NATURE OF REVOLUTION
I read an interesting quote in a book recently: “It would hardly be a revolution if everyone agreed with it at the beginning, would it?” This applies to most areas of our culture, from taste and social conventions, fashion, psychology and even medicine and scientific knowledge.
This especially applies to my photos of aesthetically developed female muscle, which goes beyond the images themselves and applies to all of the categories listed above. My photos call into question a whole range of ideas and beliefs regarding women, women’s bodies, their physical limitations as well as conventional beliefs regarding gender, femininity and sexual identity.
There is a lot involved here. But but respond positively or negatively to the pictures without appreciating how much is involved. In my opinion, it is all those underlying cultural challenges that make the photos art.
ART FOR THE ART MARKET
Actually, the idea of art as a disruptive force is relatively new. There was no avant garde until the modern art market developed in the early 19th century. Throughout history, art was mostly done on commission. The church, a government or wealthy patron contacted an artist and ordered a specific painting or sculpture. The style of acceptable art changed but very slowly. Fresco painting on wet plaster, as in the Sistine Chapel, gave way to oil painting. The development of perspective techniques replaced the depiction of the world as a flat plane common in the middle ages. Sculptors took advantage of technical advances to do every more ambitious bronze and marble statutes.
But starting in about the 1830s, artists began to increasingly create works on their own initiative to be sold in galleries by artist’s agents. This gave rise to what we now call “modern art” – and more recently post-modern art. For the first time the art world was concerned with the idea of “progress,” artists competed for the attention of collectors and there were rapid – certainly by historic standards – changes and evolution in terms of techniques, styles and subject matter. The avant garde became a la mode.
FROM AVANTE GARDE TO ESTABLISHMENT
Of course, there was a lot of resistance to these changes. The art establishment kept declaring that certain works weren’t really art and their creators not legitimate artists. But opposition was eventually overwhelmed. An art movement like Impressionism was originally rejected by the establishment (the name itself was originally mean to be derogatory) and it has become perhaps the most popular style of art in history. \
Nowadays, there is a constant search for novelty in the art market – although some of the “new” is often retro – but there isn’t much that is actually controversial. Rarely does anybody get deeply offended or made angry by a work of art. Mayor Giulliani made a fuss over a painting of the Virgin Mary in a museum and Serrano photo “Piss Christ” raised a short term hubbub the overall culture was not much shocked nor did it care. “Burning Babies: Film At Eleven” – When we see news footage of death and destruction on a daily basis not much has long last shock effect nowadays.
HARD TO SCHOCK NOWADAYS
But somehow my photos of aesthetically muscular women do shock a lot of people, which came as a surprise to me when I first realized this. I started photographing these women in the earlier days of the development of bodybuilding for women in the late 1970s. The women in those days hadn’t been training seriously for very long, it takes any years to create a really well-developed muscular physique so they were highly defined but not very big. So many found them “cute” and they generally got a pretty good response from the public. Bodybuilding pioneer Lisa Lyon was featuring in Playboy. Women’s bodybuilding competitions were shown on television. Ms. Olympia Cory Everson had her own exercise television series.
But the women kept training over the years and when genetically gifted individual work out with weights over time they get bigger and more muscular. So what was initially seen as cute soon became unsettling, even threatening. Why? Because people and the culture in general have some very fundamental and deeply-held views on women, women’s roles, women’s bodies and on gender and sexual identity. Pumping Iron author Charles Gaines has pointed out that aesthetic female muscle is a “new archetype” – something brand new, never before seen in any culture at any time or place in history. So my photos represent a cultural development that many find unacceptable.
EVERYBODY LIKES KITTENS
Everybody loves kittens but not everyone likes cats. Modern female bodybuilder look hugely different than they did in the beginning. Bodybuilding is the Grand Opera of the physique and it is by intention extreme as well as aesthetic. The bodybuilder physique is to the average body as a trained operatic voice is to a pop singer. It is not supposed to be like anything else and not supposed to be judges by standards other than those of bodybuilding.
Think of the fable of the ugly duckling. A poor little duckling is considered unattractive and is ostracized by the other in the flock. Than other birds show up in the pond and he realizes he is not a duck at all, but a swan. Actually, the moral of this story is missed by most. It is not that swans are more beautiful than ducks, to your eyes, but that ducks should be judged by duck standards and swans by swan standards. In the same regard, bodybuilders should be judged as bodybuilders and likewise for other types of bodies and beauty.
GENDER AND SEXUAL IDENTITY
Actually, there is another aspect of this controversy that is mostly not recognized. Just as aggressive homophobes frequently turn out to be suppressed homosexuals, many who are offended by aesthetic female muscle are likely to have problems with their own sexual and gender identity. There are plenty of men (and women) who are turned on by female muscle but others who find themselves attractive but don’t want to admit it. Some are worried that they might be gay because they are attracted to women who “look like men.” Women can be threatened by such buff physiques because they are insecure about how their own bodies look.
So there is a lot that can be doing on in the minds of people who look at my photos. I have thousands of fans all over the world and I’ve sold a lot of fine art books and some prints. But the people who appreciate my work represent such a very tiny percentage of the potential audience. But there is also a generational force at work. Older people remember when there was no aesthetic female muscle and when the women were much less muscular than they later became. Younger individuals have never lived in a world in which there were no female bodybuilders. They might find this look attractive or not, but they certainly aren’t shocked.
IDEAS DON’T CHANGE, POPULATION DOES
A noted scientist once was quoted as saying new scientific theories frequently don’t replace the old ones. Rather, young scientists who accept the newest ideas gradually take over and supplant the old guard. Aesthetic female muscle will also achieve more general acceptance as the young gradually take the place of the old. The same thing is also happening with other aspects of the culture such as legalization of marijuana, gay marriage and rights for transsexuals. The world changes much faster nowadays than every before – then was every dreamed of before.
What I’m hoping for and expecting is that my photos and the women who are in them will eventually cease to be as controversial and my work can be better evaluated not as a novelty but as serious art. People can see what it looks like – but what does it really mean? What does it tell the world about women and their place in our culture in terms of things like physiology, sociology, psychology as well as gender and sexual identity? How much of a revolution do these women represent and what is the significance?
I remember that for most of his career Ansel Adams was considered a photographer of pretty landscapes and his prints were available for very modest amounts. It was only at the very end he was viewed as a great artist who captured the essence of the American wilderness in a condition unspoiled by development, tourists and other aspects of modern life. Commercial fashion photos of the past are exhibited as fine art in galleries and museums and sought after by collectors. A lot of documentary pictures from the past are now classified as fine art.
It is a fact that about 50% of human beings are women and my photos of aesthetic female muscle tell us something about women that was never known before because this kind of body never existed before. So female bodybuilders and my photos of them represent a genuine revolution.
But this would hardly be a revolution if everyone accepted it right from the beginning, would it?
BILL DOBBINS ART
THE FEMALE PHYSIQUE WEBZINE/GALLERY
BILL DOBBINS PHOTOGRAPHY