So, I gather that when you make it really huge, not only are you a superstar, but you get Annie Leibovitz (by the way, everywhere it is written Liebowitz or Leibowitz. WTF? If you are this famous, there should be no confusion. As for my own opinion, I always have to get past spelling her name like A Canticle For Leibowitz) to take your photograph. That seems like the natural course of popsuperstardom.
However, being wholly out of the loop of popdom and celebridom, I was unaware that a controversy had been stirred when the new and final season of The Sopranos was advertised by displaying some Annie Leibovitz shock and yawn. Vanity Fair ran a cover story on it, and it featured some photos, two pieces of which I will discuss below.
One is the cover:
The other is this piece of Look-At-Me-I-Am-Artwork.
First, about the artwork, I am indebted to John Coulhart for pointing out to me it is a rip of Eugene Delacroix’s The Barque of Dante. I love Dante and appreciate the boat descending into hell motif, especially for the Sopranos — but come on Annie, you are a talented artist. Don’t swipe someone else’s work. Do something original. That is the real artistic crime in this entire episode.
Now, back to the controversy. Some are mad because the cover is sexist. I suppose they preferred it when it featured a naked and pregnant Demi Moore.
Nevertheless, hear their argument. Read ArtThreat’s “Sexism Sells: Leibovitz, Vanity Fair and the Sopranos.”
Celebrated US photographer of the American elite Annie Leibovitz is no stranger to glamorizing the rich and powerful, and despite a long-term relationship with Susan Sontag – one of the best theorists and intellectual minds on political art, photography, and representations of violence and suffering, Leibovitz seems bent on shirking off the criticisms of her companion even after her death.
This month’s Vanity Fair cover is no exception, and in fact is one of Leibovitz’s most irresponsible and polluting pieces of art to date (even worse than the profit-driven series she did for mega-corp American Express back in the 80s, when celebrity photography only dominated 60 percent of magazine shelf space as opposed to today’s 90 percent). Leibovitz’s cover photo (pictured at right) of some of the cast of commercial television’s ultra-violent and culturally obtuse Sopranos is a brash ode to sexism, violence against women, and of course white male machoism. The cover is so staggeringly in your face that I watched passerby after passerby at a local drugstore for several minutes as they entered through the doors and each one practically slide to a stop as they glanced over at the magazine rack, shocked into investigating what they saw further.
The image isn’t just striking because a woman appears at first take to be completely naked, with her back to the male gaze allowing no revealing features like a face or god forbid a personality to emerge, but because she is embracing the lead from the Sopranos, who stares back at the male gaze with the look of someone who is about to do violence to another. As he sits and asserts white male power articulated by stance and especially by relation to the disempowered woman, he also has one hand around her, disturbingly clutching her flesh so vigorously it could only be described as violent.
That the woman is sexualized and even portrayed as enraptured or at the very least subordinated by his presence would be enough for Leibovitz’s dearly departed author and activist Susan Sontag to fill a book of criticism, but the sheer display of celebrated violence embodied in the white male and exacted on a sexualized female is probably enough to make Sontag turn in her grave.
Vanity Fair has stooped to an all-time low, and supplying the celebrity culture mag with regressive and devastating fodder is noneother than the great Annie Liebovitz. Next month: Ku Klux Klan members dine with Victoria Secret models!
Hmmmm. So much to work with here. The depth of degradation is KKK lingerie, apparently. Also, don’t fail to read the comments, as they make the entire page.
Let’s see, while I truly follow and support the gist of the argument, I think it strange some of the ways it is framed and I believe it also misses the mark totally.
The essay opens by attacking Leibovitz personally, especially referring to her lesbianism and stating that this is all somehow insulting to…her dead lover. Huh? More on that in a sec.
First, I love lesbians. Who doesn’t? Women love lesbians, by definition, whereas all men love lesbians unconditionally. People who have problems with lesbianism are called Evangelicals. Secondly, I don’t think the dead can talk (despite all the Victorian seances) so we can’t ask, but much more importantly, how can you say that she is insulting to someone who chose to be with her? Didn’t Sontag show her devoted love-me-long-time-ism? Or maybe they were a case proving that — gasp — opposites attract. Finally, if you want to know the real story of them, feel the depth and shock of this relationship, it has nothing to do with the mobster Vanity Fair cover, but everything to do with the entire Leibovitz exhibition, “A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005.” Read of Annie Leibovitz’s Reckless Candor.
Nevertheless, you can’t leap the logic and claim what we don’t know.
Yes, sex does indeed sell. It sells like syrup-drippled, hot-cakescrumptious women. Nude.
Which gets to the real issue. Sexism is real. The problem is those who promote it and those who consume it. The corporations which produce endless mountains of quivering sexism are at fault. The consumers who mindlessly buy said mounds are at fault. The Sopranos is a supreme example of sexism, ethnicism, crimism, cursism, and, oh yeah, violencism.
Annie Leibovitz is what you call an opportunist. She knows damn well what will earn her a paycheck. So she does it. She is merely giving the corporation what they ask for with money. She is also validly representing her subject matter. I give her kudos for trying to make it look artistic, though of course I want to bitchslap her for copying Delacroix.
Let us look at Vanity Fair. They exist solely to sell a product full of advertising for other products, in order that a network of companies makes tons of money. To stand out they love to use sex and/or spark controversy.
For example, just about a year before the Sopranos cover this was the cover.
I think Keira Knightley and Scarlett Johansson were representing the future of Hollywood talent, or something.
Here is how they covered George Clooney’s directing career:
Notice, it features a director guy surrounded by a sea of women. That is called, in the psychology of sexism studies critical terminology, a Clooney Dream. It is a male archetypical dream, of the Freudian type.
Speaking of Hollywood dreams, here is a Vanity Fair article on Jennifer Anniston.
Nothing wrong with their objectivity.
Here is a photo from a recent spread (ar-ar) on Sienna Miller, probably promoting hudism as a form of progressive promotion in the Hilton School of Advertising.
There is indeed something wrong with this picture. It sends a terrible message. I do not object to nudity, but the fact that she is smoking is disgusting and obscene in the extreme. She might as well be filmed blowing her head off by sucking on a pistol, in a stop motion sequence across two pages, with a blurb promoting the NRA and tobacco companies at the bottom.
Finally, we have an example of the completely banal side of Vanity Fair. Is is cute and innocent Keri Russell extolling the virtues of a new line of furniture, or something. Who cares? It is cuter-than-cute Keri Russell.
Enough. You get the idea. Sex has been a bestseller for quite a while.
But hey, they weren’t always using sexism as a way to promote Hollywood. Sometimes they just used Hollywood stars as a way to insult entire religions, like this decade old peice with Mike Myers as part of a writhing Hindu l(s)exicon.
Actually, that Vanity Hindu Myers picture reminds me of several important things: One, Fritz Lang. Two, Debra Paget. Three, why I need to become a hindu. Four, sexism. Five, oh hell, I am just repeating myself!
Seriously, I don’t think we should misjudge the picture. It is sexist, but it is exactly what was ordered, paid for, and what it is supposed to represent. As for the artist: all is well that pays well. The point is, artists are starving. Why doesn’t America support the arts and arts education? Then maybe they wouldn’t be forced to sell nearly pornographic crap just to make a living. Fuckers.
Speaking of which, I think I should start writing porn. Maybe that will pay for all my research and the work on some books exposing the horrors of the sex trade and the degeneration of American culture that I want to write.
Footnote: For a good article on the use of feminine art, specifically Vargas-style pinups during World War II, read Maureen Honey’s “The Varga Girl Goes to War.”