“The Swing” (above) by Jean-Honore Fragonard (1767)
There is a world of difference between the peek-a-boo pin-up of the World War II era Betty Grable and the hard-core blood-spattered porn musings of Lady Gaga, yet, right in the middle of these two landmark figures lays the body of work created by Madonna. Except for the essays of Camille Paglia, her social and cultural significance has not been seriously examined. Remarkably, after the 1990 release of the single “Justify My Love,” Paglia said of Madonna, and the video for the song: “The video is pornographic. It’s decadent. And it’s fabulous. MTV was right to ban it…it does not belong on a mainstream music channel watched around the clock by children…Through her enormous impact on young women around the world, Madonna is the future of feminism.” Now, the insight of Paglia is both far-sighted and dated. On a individual level, as boy a who came of age during the rise of Madonna on the global stage, I can testify that not one person whom I met in the porn industry, male and female, or in the gay lifestyle, were not singularly influenced by her. She revolutionized the American pop-concept of sex: from straight, gay, and bisexual to where demarcations had no power. As in the video for “Justify My Love” she was completely fluid: going from one hotel room to another; from a man, to a woman, and back to a man. It was mesmerizing to watch. And, for children and teens, who grew up as survivors of childhood trauma, became unsure about their sexuality, or were corrupted by porn – her seeming ease at maneuvering through the intricacies of modern sexual life became a model for the lost and confounded.
Only, this does not fully explain her impact. For that, I need to travel back to pre-revolutionary 18th Century France. There, with the paintings of Boucher and Fragonard, we see the emergence of pornographic imagery that was no longer solely relegated to the bathhouses and back-allies. The works by these two artists are incredibly charged with eroticism, yet, brilliantly achieved. They remain as quintessential masterpieces of the Rocco. What prevents them from falling into pornography is the subtly at which they approach the sensual. The direct inheritors of this style were the later Art Nouveau and Art Deco Movements, which in-turn greatly influenced the Golden Age of Hollywood. It is from this milieu that the famous Grable image came into being. Furthermore, these same glamour movie photos and pin-ups from the 1930s and 40s, especially by the astounding George Hurrell, would later have an enormous effect on Madonna. This is most clearly seen in her video for “Vogue.” But, what Madonna so successfully accomplished was to appropriate genuine artistic genius into a pornographic framework: therefore, enticing with a real illusion of beauty, and then imprisoning the viewer within a deviant mind-set. Yet, what Madonna started – has continued, but endlessly slides further into pornography and decadence. This happened: because those who came after her lack both education, insight, and vision. Like Madonna: they co-opt earlier imagery, but have nowhere else to go. It’s been done. With nothing left, they desperately exist in swirl of self-immolation; they have to literally set themselves on fire in order to get attention.
In 1990, Madonna could still get banned on MTV. Now, there is nothing more to see. What Madonna started, Lady Gaga crassly completed: the full fusion of pop-culture and pornography. Since then, everything has lost its meaning. Madonna could shock a world that had only “Playboy,” “Hustler,” and X-rated videos cassettes to titillate. We now live in a universe where every fetish and perversity is easily and quickly available in the public-square: the internet. Pop is porn and porn is pop. Porn-stars walk the red carpet, while Gaga goes about topless, and bottomless, on stage: illuminated by the flashes of the paparazzi. Instantly, the world sees. Oftentimes, it doesn’t cause a still, for; a click-away is bondage, bestiality, and child-porn. Everyone has lost their innocence, and their sense of wonder. Madonna took art and turned it into porn. Lady Gaga tries to take porn and turn it back into art. It doesn’t work. Only, she can’t see what art is. In an interview she said, after recounting childhood stories of physical abuse by older boys and name-calling by other girls, when the spotlight is not on: “I don’t know who I am.” She is too wounded and fractured to create art; all she can do is porn. So goes the world.