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From invisible to funny, and abusive to bewildering, there are spades of words used to talk about dick pics. Yes, the ‘cheeky’ snaps boys take of their willies to send to other people — usually unsolicited, typically unwelcome. But as well as being an evergreen talisman of garish lad culture, unwanted dick pics are expressions of entitlement. That you, whether you like it or not, have my penis in your face.
Like any reality of modern life, dick pics have also been the subject of a few artistic ventures: some sarcastic, some trying to disarm the bad intent with humour, and others cleverly critical. But how can we understand these multifarious readings of dick pics? How, really, can we go away with an enlightened critical view on this whole fleshy mess?
When it comes to art, meaning and beauty exists almost exclusively through the critical lens of the viewer’s experience. If you’ve been privileged enough to receive dick pics and feel them unthreatening, you’re more likely to think they’re funny. If you’re anywhere other than that position (aside from being the sender), it’s likely they’ll make you anywhere from uncomfortable, to dirty, to afraid. Only with dick pics, there’s the troublesome layer of male privilege, that I’m unconvinced humour (thus far, at least) plays a strong role in eroding.
Here I’ve explored three readings of dick pics through art, to try and get a handle on what, really, their resonance is in discussions of power and inequality. Shall we?
Image: Dicture Gallery Tumblr
Photographer Soraya Doolbaz takes dicks and puts clothes on them. By that I mean she dresses them up in character, and names them after said character using a penis-related pun. Meet Napoleon Boner Parte, or glance up at Donye West, a.k.a “Cockeezy”, through the slits in his signature shades. On display in her New York Dicture Gallery, Doolbaz’ dicks have been called ‘charming’. She calls her work “an artistic take on an otherwise alluring modern dating tactic.” Her goal? To make people laugh, as well as help them feel comfortable with sex and their sexuality. Dicks, she says are something all men should be proud of — regardless of shape or size. Her ‘dick revolution’ hopes to make acceptable the liberal celebration of peen that dick picks could be.
Yes, it is valid to consider penii as sexual objects that are also things of beauty. They’re part of the human form, and in a very high-art kind of way, are artistic expressions of the naked human body that are beautiful in their organic state. But when you step outside of this warm and cosy theoretical bubble, there’s reality. A reality where sexual harassment is rife, and male entitlement vis-à-vis the patriarchy is a pervading social norm. A dick pic cannot be considered in isolation to these things: they perpertrate and colour it’s existence as a thing of callousness, of bullying, of self-importance. Doolbaz’ bright reading of these pics seems watery: an awful lot like the cries of women scared of the label ‘feminist’ because it means they won’t be liked, but dabbling in relevant topics anyway to pay lip service to the sisterhood.
Humour, here, is self-serving. Doolbaz’ dick pics seem good-humoured, and there’s an argument that by clothing them she’s subverting their control over the situation. This is a valid element to her work, but overall her pictures seek to be funny in a way that’s not challenging. They nods towards the social connotations of what’s going on but brands them in a way that is palatable, and affirms mainstream sentiment. Free the peen? Please.
Image credit: VICE, image courtesy of Whitney Bell
Whitney Bell’s LA show I didn’t ask for this: a lifetime of dick pics takes a different, much more critical spin on the unsolicited dick pic situation. Her dicks are things of silent menace: things unwanted and unwarranted, that have pushed their way into her personal space and lingered there. At once invisible and omnipresent.
Spread across a recreation of her home, Bell has hung about 200 uncalled-for dick pics. She seeks to break down the ‘safe’ anonymity shielding those who send them: they’re doing it “because [they] can”, she tells Vice. This makes perfect sense: it’s hard to imagine a guy sending a dick pic with the intention of romantically wooing someone into agreeing to a lovely meal for two. These men, Bell reminds us, “have never had anyone call them out on their abusive, harassing behaviour before. They feel like there are no consequences. Now I’m trying to show maybe there are”.
It’s brave and frank, and above all, perfectly honest. When you’re on the unwilling receiving end of a dick pic, you have no choice but to see it. It’s in your face and memory, put there by a particular kind of aggression that also includes a wee bit of enjoyment. Bell’s work is poignant, with it’s strongest point at the focus it places on presence. Dick pics are essentially data: seen once then (usually) deleted, but hidden somewhere in the recesses of the mind, with a lasting, threatening echo. A faceless bully, bothering you for the sake of it. In this reading, it’s not the dicks themselves that are bad — it’s the act of harassment that presents them in this context.
Image credit:Critique my Dick Pic Tumblr
Our last artist is really more of a critic, but in her or his (in response to the question “are you a man or a woman?” on their site, the author replies, “does it matter?”) work, they run a Tumblr that critically evaluates people’s dick pics. Not on the dick itself, because as they so aptly put it, “that’s not my scene sorry; I think these is enough negative scrutiny on bodies in our culture so I critique the picture quality, not the actual dick”. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.
Our hero valiantly analyses the compositional aspects of the photos, such as placement of figure (“…[this picture] would be drastically improved by the addition of some non-dick body parts, such as your thighs and torso…”), backdrop, lighting, and attention to detail (“I understand the appeal of simplicity, but I can’t help but feel that this would be a next-level dick pic with some interaction of your hands…”).
This approach seeks to offset the ugly intent behind dick pics by treating them exclusively as aspirational objects of art, which are subjected to good and proper critical evaluation. As these pics vy for a high grade, their intent changes from one that’s aggressive to one that’s seeking approval. It’s a way of rapping said intent into line, and reminding us all of the semantic power innate to the process of making pictures, power, and ownership. We make pictures so that other people will see them: what makes us sure it’s a ‘good’ picture, that it will incite a certain response in the viewer? Our anonymous author’s critical lens is terrific here, and changes the rules of power and representation in a way that lets us see what a dick pic looks like when stripped of its laddish sheen.
But is it art?
Anything, and everything, can be art if presented in the relevant critical context. Dicks are a relevant, and obvious subject for art: they are defining features of people, who understand and make art in relation to their own subjectivity. Our artists today have shown that through different readings of a socially threatening object, we can both shift power and pose essential questions; draw awareness to social issues and speak up in support of fair retribution. These readings can also be frivolous and self-serving, which we can take as a kind of mirror to see what it means to create takes on tough topics with the intent of pleasing the masses.