Friday 30 September 2016

Internet porn is a poor replacement for 'Playboy', a magazine that sponsored great writing and art

Stephen Bayley

Published 17/10/2015 | 02:30

Shelf life: Playboy has been on the Irish top shelves for 20 years
Shelf life: Playboy has been on the Irish top shelves for 20 years

I very much enjoy images of beautiful, naked women. Titian and Rubens, of course. Renoir less so, a little saccharine for my taste. The sometimes transgressive Klimt and Schiele, naturally.

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'Playboy', too. Tom Kelley's famous centrefold of Marilyn Monroe in the magazine's 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 appalling carnival of sordid or violent internet porn that succeeded it, 'Playboy', its circulation and credibility in terminal decline, 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, we used to "read" Playboy surreptitiously wrapped in the covers of '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 and genteel 'Playboy' might disguise our reading 'The Economist', a paper that lasciviously deals in real-world venery.

'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, at various times, 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 themselves slumming.

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 03: Stephen Bayley attends the Walpole British Luxury Awards 2014 at the Victoria & Albert museum on November 3, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 03: Stephen Bayley attends the Walpole British Luxury Awards 2014 at the Victoria & Albert museum on November 3, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)

Photographers at work on 'Playboy' included Helmut Newton, Herb Ritts and Annie Leibovitz. The magazine interviewed major political figures including Martin Luther King and US President Jimmy 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 "objectifying" females, which is just another way of saying what 'Playboy' did was to perfect their image. What you are looking at in a nude centrefold of the 1960s and '70s - with big hair, clear eyes, perfect skin, airbrushed flesh and an engagingly vacant smile with no hint of lubricity - is the exact equivalent of an automated 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.

On the ground, 'Playboy' elevated "low" culture into something rather finer. In 1960, the architectural historian Reyner Banham published an article called '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.

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. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Stephen Bayley is a design and cultural critic and journalist

Irish Independent

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