Why Aren’t Classical Statues Very Well-Endowed?

iStock
iStock

If you spend enough time with classical statuary, you may begin to ask yourself some questions that seem more appropriate to middle school health class than an art history discussion. Namely: Is it just me, or are all these dudes kind of … small?

I’m not the only one who’s wondered at the ancient penis sizes depicted in art. Even while assuming that most statues feature flaccid penises, why wouldn’t classic sculptors have made their subjects more well-endowed? Surely nude sculpture is as subject to exaggeration on this topic as locker room talk.

As it turns out, a lot has changed over the last few thousand years, including how we think about penis size. Ellen Oredsson of the blog How to Talk About Art History explains in one post that “cultural values about male beauty were completely different back then. Today, big penises are seen as valuable and manly, but back then, most evidence points to the fact that small penises were considered better than big ones.”

Photographer Ingrid Berthon-Moine, who took close-up photos of the testicles of Greek statues as part of her 2013 series "Marbles," reiterated this sentiment in an interview about her photos with Hyperallergic. “Ancient Greece was a highly masculinist culture,” she explained. “They favored ‘small and taut’ genitals, as opposed to big sex organs, to show male self-control in matters of sexuality.” In his play The Clouds, one of Aristophanes's characters describes the ideal male form as having “good chest, a clear complexion, broad shoulders, a moderate tongue, sturdy buttocks, and a small genteel penis.”

But it was important to show some skin. As art historian Anna Tahinci wrote in a 2008 article in the journal Sculpture Review, nudity was “seen as the ‘perfect form’ for the sculptural representation of the human body” in ancient Greece and, later, Rome. “Consequently, nudity in sculpture came to represent the ideals of innocence and purity.”

Frederick M. Hodges, a scholar who writes about circumcision, noted in a medical history journal in 2001 that “the Greeks valued the longer over the shorter prepuce [foreskin] in relation to the length of the entire penis, and the smaller over the larger penis as a whole.” Indeed, an elongated foreskin was considered both attractive and more modest than an exposed penis (ancient Greeks considered circumcision barbaric and associated it with slaves). An erect, bare penis would have been considered dishonorable, according to his research, and thus, in most art, the male genitals are featured “unretracted, teat-like, and neatly tapered.”

Another scholar finds that while Greek men were shown to have properly dainty genitals in public, they often have “rakishly protuberant phalluses in private,” as seen in erotic art, especially on vases. In the 1995 article “The Unheroic Penis: Otherness Exposed,” Timothy McNiven chalks this up to giving men portrayed in art “the best of both worlds."

Big or small—or even removable—a statue's genitals are a sign of the times.

[h/t Jad Abumrad]

Wish You Could ‘Shazam’ a Piece of Art? With Magnus, You Can

Manuel-F-O/iStock via Getty Images
Manuel-F-O/iStock via Getty Images

While museum artworks are often accompanied by tidy little placards that tell you the basics—title, artist, year, medium, dimensions, etc.—that’s not always the standard for art galleries and fairs. For people who don’t love tracking down a staff member every time they’d like to know more about a particular work, there’s Magnus, a Shazam-like app that lets you snap a photo of an artwork and will then tell you the title, artist, last price, and more.

The New York Times reports that Magnus has a primarily crowdsourced database of more than 10 million art images. Though the idea of creating Shazam for art seems fairly straightforward, the execution has been relatively complex, partially because of the sheer quantity of art in the world. As founder Magnus Resch explained to The New York Times, “There is a lot more art in the world than there are songs.”

Structural diversity in art adds another challenge to the process: it’s difficult for image recognition technology to register 3D objects like sculptures, however famous they may be. Resch also has to dodge copyright violations; he maintains that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act applies to his app, since the photos are taken and shared by users, but he still has had to remove some content. All things considered, Magnus’s approximate match rate of 70 percent is pretty impressive.

Since the process of buying and selling art often includes negotiation and prices can fluctuate drastically, Magnus gives potential purchasers the background information they need to at least decide whether they’re interested in pursuing a particular piece. Just like browsing around a boutique where prices aren’t included on the items, a lack of transparency can be a deterrent for new customers.

Such was the case for Jelena Cohen, a Colgate-Palmolive brand manager who bought her first photograph with the help of Magnus. “I used to go to these art fairs, and I felt embarrassed or shy, because nothing’s listed,” she told The New York Times. “I loved that the app could scan a piece and give you the exact history of it, when it was last sold, and the price it was sold for. That helped me negotiate.” Through Magnus, you can also keep track of artworks you’ve scanned in your digital collection, search for artworks by artist, and share images to social media.

One thing Magnus can’t do, however, is tell you whether an artwork is authentic or not. The truth is that sometimes even art experts have trouble doing that, as evidenced by the long history of notorious art forgeries.

[h/t The New York Times]

'The Far Side' May Be Making a Comeback Online

tilo/iStock, Getty Images Plus
tilo/iStock, Getty Images Plus

For the first time ever, it’s looking increasingly likely that cartoonist Gary Larson’s "The Far Side" will be available in a medium other than book collections or page-a-day calendars. A (slightly ambiguous) announcement on the official "Far Side" website promises that “a new online era” for the strip is coming soon.

From 1980 to 1995, "The Far Side" presented a wonderfully irreverent universe in which hunters had much to fear from armed and verbose deer, cows possessed a rich internal life, scientific experiments often went awry, and irony became a central conceit. In one of the more famous strips frequently pasted to refrigerator doors, a small child could be seen pushing on a door marked “pull.” Above him was a sign marking the building as a school for the gifted. In another strip, a woman is depicted looking nervously around a forest while cradling a vacuum cleaner. The caption: “The woods were dark and foreboding, and Alice sensed that sinister eyes were watching her every step. Worst of all, she knew that Nature abhorred a vacuum.”

Unlike most of his contemporaries, like Berkeley Breathed ("Bloom County") and Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), Larson has resisted reproduction of his work online. He famously circulated a letter to "Far Side" fan sites asking them to stop posting the single-panel strips, writing that the idea of his work being found on random websites was bothersome. “These cartoons are my ‘children,’ of sorts, and like a parent, I’m concerned about where they go at night without telling me,” he wrote.

Many obliged Larson, though the strip could still be found here and there. That he’s seemingly embracing a new method of distribution is good news for fans, but there’s no concrete evidence the now-retired cartoonist will be following in Breathed’s footsteps and producing new strips. ("Bloom County" returned as a Facebook comic in 2015.) The only indication of Larson’s active involvement is a new piece of art on the site’s landing page depicting some familiar "Far Side" characters being unthawed in a block of ice.

Larson’s comments on a return are few and far between. In 1998, he told The New York Times that going back to a strip was unlikely. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Never say never, but there’s a sense of ‘been there, done that.’” In that same profile, it was noted that 33 million "Far Side" books had been sold.

[h/t A.V. Club]

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