Archive for Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Are We Not Men?

“xy” art exhibit asks what it means to be a man

"The Bonham Project Panel," by Jon O'Neal.

"The Bonham Project Panel," by Jon O'Neal.

August 26, 2009


  • Where: Spencer Museum of Art, 1301 Miss., KU campus, Lawrence
  • Age limit: All ages
  • Cost: Free

Full event details


Within the marbled halls of the Spencer Museum, an acclaimed repository of fine art containing more than 36,000 pieces of priceless human expression, is a 10-foot-tall Japanese man in a diaper.

Situated nearby this glowering, semi-nude giant of ink and pigment is the photo of a drag queen being arrested and hauled away in a paddy wagon, her only crime that of being a drag queen in 1940s America.

Just around the corner, a portrait of a 19th-century British dandy in his most regal of fineries is sharing space with a grim snapshot of maimed and dying soldiers from the Vietnam War.

And in the midst of these strange artistic bedfellows, leisurely smoking and seeming to act as the super-fly MC of the proceedings, is the photo of a butterfly collared Wayne Newton. That’s right — THE Wayne Newton.

This synchronized collision of images makes up the Spencer’s latest exhibit, “xy,” an exploration of the masculine mystique. It’s a collection heavy on the Y chromosome that raises the question, “Are you man enough to handle it?”


A Guided Tour of the new exhibit "xy" at the Spencer

This edition of A.D.D. is an audio guided tour of the current <a href="">"xy"; exhibition at the Spencer Museum of Art</a> with the curator Kris Ercums. "xy" explores themes of masculinity in culture and society. This edition of A.D.D. with host Jason Barr is best listened to while walking through the exhibit yourself — but it can also be appreciated apart from the artworks for its exploration of what is it to be a man in today's culture.

According to “xy” curator Kris Ercums, that’s one of the questions being raised, anyway.

“First and foremost, it asks the question, ‘What does it mean to be a man?’” Ercums says. “It’s a more specific version of the very humanist question, ‘What does it mean to be human?’ I think it’s a very pertinent question in society right now, especially as feminist studies have looked into issues of being a woman — but turning that lens back on the man.

“We’re not trying to answer these questions but trying to be more evocative and creating dialogue. That’s the role of the museum, being a forum where people can come and reflect, then go back and talk.”

And “xy” is sure to provoke conversation. The show is culled entirely from the Spencer’s considerable in-house collection, featuring works by modern provocateurs such as Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe side-by-side with 1st century Roman statuary and 16th century French portraiture. If you’re particularly puritanical, be forewarned that the show isn’t afraid to show you every aspect of what it means to be a man.

“A few of the works may be edgy to some,” says Saralyn Reece Hardy, director of the Spencer. “But they’re not outside the bounds. As with books and movies, not all exhibits are for everyone.

“The museum staff has approached the exhibit with great sensitivity. We are aware that there’s content that may not be suitable for some audiences, and we’ve posted some viewer advisories, so you get to make the choice about whether you want to see it or not. We’re very much about the idea of choice and engaged learning. We hope people see the Spencer as an active and dynamic place that asks questions, rather than a place that just dispenses information.”

Retired Kansas University professor Dennis Dailey, himself no stranger to the impassioned discourse sexuality can spark, thinks that a conversation about what defines a man is sorely needed.

“I think we’re still fairly stuck in the traditional imagery of males and masculinity,” says the sociology professor, whose human sexuality course at KU created a political firestorm in 2003 for delving into these very issues.

“Questioning it and raising issues about it, for lots of people, seems meaningless since most of the power is lodged in males and masculinity, so why even question it? When you have all the power — as is generally the case with males in our culture, although some of them don’t feel all that empowered individually — there isn’t much reason to raise a question about it. The power dynamic between men and women is still extraordinarily unbalanced.”

Not that he doesn’t see a glimmer of hope.

“My own sense of how the image of men has changed over my lifetime in academics is that the women’s movement — women’s liberation and feminism — really opened the door in many respects for males to ask questions about masculinity,” Dailey says. “Especially with the advent of people studying androgyny, where there’s a melding of both masculine and feminine, it opens up the possibility to escape those traditional expectations. Men can now question those notions of leaping tall buildings and catching bullets with their teeth — which is how you get your face shot off — and tap into the feminine side of being a man. Men are just as trapped by their gender roles as women, but that’s changing. It’s changing very slowly, but it’s changing.”

As a mother of soon-to-be-men, Saralyn Reece Hardy has a more vested perspective on these themes.

“I have three sons, and I like the way the exhibition expands the boundaries of the kind of stereotypical male,” Hardy says. “It’s personally revelatory to me, exploring issues of work, of play, of how ‘clothes make the man,’ and of how youth is valorized above all else. It opens up your worldview,” she says.

Ercums says the ability to talk about sexuality and the body has a significant impact on male self-awareness.

“Gender studies have helped us understand how structures in society operate,” Ercums says. “There’s this idea of ‘hegemonic masculinity,’ of power structures and hierarchy, which are set up to not only subordinate other men but to put women in their place. You can see that system changing in surveys about how men in the United States, for example, participate in household chores,” he says.

Ercums continues: “At the same time there’s a recalcitrance to hang on to these very typical notions of ‘a real man doesn’t cry,’ or ‘a real man doesn’t talk about what it’s like to be a man’ — which is the entire point of this exhibit.”


beawolf 8 years, 8 months ago


Did you even bother to stop by to see the exhibit? It's quite an experience. Very thought provoking as well as a unique visual presentation. I guarantee you'll walk away impressed. You still may not like it, but you will be impressed.

ClaroAtaxia 8 years, 8 months ago


What tax dollars? It's a themed collective of already owned in-house works, put together by staff of Spencer who are already being paid a salary anyway. I fail to see how this cost the tax payer anything they weren't already paying. I'm guessing you have a prejudice towards art or the university in general. Please explain yourself.

ClaroAtaxia 8 years, 8 months ago


You are missing the point. First off you're generalizing the term "modern art", but we can roll with it for now. The point is things that are "grotesque, perverse, and degrading to humanity" have not always been allowable in the public domain, and generally things that we regard as grotesque and perverse can offer a valuable perspective on our existence. It's more likely that "modern" artists are celebrating both the fact that the walls of censorship have, or are, being torn down, and the self-introspection provided by contemplating such things, than the idea that "modern art" is merely celebrating the grotesque and perverse.

"Modern art" generally requires more interpretation from the viewer than most people are used to. I feel sorry for you if you can't appreciate it for what it is, rather than what you think it should be. Oh, and the article and exhibit don't have much to do "modern art" anyways, so why did you bring it up?

beatrice 8 years, 8 months ago

You have to question the basic humanity of anyone who would rant for less art in the world.

jonas_opines 8 years, 8 months ago

ClaroAtaxia (Anonymous) says…


You are missing the point."

Truthfully, ClaroAtaxia, I think that you're missing the real point. That point being you're wasting your time trying to have a non-trollish discussion with BuenaVista. You're not going to sway him an inch, he is a proud and often self-admitted racist/sexist/supremacist.

salad 8 years, 8 months ago

Seinfeld was right: "A womans body is like a work of art, a mans body is like....a piece of machinery."

How women find ANY of us attractive without a shirt is truely mysterious.

Leslie Swearingen 8 years, 8 months ago

The human body can be male or female. Masculine or feminine are cultural interpretations so it is impossible to get in touch with either. You are who you are because of the choices you make an individual not because of your gender.

beatrice 8 years, 8 months ago

I doubt Buena has even seen the image by Andres Serrano he is railing about, the only artist I know of to have taken a serious image of a crucifix in urine. I've included a link -- it is a striking image, I've seen it in person, it is about 2 ft. high, and I think most people would be surprised just looking at the image that it could cause such an uproar several years ago, back when neocons roamed the earth. As far as Serrano being a "joker," Bueano is simply wrong. Consider the importance of body in Christianity. Didn't Christ ask people to eat bread that represented his body, and drink fluid to represent his blood? When Serrano uses his own bodily fluids in his art, it is for a serious goal. If you believe your body is a temple, why should we be ashamed or hate the fluids that come from the body? What if it was an image in blood -- the blood of Christ -- would that make you less upset? He did some images with blood as well.

It might stretch your concept of what is an appropriate medium in which to make art, and I can appreciate that sentiment, but the artist isn't being a joker.

Christine Anderson 8 years, 8 months ago

HA,HA,HA,HA!!!!! ( In regard to the display, that is)

WilburM 8 years, 8 months ago

By all means, visit the Spencer!!! It's chock full of art, it's not too big, and offers a pleasant way to spend some peaceful time on the KU Campus. And maybe something there -- XY or whatever -- will encourage you to think a bit. Exactly what a museum and a University are supposed to do.

beatrice 8 years, 8 months ago

Buena, did you see me make that claim? No. I just explained why it was still serious art. I did not compare him to the Italian Renaissance artists because it would be ridiculous for an artist working in the late 20th century trying to be an artist like those in 15th/16th century Italy.

However, did you have the courage to actually look at the image? I know this will be difficult for you, but without trying to channel your inner Strom Thurman, what do you think of the image itself, with its glowing light? Imagine that you don't know the, um, ingredients. What do you think?

For a quick lesson, yes, modern art is usually considered a historical term used to describe that period after artists broke from just making representational images based on nature. The Impressionists were considered lunatics and radicals in their day. You are probably thinking of contemporary art, or post-modern art, which is art made more recently -- often considered the period after WWII to the present. This is a very loose interpretation, but it gives you an idea.

George_Braziller 8 years, 8 months ago

Any art has to be seen in person to truly be appreciated. Photographs, no matter how good, never capture the colors, textures, and scale of the original.

"The Mona Lisa" is surprisingly small, dark, and dreary.

beatrice 8 years, 8 months ago

Sorry logic, but Cubism started circa 1907, and flourished through a collaboration of Picasso and George Braque in Paris in the early 20th century. They were inspired by things created in the 19th century, particularly the Post-Impressionism of Paul Cezanne, but that wasn't Cubsim.

Sorry for being so pedantic, but I saw a great exhibition several years ago at the Met about the start of Cubism. I remember it fondly.

I use a different rule of thumb, ending modernism at around the 1940s. I don't consider art from the late 20th century modern. Rather, I think of it as Contemporary art. How can you have modern art still happening when you have already experienced and gone beyond Post-Modernism?

Kirk Larson 8 years, 8 months ago

Art, good art, should make you a little uncomfortable. It should push at your boundaries and make you think a little outside your everyday limits. You might snap back as you leave the museum, but for a moment you were something more than you were when you walked in.

As for Piss Christ, I saw an interesting discussion on it once. Someone asked "How do you know it's urine? Maybe it's not." Whatever it is, what's interesting is to consider one's reaction; how your brain integrates the idea of the piece. Remember, Art is not on the wall, Art is in your head.

ClaroAtaxia 8 years, 8 months ago


Very well said! You'd think if somebody like Buena can use a computer enough to submit a comment, they could google a few things too.

beatrice 8 years, 8 months ago

I always find it interesting when people, confronted by abstract or non-representational art, always want to know, "What does it mean?" Art doesn't have to mean anything outside of itself. Music is perhaps our most abstract of all art forms. When listening to music, must it have meaning in order to be enjoyed? Of course not. So why must the visual arts?

tangential_reasoners_anonymous 8 years, 8 months ago

Ahem... “'xy' art exhibit asks what it means to be a man."

tangential_reasoners_anonymous 8 years, 8 months ago

I am a headless, shinless torso, wearing black skivvies, so I qualify.

Paul Decelles 8 years, 8 months ago


I like paddy wagon as well. Wasn't all that long ago that any sort of "cross dressing" was illegal in NY, I think the 1960's. At any rate, looking more up about that photo, led me to this site of images from the Spencer :

Lots of nice stuff by the same photographer.

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