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Germaine Greer’s synopsis of pubescent males in art is flawed, but fun

Beautiful boys—now available for women, too

Germaine Greer’s first attempt to provoke readers of The boy, her erudite and cheeky celebration of youthful male beauty, comes before she has said a word, with a teasing invitation to judge her book by its cover. This reproduces David Bailey’s famous 1970 photograph of Bjorn Andresen, the androgynous young star of Visconti’s film “Death in Venice”—pictured here with tousled hair and the naturally airbrushed features of youth—who was once described as the most beautiful boy in the world. Like the Thomas Mann novella on which it is based, Visconti’s film took pains to emphasise that this boy represented Love rather than a potential lover. The final scene, in particular, during which Andresen stands backlit by the ocean, his limbs arranged in the pose of a Greek statue, tried to make it clear that he should be seen as a youthful ideal rather than a piece of jailbait. But this has not prevented many viewers, gay and straight, from wondering uneasily at what point their admiration shaded into desire, and so from grappling ruefully with the paradox that innocence can only be truly appreciated by those who no longer possess it.

As Dr Greer points out in her preamble, one of the key problems with such images is that they have traditionally been made by men for other men, whereas women too—Sally Mann as well as Thomas Mann—enjoy the complex pleasures of works of art in which “the compellingly evanescent charm of boyhood can be preserved against the ravages of time”.

For Dr Greer, there is something of emblematic significance in the fact that the first painting by a woman to have been purchased by a British national collection, Anna Lee Merritt’s “Love locked out” (1890), shows a naked young boy pressing against a locked door. Dr Greer’s aim, it seems, is to re-open this door, in chapters which range from the stiff-limbed stillness of Greek kouroi to the lisping glamour of David Beckham, and from the physical attitudes of boys in art to the many possible attitudes, not all equally disinterested, that a viewer might have towards these boys.

One of the advantages of Dr Greer’s method, in which images from many different periods and traditions are brought together into thematic chapters, such as “Play boys” or “Servant boys”, is that continuities can be traced and unexpected alliances formed: ephebes and rock gods; Surma warriors and Bing Crosby; the limitations of puppy love that can be discreetly signalled in paintings by including a dog, gazing adoringly and patiently at its young master, as an image of the kinds of love that survive beauty’s slow but sure collapse.

The same method also produces, however, some wrinkles in Dr Greer’s argument. One central problem involves what is meant by “a boy”, because although the first chapter begins in typically no-nonsense fashion, “A boy is a male person who is no longer a child but not yet a man”, many of Dr Greer’s examples demonstrate that these categories are more a matter of cultural perception than they are of chronology. Some seem to be merely a matter of personal taste; thus, her own roll-call of modern “boys” who have failed to grow up includes older and hairier stars than one might expect: Freddie Mercury rather than Michael Jackson, for example, presumably on the understanding that the only stars who are truly immune from the vicissitudes of age are the dead ones.

Nor is Dr Greer’s argument strengthened by her tendency to exaggerate (the fact that more young men than young women attempt suicide does not justify the wild claim that “A male teenager is more likely to attempt suicide than not”), and a knack for all-purpose generalisations (“The 19th century denied women any active interest in sex”) that flatten out the very contours of history she is trying to map. And it is especially unfortunate that she repeatedly uses the phrase “boy-lover” to mean “toy-boy”, seemingly in all innocence, when this is also the phrase used by modern paedophiles to characterise and excuse their far seedier response to young male flesh.

And yet, the odd thing is that, although she is better at picking fights than constructing arguments, none of Dr Greer’s occasional lapses stifles the frisky playfulness of her book as whole. Indeed, one might argue that the weak spots of The boy actually show how closely in contact with her subject Dr Greer truly is. In its puckish, show-off charm, its refusal to take anything for granted, even the unselfconsciousness of its own beauty, Dr Greer has managed to produce a book that is itself distinctly boyish. For all her self-knowing asides about Colette’s Léa, who “has survived menopause and become a bluff and hearty but entirely sexless being”, Dr Greer’s title seems to offer more than a description of her main subject. It also characterises the polymorphous appeal of her way of looking at it.

o Germane Greer, The boy (Thames & Hudson, London, 2003), 256 pp, 129 b/w ills, 177 col. ills, £29.95 (hb) ISBN 050023809X

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 141 November 2003