Ana Ghetu comments on the relationship between art, political commentary and sensationalism in Allen Jones’ work
Allen Jones is more than just another name in pop art. He is one of the most controversial artists to have emerged in the late 20th century, with his unorthodox oeuvre having gone down into art history and originating fiery cultural and feminist debates. 28 years after he was titled ‘Royal Academician’, Jones has his work on display again in a retrospective at the Royal Academy.
There remains the question as to whether they still provoke the same type of vehement and divided reactions that they did when they were first displayed in 1969? While this time around the sculptures may not have been attacked with acid or stink bombs, it seems that the answer is still yes: his pieces, sculptures in particular, have withstood the test of time and remain as fresh and inflammatory as ever.
The Royal Academy exhibition charts over five decades of Allen Jones’ work within six different rooms, and includes oil paintings, drawings from his early Royal College days, sculptures and sculptural maquettes. The British artist identifies himself as being more of a painter than a sculptor, but it was his sexually charged sculptures that have taken the art world by storm.
The real impact Allen Jones has had over the cultural masses inevitably questions the potential role of the artist as a political activist
Hat Stand, Table, and Chair are three sculptures, found in the exhibition, which depict women in a blatantly erotic and fetishist manner. Life-sized female models are transformed into objects (literally, a hat stand, table and chair), or the forniphilia ideal. They are all dressed provocatively in corsets and leather boots, wearing lewd fake lashes and displaying sexually submissive poses.
Commonly, one finds that Allen Jones’ name tends to divide audiences into two camps – there are those who believe that he objectifies women and is a highly offensive pseudo-artist, and those who think that his work purposefully aims to be ironic and in fact has heavily feminist connotations. There is little doubt that his sculptures provoke certain responses within the audience; upon first being displayed at the Institute of Contemporary Arts they were met with strong protests and vilified by a great number of people who considered the exhibition an abomination and an offensive display of the female model. Indeed, many people find that looking at Jones’ sculptures evokes an immediate, perhaps instinctual, reaction of repulsion and disgust. Contemporary art critic David Lee voiced an all-too-common response to Jones in saying it made him feel ‘uneasy and squeamish’, calling it ‘sleazy’, and concluding that it is ‘fairly superficial’.
It is perhaps too tempting to turn to such a conclusion when a piece of art is so provocative. This can have the undesired effect of distancing the public from the artwork, leaving the impression that it is simply distasteful and overall making it difficult for the audience to connect with the artist’s creative output or intention, if it exists. It can be argued that Jones’ sculptures function to overtly display the grotesque precisely so we could recognise it, and be more critical of it, in naturalistic everyday settings where women are grossly and unnaturally sexualised.
But then, does his work altogether fail because it is too outrageous to be met with a critical mind? If this is the case, then it risks becoming just another object in a world heavily reminded of the woman as a sexualised item, not different from a billboard strategically displaying a scantily-clothed woman for advertising and marketing purposes.
On the other hand, it would be plausible to consider that Jones presents us with a self-evident hyperbole which is ultimately an ironic, pro-feminist commentary on the position of the woman within society. His work, in these terms, is a political commentary, is consistent with feminist debates, and should fill its merited role within the feminist endeavour to cease unnatural sexualisation of women. Jones himself, in response to the attack against him, has claimed that ‘Woman as an Armchair’ was actually a protest against sexism, and has further labelled himself a ‘feminist’.
The extent to which he succeeded to protest against sexism or merely managed to permeate prejudices is of course debatable; but as any other artwork which possesses a certain shock value, it has the capacity to shake us out of norms that are artificial, and challenges us not to grow complacent and inflexible in our ideologies – so we should perhaps be grateful to Jones.
Finally, it should be mentioned that there are dangers in over-interpreting any piece of art, particularly from specific political, historical, or technical viewpoints. Allen Jones is an artist first and foremost, and as he states: ‘As an artist, I have a responsibility to art’. But the real impact Allen Jones has had over the cultural masses inevitably questions the potential role of the artist as a political activist. In artworks that have as many implications for the wider social sphere as Jones’ sculptures do, would his argument of the artwork coming first still remain valid, or is political involvement of the artist, the ‘provocative’ one especially, inadvertent? Art historian Lisa Tickner proposed a valid argument in remarking that ‘the exploitation of already exploitative material cannot be seen as politically neutral’ (1979).
Ultimately, the Royal Academy exhibition isn’t one to be missed. Whatever answers can be found to the above questions remain highly dependent on any one individual’s personal interpretation, and to their subjective experience of the world (oftentimes as a man/ woman). However, whatever your gender or feminist standing, do expect to be challenged – Jones cannot be said to be the type of artist to evoke disinterested art appreciation.
Allen Jones is on view at the Royal Academy of Arts through to January 25, 2015.
6 Burlington Gardens, London W1S 3ET; Open Daily 10am – 6pm (10 pm Friday); Admission: Students £8
Featured image credit: ‘Table’ by Allen Jones, photo by Toni