American audience to my Canadian in-jokes.
For instance, I did a reading in Chicago recently where I spoke about Tom Thomson and proposed the idea that his paintings of the Canadian landscape propagated the notion that Canada was an untouched and virginal landscape, disregarding millennia of aboriginal inhabitants. In my mind, this is a radical statement, discussing those hugely iconic paintings in terms of cultural genocide, but to an American audience it doesn’t really mean anything. Which is also kind of exciting! Like, perhaps I’m creating a situation where I really do have the definitive final word on these artists.
You take a lighthearted, humorous approach to your definitive sexual judgements, but your book is obviously a simultaneous commentary on a very real historical – and contemporary – issue surrounding the objectified female figure. What do you want your readers to take away from Hot or Not?
My hope is that the absurdity of this idea – of gauging men’s work by their appearances – will make evident the absurdity of doing the same to women. And while I don’t really think it’s the case that women artists are discussed in terms of how “hot” they are, an artist’s appearance is not irrelevant to their careers. What gender someone presents as, race, class, sexuality, nationality all become relevant the further an artist strays from straight, white, male, etc. There are so many exhibitions where the only curatorial construct is that all of the artists are black, or women, or queer, and that doesn’t really address the problem. That further surreptitiously implies the white, male and straight as “neutral” positions and everything else as charged.
There’s a phenomenon at comic book conventions where there will be a “women in comics” panel discussion, where the artists included will have no connection to one another save gender. That’s terrible programming, and it’s infuriating. Though I do like the idea of hosting a “men in comics” panel discussion where I ask all of the panelists about the challenges of being a dude. “Does your boner get in the way of your drafting table or do you work around that?” etc.
Ultimate sexual conquest: who is the hottest male artist of all time?
Oh this is a very tough one! Thankfully I spent most of my graduate school career ranking artists based on who you would want most to kiss or fight in history. I think possibly the sexiest artist of history was… Caravaggio? I know that I am not exactly “his type,” but he was a bar brawling maker of dramatic and often erotic paintings. He seems like he would have been a fun time.
Expanding from your question, if I had to pick a historical figure to hook up with, I think I would choose Lord Byron. Writing poetry, chilling with the Shelleys, trying to buy children, sleeping his way across Europe… He sounds like fun, if not necessarily a great person.
Conversely, I think if I had to fight anyone male painter of history, I would probably choose Jean-Honoré Fragonard because… come on. You could just step on his lacy pants and the fight would be over immediately.