The Evolution of Masculinity in Art, From Ancient Greece to Modern Times

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The Evolution of Masculinity in Art, From Ancient Greece to Modern Times
Figure 1: Laocoon and His Sons.

WASHINGTON, DC.- Throughout the ages, masculinity has been portrayed in many different ways through paintings, sculptures, and other forms of art. Many view the ancient Greek culture as the epitome of masculinity, with its famous pieces such as the Kroisos Kouros, Kritios Boy, and of course, the classic Laocoon and His Sons. These pieces became a source of inspiration for those who aspire to improve their fitness and physique.

Many more recent artists, such as Michelangelo, have portrayed the ideal male body as being one of proportions, with the famous Golden Ratio guiding their artwork. Recently however, many contemporary artists have begun to challenge traditional masculinity through art.

In a recent multimedia exhibition at the Wignall Museum of Contemporary Art, however, many artists tackled the conventional ideals of masculinity: strength, honor, and courage. Many of the artists featured in this exhibition, curated by Roman Stollenwerk, portray masculinity as something that’s more “dynamic” rather than static.

Huffington Post recently reported on the exhibition, stating the following:

“The artists on view use photography, collage, watercolor and mixed media installation to envision understandings of manhood that often slip through the cracks of cultural visibility. Transmasculine performance artist, stunt person and bodybuilder Cassils uses their own body as a medium, undergoing intense physical challenges to show that the human body is always in a state of becoming. Cassils frames their physical form not as an inherited vessel but a fleshy canvas constantly in flux, as malleable as a lump of clay.”

While many enjoy this contemporary art, others find it grotesque and immature. As many have said, an artist must know the rules of art before he can break them, however many argue that these rules exist for a reason in the first place.

Conventional art has portrayed masculinity as being directly related to war, conquering, strength, honor, and other ideals. It has portrayed warriors, military generals, and gods as a paramount to these things, often in extreme detail.

Think of the famous painting “Napoleon Crossing the Alps,” for example, created by Jacques-Louis David. This piece of work portrays the famous general and conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte, as he’s preparing to forge onwards through a treacherous terrain, to conquest far off lands. This is no doubt a classic portrayal of masculinity in art.

The landscape for modern art is changing, and as the issue of toxic masculinity begins to come to the forefront of our culture, many artists are coming forward, attempting to redefine the perhaps outdated ideals of masculinity. With issues such as transsexualism, gender identity, and equality in the forefront nowadays, much contemporary art comments on these things.

Not everyone agrees that this is a good thing, however. We reached out to Jon Anthony, the founder of Masculine Development, a website which advocates for traditional masculinity. He states that while some modern art may be interesting, it’s generally advocating for weakness.

“We live in crazy times,” he told us. “Masculinity is only appreciated when it’s needed, which is why most traditionally masculine art arises out of relatively unsafe civilizations,” he said.

“As societies become safer, and less physical protection is needed, they begin to stop valuing the masculine ideals of strength, courage, and honor, and begin to place more value on feminine ideals such as empathy, tolerance, and inclusion.”

Take, for example, the classic piece of artwork, painted by Jacques-Louis David. This piece of art portrays Socrates, right before drinking Hemlock (as ordered by the state), arguing with his students about retaining honor even in the face of one’s death.

“When viewing this painting, one is instilled with a sense of awe,” Jon says. “The idea of facing one’s death with honor and courage, rather than fear and weakness, is a lynchpin of traditional masculinity. Men were expected to die in battle, defending their homelands,” he adds.

“Compare this with a contemporary piece such as the Fountain, by Marcel Duchamp. What feelings does this inspire? Does it inspire awe? Courage? Of course not. Like most modern art, it’s a normal item, and nothing more,” Jon tells us.

Many, such as National Post’s John Robson, agree. “Perhaps I don’t know much about art. But I know what I hate,” he says. “All art has a message. ‘Art for art’s sake’ or ‘all in the eye of the beholder’ is an infinite regress or a contemptible evasion; a brazen peddling of fake relativism.”

He brings up an interesting critique, that many others agree with. While ancient artwork often portrays some sort of feat, or an accomplishment, much of modern art is simply fancy lines on a canvas, or a normal, everyday item portrayed in a strange light.

“Modern art is glorified narcissism,” Jon says. “While ancient paintings portrayed goddesses, gods, warriors, and ideals to strive towards, modern art glorifies relativism and narcissism.”

While the debate rages onwards, and as society continues to evolve, we can expect a significant backlash against modern art. For, while many advocates of modern art state that conventional artwork is stale, boring, and outdated, many artists view it as an ideal to live up to.

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