One of the greatest female art directors, and her double-ended dildo.
For International Women’s Day 2023, I want to talk about dicks. The kind of dicks that women possess which do not refer to, originate from or return to the male-body.Arist Lynda Benglis’ double-ended dick in particular. I would show you this dick, but even with “safe search” off a full version of it does not appear on the censored internet.
Benglis is an American sculptor, who caused a controversy when she placed an advertisment in the November 1974 issue of Artforum magazine. Benglis' ad featured a self-portrait holding a dual-ended dildo between her legs. This ad caused a huge controversy. Was it advertising? Was it art? Was it porn? The artist’s intention was for it to be all and none of those things. Mostly it was a joke, but almost fifty years later it’s still widely discussed. And, I think it’s the best ad that isn’t taught in ad school.
Benglis' double-page spread challenges notions of the female body in visual culture. For centuries, the female body has been objectified in art, often for the pleasure of male viewers. Advertising is of course no different. One prominent critique of the marketing industry is that edited images cause women with normal bodies to have self esteem issues. Benglis' ad was a subversion of these patriarchal traditions, and of the masculine body itself. By using her body as a canvas, Benglis took control of her own image and poked fun at the phallus. While the patriarchy places importance on the symbolism of having a dick, this ad shows that dicks are not only ‘abundant and low value’, but available to anyone wishing to purchase one.
Two of the editors of Artforum were so scandalised by the image that they left the magazine, arguing that it had no place in the art magazine.Of course Artforum had published many naked women before, but when men paint / draw/ sculpt / photograph the female form it’s classed as “nude” (high culture) and when women show their own form its “naked” (low culture). I’ll probably expand on this stupid distinction (invented by male art historians like Kenneth Clarke) in other posts. But, what I’m particularly interested in here is how Benglis used Artforum's platform to challenge the traditional view of what mediums art could take.
By paying to have her image in the magazine, Benglis was highlighting how artists often have to resort to advertising for exposure. Back then magazine ads, taken out by big galleries, helped build artists’ profiles. These days artists rely on social media to build personal brands and promote their work. In this sense, Benglis' ad was ahead of its time, as it challenged the art world to think about the role of advertising in the making of an artist’s success.
Male artists such as Simon Linke and Jeff Koons have all followed in Benglis’ tradition of taking out magazine ads as part of their practise. In Art in the Age of Mass Media, John A. Walker has a chapter on artists using print ads, billboards and commercial posters as mediums.However this review of art in mass media, mostly in the 1980-90s, fails to mentioned Benglis as a pioneer in this tradition. Perhaps, the author and editors felt a naked woman would distract from the chapter’s focus on advertising as an artistic medium. But then again, this made it to publishing…
Benglis' ad has inspired countless artists to push the boundaries of what is considered art, and countless more art historians to imbue the image with meaning. Weirdly, the hotness of this image has caused an unintentional censorship of itself in university libraries. Students, from 1974 onwards, have ripped this page out of copies of Artforum. Perhaps at first people did it for personal use (there is no denying that Bengalis’ then-33 year old body fits most conventional beauty standards), but later for the aurora of the infamous work. Ana Cecilia Alvarez notes that it has become a ‘rite of passage in art schools’ to check if Benglis is still in the November 1974 issue of the magazine.
By blurring the boundaries between the art and advertising, Benglis highlighted the commercialisation of the art world and the importance of artists taking control of their own image. It’s the kind of art / ad I like, not because its political stance but because it’s silly. Reflecting on it forty years later Benglas said ‘I thought it was funny that the reaction was so strong’.Although this work is mostly critiqued within the discourse of gender, sexuality and women's art, it would not be as infamous as it is if it wasn't published as an ad. Frankly, it should be taught in ad schools.
Want to see it?
Okay fine, here’s one I ripped out for you:
Lynda Hart, ‘That Was Then: This Is Now: Ex-Changing the Phallus’, Postmodern Culure, 4.1 (1993) <http://pmc.iath.virginia.edu/text-only/issue.993/hart.993>.
To quote Madeline Holden, ‘Dick is abundant and low value’, ‘Dick Picky’, The New Inquiry, 2014 <https://thenewinquiry.com/dick-picky/>.
Roberta Smith, ‘Art or Ad or What? It Caused a Lot of Fuss’, The New York Times, 24 July 2009, section Arts <https://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/25/arts/design/25benglis.html>.
John A. Walker, Art in the Age of Mass Media, 3rd edition (London, England: Pluto Press, 2010).
Ana Cecilia Alvarez, ‘Bend It Like Benglis’, The New Inquiry, 2014 <https://thenewinquiry.com/bend-it-like-benglis/>.
Lynda Benglis cited in Tom Eccles, ‘Lynda Benglis: NSFW 40 Years After Artforum’, Vulture, 2014 <https://www.vulture.com/2014/11/lynda-benglis-undaunted-40-years-after-artforum.html>.