By Jason Michael

Few indeed live in hope of seeing politicians wearing only their smiles, but this is exactly what iScot has gone and done to us on the cover of its August issue. It’s brutal and ugly, it’s beautiful satire. It’s many things, but is it sexist?

Yesterday, half an hour before quitting time, the good peeps at iScot announced they’d be unveiling their August cover later in the evening. The uncharacteristic pre-release tweet asked for those who liked it to consider subscribing, stating that the minds behind the design needed the “danger money.” It had to be something good. At half past seven the image was unleashed, and – to paraphrase the Apocalypse of St. John the Divine – there was silence in Scotland for half an hour.

iScot Magazine, for those unfamiliar with it (for shame), is the Rolling Stone of Scottish culture and politics; treading the perilous no-man’s-land of open discussion and neutrality in the aftermath of our 2014 independence referendum. All the finest people – and dogs – make the cover, but August’s august offering takes the biscuit. Scratch that. It makes away with the whole goddamn tin. Mo and Ken put their heads together and reproduced for a soon-to-be traumatised readership Rubens’ 1635 masterpiece ‘the Three Graces,’ complete with the photoshopped heads of our Tory troika; Theresa May, Ruth Davidson, and Arlene Foster – all wearing unionist micro bikinis.

It’s bad. I mean it’s up there with the picture of Snack Beard Mundell smooching Ruthie bad. It’s so disgustingly, eye-wateringly unnerving – never to be unseen – bad that it transcends ugly so far that it becomes beautiful again. While Germans for ScotRef responded with a line of medical masked emojis, one “grumpy old great-granny” tweeted: “WT actual F?” On seeing the cover, after the initial shock of encounter had worn off, I exploded into maniacal laughter, no doubt worrying the other smartphone zombies on the train. It could have been worse, I thought. Reflecting on the sheer volume of urine we’ve had to take from these particular “disGraces,” it could have been Sally Mann’s 1994 version of the theme.

As was to be expected, however, it wasn’t long until the thought police and the unionist art critics of cyberspace were out decrying what was at least comedy genius as sexist. It was alright for the British media to reduce the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon to her, admittedly stylish, heels and her legs. No one in the unionist art appreciation society batted an eyelid when the First Minister was depicted as the wardrobe malfunctioning Liberté storming the barricades. None of this was “sexist,” but somehow the use of Rubens’ Aglaea, Euphrosyne, and Thalia dancing under the “Better Together Money Tree,” as the representatives of British nationalism, is. Nonsense!

Those familiar with the female nudes of Rubens, which I am not (honest), will tell you of his problematic anatomy. Like Michelangelo’s ladies in the churches of Rome, these are muscular men with boobs painted on. Now arguably that is sexist, but I am no art expert and – besides – we have accepted this past artistic convention as a fact of our cultural heritage. If anything, by adding the faces of three real women, the case may be made that Mo and Ken have – through parody – redeemed the sexism of the art by actually feminising the original.

But this isn’t really about sexism. There is no apparent prejudicial use of the three’s sex or gender to stereotype them, mock, degrade, or discriminate against them. Graces – or Χάριτες – are goddesses after all. What this is, before the application of the sexism smokescreen, is a clever and witty comment on power.

Art, as social comment, has much to say about the arrogance of power. Propagandistic depictions of leaders – think Julius Caesar, George Washington, and Kim Jong Un for example – apotheosise their subjects. It stands to reason then that divinity is the chosen arena for laying bear the absurdity of power. In this sort of comment nudity becomes symbolically important. May’s power lust, Davidson’s spineless sycophancy, and Foster’s idiotic opportunism have exposed the truth that the emperor has no clothes; they are performing a ritual of power that has been shown for all to see to have all the poise and efficacy of a chimps’ tea party.

Rather than being base and derogatory sexism, nudity serves an important purpose in such a comment. Let’s remember that there is a tradition of lampooning power and the powerful with depictions of naked, often animalistic and grotesque, corpulence. At the height of the Irish economic collapse the then Taoiseach, Brian – “Biffo” – Cowan, found himself the target of numerous guerrilla nudes, one of which found its way into the National Art Gallery in Dublin. The same happened more recently to Donald Trump. Was this sexism? No, of course it wasn’t. It was art doing what art does, exercising its intended social function.

On the cover of August’s iScot the female form is not being used as a shaming devise directed at women politicians and thus women in general. Ask Davidson herself, she is quite the expert in the lurid instrumentalisation of the female body. Rather it is – returning to John the Divine – a revelation; an uncovering, an unveiling of the truth that is so weakly obscured by the drama of performative power. This is the artistic undoing, and therefore the derision, of May’s heroic paean, “Strong and Stable.” It is a silliness – as all good political art should be – and the Paieonic antidote to the hemlock these gods of the state have forced us to drink. It is a bold stroke for a cover, for sure, but one that does not fail to hit the mark.


Nudity and Art

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One thought on “Is This Sexist?

  1. Excellently put – the utilisation of Rubens’ art being villified as sexist is nonsense (if someone made the original today using real people with their actual bodies, that would be something very diferent)…or does one then remove the use of all nudes from the history of art for political purposes? The power of its use lies in the fact that it is a known piece, with accompanying context – which frames the three added heads within that context as an accusation.


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