Can no nudes really be good news for Hugh Hefner's ailing 'Playboy'
As the magazine covers up its models amid dropping sales, Stephen Bayley laments the decline of an iconic brand
Published 18/10/2015 | 02:30
I very much enjoy images of beautiful, naked women. Titian and Rubens, of course. The sometimes transgressive Klimt and Schiele. And Playboy, too.
Tom Kelley's centrefold of Marilyn Monroe in the first edition of September 1953 is one of the history of art's great female images. If any blue-nosed puritan or shrieking feminist disagrees, I'd be happy to debate how it compares to Ingres.
But now Playboy's nudes are taking their place in history with the Old Masters. Which is to say, they are no more. Defeated by the carnival of sordid or violent internet porn that succeeded it, Playboy - its circulation and credibility in decline - has announced that it will no longer publish nudes. That's a desperate measure to get immediate access to social media, but the eventual fate of the title is inevitable. I think something valuable will have been lost.
At school in the library, all oak panels and stained glass, we used to "read" Playboy surreptitiously wrapped in The Economist to dignify our puerile voyeurism. Now that money has replaced sex as our chief preoccupation, that subterfuge would today be reversed. The conservative, genteel Playboy might disguise The Economist, a paper that deals in real-world venery, dirty politics and lust of a coarsely material sort.
Playboy was always exceptionally decent. Hugh Hefner was helped by a start-up loan from his mother, not Satan.
And Playboy had an impeccable record of literary publishing. Ray Bradbury's epochal Fahrenheit 451 was serialised in 1954 and the magazine hosted Vladimir Nabokov, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, PG Wodehouse, Kurt Vonnegut, Doris Lessing, John Le Carre and John Updike - not at all a shabby list. Presumably, they did not think of themselves as slumming it.
Photographers at work on Playboy included Helmut Newton, Herb Ritts and Annie Leibovitz. The magazine interviewed major political figures, including Martin Luther King and President Carter. It was the latter who mournfully explained in 1976 that he had "committed adultery in my heart many times". I think he must have meant "head", because the big truth about erotica is that the real action takes place above the collar, not below the belt. Hence, Playboy's late decision to cover up its nudes does very little to defuse eroticism.
In the contest between concealment and display, concealment is almost always more sexy: this is why classic Playboy nudes are actually so deliciously chaste.
There were critics. In 1963, Gloria Steinem published 'A Bunny's Tale', exposing the dehumanisation of Playboy's working women. Less sophisticated feminists ritually damned the magazine's nudes for "obectifying" females, which is just another way of saying that what Playboy did was perfect their image. What you are looking at in a nude centrefold of the Sixties and Seventies, with big hair, clear eyes, perfect skin, airbrushed flesh, serious make-up and an engagingly vacant smile with no hint of lubricity, is the exact equivalent of an American dream kitchen: something designed as a slick package to be enjoyed. Before any feminist accuses me of debasing womankind by equivalence with a waste-disposal unit, that is not my point at all. It is simply that, at its peak, American civilisation wanted everything to appear squeakily clean and plastically perfect. It is idealism, not sexism. Realism has its place, but not in the imagination.
You'd be stupid to deny it was all a fiction, but why is fiction a bad thing? So much of Playboy culture was a harmless dream world.
Hugh Hefner's calling card was a striking black DC-9 with Art Paul's "bunny" logogram painted on the tail. Except it wasn't a calling card at all, it was a presentational device. With great artifice, Hefner had chartered the plane, painted it for the photoshoot, and the world's media dutifully reported that Playboy had acquired an aviation division.
On the ground, Playboy elevated "low" culture into something rather finer.
In 1960, the architectural historian Reyner Banham published an article entitled 'I'd crawl a mile for... Playboy' drawing attention to its dignified typography and layout. Playboy championed great designers including Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen. And in 1966, London's Playboy Club opened at 45 Park Lane. Two years later, tracking the Zeitgeist, the club hosted the wedding reception of Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. The Playboy Club building, in one of the great and glorious incongruities of architectural history, was designed by the austere Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus. It was one of the great man's last buildings, and it amused him to say so.
Which is more damaging to the women's cause, the highly conceptualised and meticulously edited Playboy, or the atrociously lively and totally amoral internet?
True, Playboy venerated a simplistic and limiting idea of womanhood, but it was never unkind.
Pornography involves violence and coercion: there was none of that here.
Internet porn is a poor replacement for a magazine that sponsored literature and art. Playboy taught those with eyes to see that the world should be full of pleasure and great writing.