Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Mixed Messages

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I found myself, yesterday, in a place that I, like any self-respecting New Yorker, tend to avoid like the plague: Times Square. I was there on a mission to capture the proceedings of an organization that rented an hour’s time on one of the giant glaring billboards in order to display something that wasn’t bright, garish, empty advertising. They were called See|Me, and they were going to display art.

This created a curious scene as New Yorkers came to loiter on the scene amidst the Disney characters, street performers, cops and ever-present hordes of camera-clutching tourists. This eclectic band also held cameras, but was comprised mostly of artists, and they were there to see their works displayed to the world – or a reasonable (or reasonably American) facsimile of such. Each would get their five seconds of fame, provided the dazzled tourists would care to look.

Comedically enough, it was the presence of the gathering of mean-mugging locals with their studied aloof mannerisms that attracted the attention of the tourists more than the works themselves. A tourist would approach someone with a camera pointed directly at the building-sized display and ask what they were doing. Taking pictures of the art. Oh, the tourist would reply, and walk on.

Prior to the event, a middle-aged woman with loose-fitting white tank-top came up to me and said, “you look like an artist. Are you here for the exhibit?” I was, silently wondering whether my studied aloofness was too studied, but she soldiered on and told me that one of her works had been approved for the exhibit, but then censored at the last second. She explained that such was because it depicted an oil painting she made of a woman in a see-through blouse.

I remarked that I found that funny, as the panel in which the art was to be displayed was currently busy presenting ten-story tall underwear models with obvious cameltoes doing acrobatic poses and looking longingly at the milling crowds below. Just a few blocks up was a hundred-foot pop singer whose latest album was being sold by her nudity, her arm draped across her chest, leaning against a headboard while lounging on satin sheets. Next to that was a lusty gaze from an airbrushed bimbo’s face promoting an ever-euphemistic gentleman’s club.

Even in Disneyfied, family-friendly Times Square, home to life-size Elmo and Buzz Lightyear, clearly sex, or at least the suggestion of it, is broadly accepted.

My newfound compatriot had, despite her rejection, decided to show up anyway. As she described, through her ill-disguised bitterness, she had to see just what on offer was deemed acceptable. During the proceedings, she was not disappointed: Indeed quite a lot of skin was bared, so long as the picture was cropped cleverly, or the model was twisted away from the camera, or any other means of suggestive trickery. We as a society appear to have been desensitized to the female form, and inured to female sexual suggestion, but yet display it as illicit in practice. We are a strange bunch.

One artist recently decided to hold a mirror to that particular neurosis by turning the tables on the subjects. Photographer Bek Anderson filled Rivington Design House on the Lower East Side with prints of nude male models two days ago. Not sexual, but very nude. It immediately drew ire from local prudes: “I guess the new people in the neighborhood are unaware of how many children live here.” Setting aside how tame this is compared to recent iterations of the Lower East Side, Anderson retorted, “There is nothing pornographic or offensive happening in that photo. It’s a portrait of a man. He is naked, but doing nothing indecent. We see naked women all the time in photos where they are highly sexualized and people don’t notice because they are desensitized.”

Indeed, now having been blasted by bouncing bosoms selling vacation destinations, jeans, music, airlines, soft drinks and candy – and that’s just one building – with little objection from the people below, I concede she may have a point. We have become accustomed to hypersexualized fantasy objects, but are inexplicably shocked by frank portrayal of real sexuality.

This barrier, among others, would not be broken down by the Times Square art exhibit, but then it would be asking too much for one hour’s worth of images to break down the perpetual onslaught of consumeristic vacuity before the masses, even if only symbolically. Indeed, five seconds for each particular piece of art was not enough to reflect upon it, and the artists down below were mostly (or merely) waiting for their piece to come up so that they might photograph it. Rather than stand against form, they became that form, their works made hollow, their messages muddled. Yet more grist for the mill of color and spectacle, no time for meaning or reflection.

Perhaps, then, it was for the best that the hapless woman’s piece be censored: At a stint of only five seconds, it would either be ignored or distilled into a flash of titillation, a conspicuous exercise in futility before an audience trained to react in only the most limited, pre-ordained ways. It probably works better as a story of controversy. Yet one more reason to avoid Times Square with a passion.

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