In a previous article, I outlined a pattern of masculine representation in male body-based practice called muscular masculinity. So as not to risk repeating the content here I'll only offer a brief outline as to what this constitutes. Muscular Masculinity is the hyperbolic performance of hegemonic masculine norms, however unlike examples of hypermasculinity, it is performed with the view of destabilising normativity. Muscular Masculinity then can be summed up as postructuralist turn where normative masculinity is turned against itself in order to demonstrate its ability to be fluid.
In Time magazine, published in 1949, a strapline asks whether Jackson Pollock is the boldest living artist in the United States. Above this, he stands leaning against his most extensive work, #9, an 18-foot long action painting. At 37 years old he stands nonchalantly, with little a bit of a “what-the-fuck” worldly attitude. He’s wearing his paint splattered blue overalls, black boots, and his bulky arms and legs are crossed. There’s a cigarette hanging from the left corner of his mouth. Whilst not moving he appears to be actively in thought, and looks just to the right, never acknowledging his audience.
What’s interesting about this image, is the thematic similarities it has with other images of Jackson Pollock. He always has the same expression, pensive, stern, and slightly aggressive. He’s always active, usually he’s photographed on his own in his studio, surrounded by objects, with his massive canvases on the floor, always in action, always athletic, dribbling and flinging house paint from trowels or sticks on to his passive surfaces.
Jackson Pollock a product of 1950s America
These images are not indicative of an individual though, they are to generic for that, rather they are of "Jackson Pollock", a cultural product of 1950s America. They draw upon representations from tropes of American manhood codified in the post-World War II period. Anxieties about masculinity were prevalent during this time, particularly as America’s entry into World War II, eight years earlier, forced men to conscript, which left holes in work forces back at home.
In order to fill these gaps women took on roles that had been traditionally prescribed for men, in factories and running industries. In 1941 Norman Rockwell captured the moment in history where many American men were absent from their home country. He created Rosie the Riveter, an image of a factory woman on her lunch break, her rivet gun on her lap, with the American flag as her backdrop.
What’s striking about this image is its similarity to Pollock’s own photographic representations. There is a masculinisation of her body, she’s wearing similar blue overalls, her arms are bulky, her face is stern, sweaty and greasy from her work, and she’s looking off to the left, disinterested in her potential audience’s gaze.
The gaps that Rosie fills then are not just in the work force, but also in the social roles of men at that time. She’s physically strong, she's independent, she’s not scared of hardwork, and she’s the breadwinner. However those gaps that need filling are also metaphorical, that rivet gun lying across her groin looks suspiciously like a penis, and deep in thought she appears to be calm and in control at a time of much upheaval.
At this moment in history, Rosie demonstrates that masculinity is starting to become dislodged from the male body. Whilst this seemed to be ignored upon the backdrop of extreme violence, where men became heroes, inevitably once they started to return home it became a problem. After the war, towards the beginning of the 1950s, media attention was drawn to the effiminisation of men, and through this it became clear that strength, independence and control were no longer the domain of the male (Jones 1998, pp. 78). As such, as well as signifying the normative traits of masculinity, Pollock’s visual representation also signified the anxiety of the male subject in American society at that time.
Jackson Pollock a Legacy for Muscular Masculinity
In response to this I propose that Pollock has left a legacy, one that can be traced through a variety of different types of male body-based practice through the late 20th to the early 21st Century. These practitioners demonstrate normative masculine traits, characteristics and behaviours in their work. However, like Pollock’s own representations, in enforcing contemporary cultural ideological assumptions about men or masculinity, they also destabilise them. I call this Muscular Masculinity.
Jones, A. (1998). Body Art/Performing the Subject. University of Minnesota Press