Thursday, September 2, 2010

“Dick, Dick, Dick, Dick; Dick, Dick, Dick.” - Part 1: Michelangelo & Rodin

Michelangelo, David (1504); Greg Mottola's Superbad, (2008)
At a party I attended during high school, someone had brought a porn film. It was a mixed crowd, in the mid-1980s, VHS had made porn a lot easier to get your hands on, but it was still relatively rare. I remember the boys and girls were all uncomfortable, no one wanted to be mistaken for a prude, but no one wanted to seem too interested either. One of the older, more confident guys at the party pointed out that the guy in the movie had a really ugly dick. One of the younger, cockier wits was right there with the question: “How many dicks have you seen?” “One,” answered the senior without hesitation, “and it’s beautiful.” Beauty is not the sorts of thing men normally brag about when talking about their dicks – usually size is all that matters.

Michelangelo sculpted a beautiful penis for his David, but it is most famous for being really small. The story goes that when he was carving the penis, Michelangelo hit an imperfection in the stone. The unexpected fracture caused the chisel strike to cleave away far more material then the sculptor had intended. He was left with a choice: tiny balls, big dick; or big balls, tiny dick. The Renaissance man famously decided to favor the balls. There are all sorts of ways to interpret the meaning of that decision. I can remember being told that Michelangelo’s choice was a triumph of substance (the generative organs), over mere spectacle. This academic scorn for the sensational undervalues spectacle, and therefor misses (even obscures) real substance - in the case of dicks, spectacle is part of what makes us human. (What is that little bit of useless flesh at the end of a dick called? A man.) 
Silverback Gorrilla; Stone Age Dildo (ca. 4-6000 BC)

And make no mistake (or at least not one as final as Michelangelo’s), that is what a cock is, it is pure spectacle. In his book, The Third Chimpanzee, the biologist Jared Diamond points to the “inability of twentieth-century science to formulate an adequate Theory of Penis Length.” Luckily Diamond is ready to leap into the gap with a TPL of his own. Diamond explains that not only is the human penis much larger on average than other primates – “The length of the erect penis averages 1¼ inches in a gorilla, 1½ inches in an orangutan, and 5 inches in a man.” But Diamond points out that human penises are visually far more "conspicuous" then our primate cousins: “The flaccid penis is not even visible in apes.”

Other primates, like the orangutans, mate face to face (and sometimes do so while hanging from trees), so Diamond reasons that the human penis size has nothing to do with the missionary position:
Since these facts make it unlikely that special features of human coitus demand a large penis, a popular alternative theory is that the human penis has also become an organ of display, like a peacock’s tail or a lion’s mane.
But Diamond is not at all satisfied with the belief that our penises are aimed at women (at least when it comes to their size):
Recall all the phallic art created by men for men, and the widespread obsession of men with their penis size. Evolution of the human penis was effectively limited by the length of the female vagina: a man's penis would damage a woman if it were significantly larger. However, I can guess what the penis would look like if this practical constraint were removed and if men could design themselves. It would resemble the penis sheaths (phallocarps) used as male attire in some areas of New Guinea where I do fieldwork. Phallocarps vary in length (up to two feet), diameter (up to 4 inches), shape (curved or straight), angle made with the wearer's body, color (yellow or red), and decoration (e.g., a tuft of fur at the end). Each man has a wardrobe of several sizes and shapes from which to choose each day, depending on his mood that morning. Embarrassed male anthropologists interpret the phallocarp as something used for modesty or concealment, to which my wife had a succinct answer on seeing a phallocarp: "The most immodest display of modesty I've ever seen!"
Polyeuktos, Herma of Demosthenes (ca. 280 BC); Auguste Rodin, The Kiss (1889)

When the American scholar and art collector Edward Perry Warren commissioned a marble copy of Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss for 25,000 francs, he stipulated that, “M. Rodin is to choose the marble,” but insisted that, “The genital organ of the man is to be represented in its entirety.” Rodin judge that the “archeologist is not an ordinary man.” But in fact, according to Diamond’s TPL, Warren’s concern for the penis was a pretty typical human male preoccupation - and we can put a value on Warren’s interest. To avoid the sort of fault that had forced Michelangelo’s hand, Rodin convince Warren to spend an additional 5000 francs for a block of the finest Pentelican marble – the stone used by the ancient Greeks to create their penis graven monuments.

Warren’s interest may have raised eyebrows, but I think it is important to stand up for the antiquarian – he was pressing Rodin to produce a serious work in a manor that both the collector and the artist valued. Both men admired ancient nudes. Both recognized that the only reason to sculpt the male nude sans-cock was contemporary norms - “propriety.” In fact that is exactly the reason Rodin gave for having had the penis omitted from the first marble made of the The Kiss – it was an atypical act of artistic cowardice (or commercial calculation) on Rodin’s part, but one not at all unique to the Modern Master. (Abi Farah choice to cloth his figures in meaningless athletic trunks, is more then a "conceptual crutch," it's coy. Farah chickened out. In a world where a comedy like Superbad has the courage laugh about a "real big veiny triumphant bastard," Work of Art settled for propriety. Dickless. (Continue Reading Part 2)
Robert Morris, I-Box (1962); Ali Farah, Libation (2010)

1 comment:

  1. You have redeemed yourself in my eyes and you continue to be my jedi.