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Tuesday, November 08, 2005
Objectifying Men: The Master
So, you can't really talk about objectifying men, viewing them solely as sex objects, without talking about Tom of Finland. Oh sure, there were plenty of erotic artists before Tom, but he's probably had more of a cultural impact than any other purveyor of pornography save Hugh Hefner.
And whatever you do, don't mistake this work for anything other than what it is. It's porn. It is intended to arouse sexual desire and to cause impure, dirty thoughts. That is something that the artist himself was always keenly aware of, and in fact strived for. His work was so successful, in fact, that we partly have him to thank for many of the gay "looks" that we have today. If nothing else, it's doubtful the gay biker/leather look would be quite as distinctive as it is without Tom's drawings on the subject.
But the other thing that made Tom of Finland's work stand out, and one of the reasons why it's still popular today and has had such a cultural impact is that Tom's men are happy. They're thoroughly enjoying themselves, whatever they're doing, they're always smiling. And in contrast to much other early gay porn, there is a strong emphasis on tenderness and affection in the work. Tom's men don't just fuck and suck and part. No, they kiss and caress and embrace and when they do leave it's smiling at one another. It is a thoroughly positive and upbeat portrayal of gay men and gay sex.
Taschen has two books, both released recently, that provide a good overview of Tom of Finland's work. The first, Tom of Finland: The Art of Pleasure, is a retrospective of his work, divided up by decade. In it you can see the evolution of "the look" Tom strove for. The book starts out with muscular, but not too muscular, young men, not dissimilar from the models appearing in the physique magazines the drawings appeared in, eventually aging and gaining muscle, as well as more stylized dress, until by the late seventies and early eighties you come to the familiar looking "daddy" types Tom is best know for today. The book is exhaustive and well-designed, and provides an excellent introduction to the artist and his work.
The other book Taschen released is actually five. Tom of Finland: The Comic Collection is a tiny little box set collecting in five volumes the more or less complete comic book style stories Tom drew. Just about all of the adventures of Tom's gay everyman, Kake, are represented, as well as several other stories, including all three of Tom's Jack stories, a gay take on a Tarzan character. The box set is also beautifully designed, but it is a bit frustrating to see the art shrunk down to a small format, especially when the stories were originally printed in magazine-size comic books. Conspicuously absent are all of the early Tom "panel stories," from the days when his work appeared mostly in illustration form in physique magazines. Some of those stories are reprinted in The Art of Pleasure, and most are short enough that it seems odd that room couldn't be found for any of them in this set. Those objections aside, this is actually my favorite of the two books, as reading the collected stories in comic book format is great fun.