The State News recently published a story about a retiring photography professor, Professor Danny Guthrie and his latest project photographing himself with his current and former students as well as his colleagues. In the article, he explained that the purpose of the project as a whole was to explore the boundaries of human sexuality.
Linked to the article were six specific photos that were on the MSU Department of Art and Art History website. Guthrie specifically comments on these photos, “(The photographs are) about my loss of youth and impending doom,” he said. “Once you give up when you get older, you don’t live in a sexual arena anymore.” This quote, however, did not protect him from attacks from faculty as well as students — specifically Mitch Goldsmith, who wrote a scathing column painting Guthrie as a sick older professor exploiting his students — somehow intimidating or forcing his female students to pose with him.
The absurdity of this article reflects the stigma our society has placed on nudity. Although the original article states the project as a whole was meant to explore the “boundaries of human sexuality,” this project was done with his current and former students as well as his colleagues. They were not all females, and they were not all his inferiors; therefore, many of them would not be affected at all if they blatantly refused to participate.
Furthermore, it is sad that because there is female nudity involved, the professor must be attacked as a misogynist and pornographer. Guthrie explains the purpose behind the art clearly, but it seems to fall on many deaf ears.
Pornography is defined as obscene writings, drawings, photographs or the like, especially those having little or no artistic merit. Goldsmith’s interpretation is so skewed it is obvious he disregarded Guthrie’s explanation and the photographs’ artistic value. In Goldsmith’s column, he connects the images of the women appearing to be unconscious or dead with an obvious indication that these pictures “depict patriarchal sexual relations dating back millennia … the triumph of masculinity over the feminine.”
In a dogmatic opinion, Goldsmith dismisses any other possibility of meaning behind the pictures, despite the fact Guthrie made it clear his pictures with the women were not sexual, saying that he was past the sexual arena. What is far more likely to be the real meaning is what Guthrie said, that they represented his lost youth and impending doom.
Because so many people are quick to point to any interaction between a male and a nude female as sexual, granted, that often is a perfectly valid response; it is often lost on people the beauty of the female body beyond a sexual lust. Because women so often are objectified and displayed as sexual beings, it can be easy to forget that they are commonly referred to as the fairer sex.
Guthrie, as an artist, understands that a way to show his lost youth is to show a flawless, beautiful female and juxtapose her with himself, an elderly man who, bluntly put, is not young and beautiful.
The fact Guthrie has been so harshly criticized is a shame. I would be the first person calling for his suspension, dismissal or arrest if any of the students in question came forward with complaints of abuse or harassment.
Without question, a man, especially an older man with power, exploiting students for his own purpose is unacceptable. However, that is not the case here. These women were willing, and as the original article explains, excited to be photographed, as many of them took the class because of the stories about Guthrie’s work.
Art is in the eye of the beholder, so Goldsmith’s interpretation — as wrong as it is — could be acceptable because he is entitled to his opinion. It is only when he expresses it in such a narrow-minded, attacking fashion that it become invalid. I am open to the possibility people might disagree with me; perhaps some believe Guthrie’s art is tasteless, and perhaps others will disagree with my opinion on what is beautiful and what is not regarding humans.
But the important thing is to be open to other opinions. Only when people become closed-off and accept their interpretation as fact do they become ignorant.
Although Goldsmith switches his tune near the end of his article from a lambast of Guthrie’s work to a plea for women, his point remains the same.
In his supposed stand for women’s rights and his interpretation of the photographs, Goldsmith’s article is counterproductive. By presuming to know more as a student than a seasoned professor, calling the art pornography and speaking on behalf of women, Goldsmith does the opposite of helping women. Instead, he points to these women as unwilling porn stars unable to stand up for themselves.
This does not help the women or what the women stand for; instead, it makes them look helpless. Goldsmith connecting this art to pornography is more than just a misinterpretation. It is libel; it is a defamation of character.
Jameson Joyce is a State News guest columnist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.