A recent exhibition at London’s National Gallery has prompted a sense of seedy bemusement among journalists. Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, which displays the work of the Italian Renaissance painter alongside several contemporary reinterpretations, has created something of a stir.
Diana, a performance art collaboration between Turner Prize winner Mark Wallinger and a group of female volunteers, invites London to rethink Titian’s original canvasses within playful new contexts. Working in two-hour shifts, each performer acts alone, updating Titian’s painted gestures in a modern 21st century bathroom.
Media coverage of the exhibition has privileged Wallinger’s contribution over the other artists associated with the project (Chris Ofili and Conrad Shawcross), and even the original Titian paintings. But it’s not just the art that has British journos splaying their notebooks and licking their pencils. The stiff collars at The Daily Mail have used their time at the gallery to observe ‘a series of lone men peering through each peephole to study the model[s] from every available angle’. The exhibition, it seems, has become a stalking ground for ‘peeping toms’ and ‘dirty old men’. These strangely elusive figures have disturbed the hushed sanctity of the gallery space, and have curators casting worried glances towards the door.
The Daily Mail isn’t the only rag to pop its eyes or wag its tongue. The Guardian has also reported the story with a knowing Carry On wink: ‘”National Gallery puts on a peep show”. But what is all the fuss about? What do we mean by the expression ‘dirty old man’, and why are they unwelcome at the gallery?’
Representations of dirty old men take two distinct forms. Strangely, in popular culture they are often met with a perverse note of approval, even affection. The cheeky hijinks of Sid James or the track athletics of Benny Hill have given casual misogyny an acceptable face (at least to some). Their pinching fingers and puckered lips are rarely read as the desperate wranglings of the older gentleman, but as affirmations of youth and naughty, boyish charm. In postmodern times, these figures have become emblematic of a simpler era, a Top Gear Eden before sexual harassment suits and political correctness. But, since Hill and James are icons of a golden age for the staff of the Mail, it’s safe to assume they aren’t thinking of this particular breed of dirty old man. They have something darker, and far more sinister in mind.
So what are they thinking of? The second manifestation of dirty old man is difficult to pin down. In fact, even beginning a description leads us into a maze of unhelpful stereotypes. To some, the dirty old man might be self-evident, a creature signposted by clear visual signals. They stick out like a sore appendage. But is the dirty old man really so apparent? For example, does a dirty old man have to be a man? Refusing this question is to fall at the first hurdle. And where does age come into it? Who is to say that younger visitors to the exhibition don’t keep a whole deck of carnal fantasies close to their chests? And finally, what is perhaps the most tricky part of all: what do we mean when we say ‘dirty’? It’s a word that conjures all manner of negative associations, familiarly linked with social risks and taboos, or prejudices of age, sex, race and class.
The expression ‘dirty old man’ ascribes negative character traits to a person based simply on appearance or perceived behaviour. While refraining from explicit descriptions of those in attendance, The Daily Mail suggests they can be identified from a distance by their solitude and their advanced age. So, if you’re a woman, or a younger male, or even an older male in a group, you can breathe easily. You’re not in the spotlight. Yet.
So, what can the dirty old man and the peeping tom tell us about art? In this particular case, they represent something akin to a scapegoat. The figure supposedly marks a clear and explicit distinction between the low-down voyeur and the sophisticated art lover. But, more importantly, the reports reveal more about our attitudes towards art than the people that view it. In a telling, giveaway moment, The Daily Mail describes the behaviour of the ‘dirty old men’ as those ‘who come to look through peepholes at the naked models, ignoring the masterpieces on the wall’. If we get past the point they are trying to make, that these sordid lone visitors are more interested in cheap thrills than artistic enlightenment, we can see there is another tension at play. The article is not distinguishing one spectator from another, but implying a difference between the established artworks (‘masterpieces on the wall’) and the performance art element (‘naked models’). While I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with the label ‘naked models’, per se, the Mail uses it as a tag to define it apart from the artistic masterpiece. And, instead, as something that implies a dirtier, lower kind of appreciation.
Paul Milligan, another reporter for the Mail, also suggests a certain skepticism, beginning with: ‘Women taking a bath are the latest installation at an exhibition that has just opened at the National Gallery’. Similarly, a headline in The Huffington Post runs ‘Mark Wallinger’s “Diana” Invites Museum Patrons To Spy On Naked Women In Bathroom (PHOTOS)’ (notice its glaring uppercase promise of an online peek). The excessive focus on photographs and naked women not only overlooks the contents of the original Titian works, but attempts to create an absolute barrier between the traditional, established artforms and spurious new pretenders.
What is perhaps most ironic about this whole affair, about the moralistic nervousness of the curators, and the typically sensationalist coverage, is that it misses what is most interesting about the exhibition itself. By re-staging and re-conceiving Titian’s masterpieces in a performance art setting, Wallinger and his volunteers are not limiting themselves to the gilded frames of the established canon. Through performance, that tricky, traditional relationship between artist and muse is complicated. In this setting, it is the Old Master that becomes a dirty old man, whose eyes and hands shape and reshape the female subject into a form of his fancy. Diana draws attention to the artist as male voyeur through its evocation of an intimate domestic space made open to the public. But it also works to confront and resist this voyeurism. The title emphasises the name of its subject without drawing attention to a narrative or a context: Diana (which is also the real name of every performer) is almost free to exist on her own terms, to determine her own identity. She is not just an abstract ideal of beauty, or a goddess on a pedestal, but becomes a figure able to — at least partially — evade the male artist’s gaze. Wallinger and the Diana performers are attempting something new within an established setting: bringing old works to life in a way that questions how art constructs identity.
In the end, such an exhibition(ism) cannot be reduced to simplistic terms like ‘peep show’ or ‘masterpiece’. It encompasses both, and seems to hover tantalisingly between the two. On the National Gallery website, the event is described as a ‘multi-faceted experience’, and I think the clue is in the title: Metamorphosis. We’ve gone from dirty old man to dirty Old Master, and back again. Wallinger’s contribution allows us to think about the flexible status of art and its place in our culture. It also offers us a chance to peep at those constructed differences between art and life, ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, even men and women. For me, the real power of Diana is that it transforms dirty old men into sophisticated admirers, and makes perverts of the rest.
Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 ran until 23 September 2012 at the National Gallery.
This article first appeared in 3:AM Magazine in 2012.