Sunday, January 10, 2010

J. Paul Getty, the Playboy Philosopher

From 1961 through 1965, J. Paul Getty wrote a column for Hugh Hefner's Playboy magazine. Getty (and/or his ghostwriter) had almost nothing to say about sex, and a lot to say about money. As the world's richest man, Getty's name was synonymous with wealth and was often featured on the magazine's cover. Getty was only secondarily associated with art, notwithstanding a small museum in Malibu bearing his name. (This was the original "house museum," predating the more notorious 1974 reconstruction of a Herculaneum villa.) Several of the Playboy columns discuss art, museums, and collecting. Getty's prime talking point, repeated with numerous variations, was that the average American male hates art.

The curator of a famous French art museum tells me that he can instantly single out most American men in even the largest and most heterogeneous crowds that come to his galleries. "It's all in their walk," he claims. "The moment the average American male steps through the doors, he assumes a truculently self-conscious half-strut, half-shamble that tries to say: 'I don't really want to be here. I'd much rather be in a bar or watching a baseball game.'"

[After Getty, entertaining an American industrialist in London, proposed a visit to the Wallace Collection]: "Good Lord, Paul!" he spluttered indignantly. "I've only two days to spend in London—and I'm not going waste an entire afternoon wandering around a musty art gallery. You can go look at antiques and oil paintings. I'm going to look at the girls at the Windmill!"

[Similar situation]: "Hell, I've already seen a statue!" one of the men snorted. "Let's go to a night club instead!"


Getty termed America's ruling patriarchy "educated barbarians" and diagnosed the problem as a deep-seated conviction that art is just for women and homosexuals. That thought, too, is expressed in Playboy's pages fulsomely.

I've found that the majority of American men really believe there is something effeminate—if not downright subversively un-American—about showing any interest in literature, drama, art, classical music, opera, ballet or any type of cultural endeavor. It is virtually their hubris that they are too "manly" and "virile" for such effete things, that they prefer basketball to Bach or Brueghel and poker to Plato and Pirandello.

In the best Hefner metrosexual mode, Getty plays up the studly side of art and culture.

Far from emasculating or effeminizing a man, a cultural interest serves to make him more completely male… Be it in a board room or a bedroom, he is much better equipped to play his masculine role…

Culture is like a fine wine that one drinks in the company of a beautiful woman. It should be sipped and savored—never gulped.


Did any of this James Bond-era gender politics factor into the design of the Getty Villa? Hard to say, but there is a Spike TV high concept in plunking a Roman orgy palace onto babe-rich Malibu. Anyway, one of Getty's most incontestable claims of Yankee barbarism is:

It's doubtful if one in ten Americans is able to differentiate between a Doric and an Ionic column.

That distinction is nicely addressed at the Villa, with its docent-friendly assortment of mix-and-match columns.

1 comment:

Donald Frazell said...

A self fulfilling prophecy, for art has become exactly that. It wasnt up through 1960, afterall, Playboy always sponsored a jazz festival. Maybe these "macho" types were just saying it like it is. Sports has become our religion, Playoffs on now, the height of the American spiritual season, not Christmas, except they have College, Pro, and NBA on the same weekend. Men disappeared into their dens to lose Christmas dinner.

If art has lost male America, it was interested in the 50s, its arts fault. Americans have no sense of history, artistes included as they feel it completely seperate from what they do now. If art gives the American male what they want, art of strength and purpose they might spend some time with it, and away from the whores like Beyonce on MTV, and give up a game or too on ESPN. There was an attempt to effeminize those too, pink shirts and kewpie doll looking midget guys, but the attempt seems to have been fought off, Now just goofy fools representing everyman, even the few athletes have become entertainers as commentators.


We lack spirituality and passion, and art has ridden itself of that annoying voice as conscience. It is now about entertainment for the effete, it is not built upon the past, and has nothing to offer the typical American male, European either it seems. Though they seem to lack the individual aggression the American male has, they only kill in packs, we do solitary.

Art needs to step up and grab the American public again, certainly no reason it cant. Movies about Michelangelo and van Gogh were big box office in the 50s. Real men played the roles, and they were real men, if confused and imbalanced emotionally they were striving for meaning and bettering themselves, men can relate to that.

What happened? Wimpy art is what happened. Decadent, sport is far more pure, steroids and HGH nonetheless. i certainly prefer a good game with meaning to the self absorbed art out there now, it hs nothing to offer, its all exhibitionism and whining. Why would a strong hetero male be interested? Its not about them. And art must be about US to be art.

Art defines who WE are. When it splits the market for sales, and ignores the whole of humanity, it is decadent. And we most certainly are in such a time. All the silly academic rationalities in the world cant hide it, art has failed. And its not the American males fault, Obama is out there trying to find art, and having a difficult time of it. Give him something to feel a part of, not apart from. It was always done throughout history, before our consumer age where art is but a speculative and theory ridden psychological babbling game.

If a Picasso shows up, the male will return. We got Warhols now. You really expect a virile male to respond to that? Riiiiiight.

art collegia delenda est