We are talking about youth in this issue, but also we cannot talk about youth. Or look at youth. We are in a post-youth culture. To look at youth is perverse and illegal. Many adults are now very “youthful” and hang onto a “youth culture”, but we are “post youth”. You cannot stare at young boys (we will stay with men because this is a male magazine). Or talk about the shape of their bones and texture of their skin.
Thomas Mann’s book Death in Venice and Luchino Visconti’s film Death in Venice, starring Dirk Bogarde, tell the story of an older man who falls in love with a young boy. The film is visually beautiful and the young actor Björn Johan Andrésen, cast as the boy, stands as an undying image of male beauty. More famous now than Michelangelo’s Dying Slave.
Mann said the boy is meant to be Hermes, the messenger of the gods, an image of beauty to lead man into death. That is one reading of Death in Venice. But there are moments in the book that just seem to be about the young boy’s sensuality. “He had an enchanting way of turning and twisting his body,” writes Mann, “gracefully expectant, charmingly shamefaced, seeking to please… ”
The boy in the book is 14 years old. And there was a boy in real life. When Mann went to Venice in 1911 he became obsessed with a 10-year-old boy, staying at the same hotel. There is no evidence that Mann ever touched this boy. But the fact must throw some dark light on the writing in the book.
“His honey-coloured hair nested in ringlets at his temples and at the back of his neck, the sun gleamed in the down on his upper spine… His armpits were still as smooth as those of a statue… ”
There are not many artists who look at young males. There is Larry Clark. And Harmony Korine. Who are connected, or have been. And both of them show males naked to the waist. I am sure there are half-naked men in other films, music films and ad campaigns – but the gaze is different in Clark and Korine.
“As far as the culture goes,” Clark said in 2008, “everything is on the backs of kids. Open any magazine, it’s all naked kids or half-naked kids, selling clothes, sunglasses, food – selling everything. The culture is totally into that… ”
Writing letters in the 1920s, Mann talked about topless youth. He liked them. He says he feels “great pleasure and emotion” when he sees a young man “bare to the waist in a market garden”. Mann praises German films for “the pleasure they take in human, especially male, bodies in their nakedness… Whenever opportunity offers, nude young men are shown in attractive, tender photographic illumination”.
Clark’s 1992 book The Perfect Childhood has images taken by Clark of teenage boys, mainly topless. In one sequence of images, an older woman (or at least she looks older) gives a boy (I say boy, but he could be 17 or 18) a blowjob. In another picture, a boy, naked except for white socks, licks the barrel of a gun. Clark adds images from newspapers or teen magazines; pictures of Matt Dillon (half-naked, leaning against a tree), Corey Haim, River Phoenix; and newspaper cuttings about teenagers who kill their parents, teenagers who kill and mutilate other teenagers, and pictures of “lost” or “missing” boys.
The boys that Clark photographs have certain things in common: they have a soft jawline, the Adam’s apple is only beginning to form, they are topless, they wear some kind of necklace. The texts that Clark adds – the scraps of Post-it notes, flyers and newspaper cuttings – also have certain things in common. They speak about fathers, sons, religion, drugs, shame, wrongdoing and punishment. Clark is drawing things together.
He is not always moral, but he can be. Sometimes there are just too many images of half-naked boys. But sometimes Clark can “read” like a moral artist. He makes you realise there is a link between a Hollywood sexualised teen pic of Phoenix and some other young boy, maybe “missing” – with everything that implies. There are scenes in his film Ken Park in which young people suffer. Because of the way their parents touch them. Or abuse them. And then you feel that he is an artist who knows exactly what goes on in some suburban bedrooms, that he sees and reveals the truth of this world.
Mann, writing in his diaries, records that, in July 1920, he went into his son’s bedroom and saw his son, 13 years old, naked from the waist up. Mann says he had a “strong impression of his developing magnificent body”. The incident created a “strong emotion” in him.
And I know Death in Venice is meant to be about beauty, abstract beauty, but at least two aspects of Mann’s book form a classical paedophile narrative. There is the older man’s interest in the young boy. And moments when the older man is convinced the young boy returns his gaze and interest.
“It happened that Tadzio smiled: smiled at him, speakingly, familiarly, enchantingly and quite unabashed, with his lips parting slowly as the smile was formed… a smile that was provocative, curious… ”
Almost exactly the same misreading of a young boy’s gestures is described by the men interviewed in ChickenHawk a 1994 documentary about members of the North American Man/Boy Love Association. When these men (paedophiles) talk about their relationships with young boys, they deliberately or mistakenly misread the signals. They convince themselves that the boys are giving off sexual come-ons: “He kept making excuses to pull up his shirt and show me his belly in a highly flirtatious way.”
Again… “He flirted with me, I thought, in a very flagrant but wonderful way. By flagrant I mean they make it completely obvious that they were flirting in a sexual way or talking in a sexual way… ”
Death in Venice is difficult because it so pretty. The writing in the book is pretty. Visconti’s film is pretty. The boy playing Tadzio is pretty. Bogarde is pretty. The music (by Mahler) is nice. Bogarde recalled his meetings with director Visconti, who knew the film would be a hard sell. “It is difficult,” said Visconti. “Only one man, one beautiful child; is not box office, you see?”
The homosexuality bothered the US producers. Bogarde recalled: “They insisted, or tried to insist, that Tadzio, the boy, should be played by a girl. This, they declared, would be far more acceptable to American audiences… Visconti heard them in a stunned silence. ‘But if I change Tadzio to a little girl, and we call her Tadzia, you seriously believe that American audiences would be prepared to accept that?’ ‘We certainly do.’ ‘You do not think in America they mind child molestation?’”
Death in Venice was filmed in 1971. Four years later, Mann’s diaries were published (two decades after his death). The diaries revealed that Mann had several intense loves with much younger men. At the age of 53 he fell in love with a 17-year-old. Although he pulled back from actual physical sex with another man.
And Mann writes about Tadzio in feminine terms. Mann frames masculine beauty in feminine terms. Tadzio is always pale, delicate, blushing, quivering, fine, elegant, white… The same language is used by Cecil Beaton in March 1967 (in his diaries) when he describes meeting The Rolling Stones in Tangier. It is Mick Jagger (then 24) who holds Beaton’s attention: “His skin is chicken breast white, and of a fine quality. He has enormous inborn elegance… He is very gentle, with perfect manners. I was fascinated with the thin concave lines of his body, legs, arms. Mouth almost too large, but he is beautiful and ugly, feminine and masculine…”
The following morning Jagger appears, at 11am, to swim: “He wore Chanel Bois de Rose. His figure, his hands and arms were incredibly feminine.”
You can frame masculine beauty in feminine terms. Maybe this is why straight men read Death in Venice. Clark’s men are more manly, even as boys. And Clark opens things out. Clark will show the horror that some adults do to some children. Yet Clark and Korine have been pushed aside (they are not as mainstream, right now, as they might be), our culture mistrusts them – compared to Death in Venice, which is read favourably for the moment.
Clark’s work is an invitation for a culture to move away from youth. I think his best images are more painful, those of young people plus guns, needles, gunshot wounds, intravenous drug use – he shows a world of pain. A world that formed the backdrop of magazine, fashion and music-business shoots for years. Because… because… well, that is another story.
Talking to Gus Van Sant in Interview magazine, Clark explained: “I’ve always said that the only reason I make my photographs is because I can’t see them anywhere else and I have a psychological need to see those images.”
It will get hotter if you work with those kinds of images. Our culture is more abuse-sensitive. Clark’s work was necessary, is necessary, because it reveals truth. Because terrible things happen to young people. So… wake up. You can’t use those images to sell your records and jeans. It’s wrong. It would be like Levi’s using pictures of war massacres to sell denim. And that is why we move to post youth. Certainly, our culture has been about adults who like youthful things, but we might find some new language for this, because “youth culture” is starting to sound a bit paedo. Don’t you think?
Thanks to Dr John Cussans, artist and academic, who came up with the “post youth” tag over lunch in north London, November 2012
by Tony Marcus