Jessica Campbell Casts A Female Gaze On The Art World In ‘Hot or Not?’ [Love & Sex Week]
Jessica Campbell’s Hot Or Not: 20th Century Male Artists has a very simple premise: which 20th century artists were bangable? And based on an artist’s work, can we tell if they were hot or not?
Published by Koyama Press in fall 2016, Hot Or Not is a short but searing work of satire skewering the male-dominated world of art, and society’s desire to pass judgement on people based on their attractiveness --- which is of course subjective, as is art itself.
Campbell inserts herself into the comic, just as many artists put themselves in their work. She takes the position of a docent at a museum, walking through the halls and sharing with the patrons which artists were hot, and which were not. She makes a point on the first page of telling the museum patrons (and the reader) that she has an MFA. Expertise and authority matter in the art world, don’t you know.
Campbell groups the artists by type of art --- geometric abstraction, feelings, erotic freaks --- as well as including a section on Canadian artists. That section might be a bit more impenetrable to non-Canadian audiences, but consider it your Introduction to Canadian Art class.
Campbell reproduces a black and white illustration of one work by each artist, along with some commentary, so you get some context even if you’re unfamiliar with the artist or their work. She then illustrates a portrait of the artist themselves, along with a judgement: hot, or not? You have to actually flip the page to get to the punchline, which makes it that much more powerful a joke. It’s not a complicated premise, but that’s what makes it work so well. It’s also a short book, only covering 19 artists in total, so the joke doesn’t get old.
There’s snark and spite, both about the artists and their work. On Sol Lewitt, a minimalist conceptual artist known for his wall drawings and open modular sculptures, she writes, “Dude’s gotta be a nottie. He seems like a wearer of monocles and ascots who’d scoff at anyone who didn’t appreciate squares with enough gravitas.” And the verdict? “NOT. Did you know that in order to get a temporary, minimum wage job scribbling on the wall per Lewitt’s instructions you need an 80K USD master’s degree?” Dang, girl.
Let’s be real, though. Most “important” artists from the 20th century were male. Many focused on the female form, painting nude after nude, and even abusing their models --- like Picasso, who decided that Françoise Gilot, the mother of two of his children and a model for many of his works, looked better with a beauty mark, so he created one by burning her with a cigarette. If the art world thinks that this kind of context doesn’t matter, or that women don’t matter except when subject to the male gaze, then why not turn that objectifying gaze back on the men? Why not reduce them to just “HOT” or “NOT”?
Hotness is subjective. What we find attractive, while guided by our culture for sure, ultimately varies from person to person. Maybe my type is “snobby Super Mario,” Campbell’s description of Barnett Newman (a nottie, in her opinion). By juxtaposing Hotness with examples from the 20th century artistic canon, and then tearing many of those works down, Campbell questions the very notion of the canon itself. Maybe it would have looked different if it hadn’t been men, often white, cisgender, heterosexual men, who decided what was good?
Hot Or Not is a delightful, funny, and smart as heck book. Plus, it has scratch-off thongs and shorts on the men gracing the cover, posing seductively like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon with six-packs.
Don’t worry --- just scratch those off and you’ll get plenty of hot, full-frontal action.