Kelly Brook’s “Lynx” adverts have prompted an unlikely debate after two Muslim youths were prosecuted for vandalising one such Lynx advert featuring Brook. Leaping into the debate are the cultural Philistines, fundamentalist Muslims and feminists: But it is the conservative response which is needed, writes Charles Brickdale.
Every now and then an event takes place on the fringes of the news which casts a helpful light on larger issues.
To reverse the message of Pieter Brueghel’s painting of Icarus’ death, maybe we should be paying attention to the man who has just fallen out of the sky because his fate is a warning against careless ambition but the story behind the journey being undertaken by the ship in the foreground might well convey an equally important lesson about the importance of trade or exploration or sound defence.
So with the story this week, printed on the inside pages of several newspapers and featured on the Jeremy Vine show, featuring two Muslim teenagers who spraypainted burqas on Lynx adverts showing scantily-clad women. They have been convicted of criminal damage and fined.
Caught red-handed, they told police ‘that the way the women had been photographed was against their religion and they said it was a sin in Islam for a male to look twice at a woman who is not covered.’
It is possible to point out that these two young men have missed the irony that runs through the whole current Lynx advertising campaign. The ads simultaneously enact and mock male fantasies of being, despite beer bellies and chronic absence of six packs and pecs, irresistibly attractive to even the most gorgeous young women.
The psychology is a little more subtle than this, of course. After all, the point is to sell deoderant not satire. No heterosexual man can be blamed for desiring the women featured in the advertisements so the irony is tempered by the feeling that the fantasy is understandable and natural; the objection that men are being invited to leer at women in any overt or vicious sense is undercut by the irony and by the the way in which the ads are constructed so that the fantasy appears funny if understandable.
No doubt, subliminally, those images of bikini-clad descendants of Benny Hill’s endless parade of buxom girls will linger in the mind at the same time as you pay over the odds for the Lynx effect. Sex has been used to sell a product but in a way that suggests ambiguity over who, if anyone, is being exploited: the self-deluding men whom we are invited to indulge or the obviously fantasy-women. So, no harm done. Indulge the fantasy by spraying yourself with Lynx.
Nonetheless, some might say the Lynx ads are not that harmless, especially when seen in the wider context of contemporary culture. It is not difficult to sympathise with the view that our society has been heavily over-sexualised; soft, and sometimes hard, pornographic imagery seems, at times, all-pervasive. Whether they’ve got the joke or not perhaps our two young spray-paint jihadists have a point.
How should conservatives and classical liberals respond to such concerns?
Jeremy Vine’s show on Monday 1st August performed a useful public service by showcasing two possible responses to the teenagers’ behaviour from within two broadly western traditions: leftist feminism and philistine libertinism. Neither, it is true, represents Western thought at its most elevated but both represent tendencies which have strong populist appeal and which conservatives should oppose.
The leftist feminist was Kate Smurthwaite, an ‘alternative’ comedian of the usual bog-standard, mass-produced variety, cloned and programmed at the Marcus Brigstocke Institute of Mediocrity. A feel for the depth and subtlety of her wit can be gleaned from her blog:
Thacher’s (sic) death does (sic) show that no matter how tough and powerful we are, no matter how enduring our legacy – nobody is immortal, nothing lasts forever. There is, I think some comfort in that. Getting together with others to bury an unpleasant part of the past and dream about a better future is worthy of celebration by me, even if the circumstances are somewhat crass.
Clearly, then, someone used to grappling thoughtfully with complex human and moral issues.
Her take on the use of semi-naked women in advertisements is, of course, that it objectifies women in general, in effect, turning them into commodities and that the manipulation of desire and instinct through the imagery deployed by advertisers tunes us into the ideology of consumer capitalism. So far, so unexpected.
The point is that such ideas, which gained currency in the 1960s and 70s, have had plenty of time in which to work any healing magic for our problems that they might possess. In fact, whatever the merits of the diagnosis, they have been nullified by the left’s failure to develop, or even see the necessity for, an alternative moral system to unrestrained hedonistic individualism. Coupled with the left’s other pet projects – the promotion of multiculturalism and postmodernism and the denigration and repudiation of all notions of high culture, especially that of the West – and we have the ironic outcome that leftist feminists, such as Smurthwaite, have assisted precisely the commodification and commercialisation of all aspects of human life that they claim to hate so much – and for which Margaret Thatcher is their favourite scapegoat.
Apart from Smurthwaite and her friends, people are, it is implied, too unenlightened to work out for themselves how to respond to advertising, so it follows that imagery of which she and other members of the revolutionary vanguard disapprove must be banned. It’s at this point that we begin to see the common ground which makes the otherwise seemingly bizarre alliance between much of the left and the most reactionary Muslims comprehensible. Both share a Maoist impatience with ideas of individual liberty and a Jacobin enthusiasm for centralised power and a corresponding carelessness about the implications for freedom. However much Smurthwaite might object to the jihadists’ plans for women (and not just those women who agree to be valued at half the worth of men) she assists their cause by undermining the arguments for individual responsibility.
So did Jeremy Vine’s other guest, Godfrey Bloom MEP (UKIP) who, judging by his (very good) talks on the economics of the Euro, regards himself as some kind of conservative, provide a convincing alternative to the totalitarians, feminist and Islamic?
Sadly, no. His line was classically philistine and libertine, an outlook he mistook for libertarianism. The young men were ‘sad’ because, unlike he, Godfrey, they appeared to have ‘problems’ with public displays of the female form. After all, he went on, the nude was a subject of many of the greatest paintings by some of the West’s most eminent artists. Unfortunately, this argument has been used before by conservatives, even by great ones, for example, Norman Tebbit, as he then was, when defending the Sun’s page 3 against feminist attack.
The difference between pornography and art is the difference between lust and love. One is about satisfying the observer’s desires; the second is focused on the other person, the observed, who is viewed as a potential partner in a full human relationship which includes the erotic but transcends it. Indeed, the greatness of a painter like Rubens is precisely that many of his nude subjects seem to return the viewer’s gaze in a silent dialogue. The page 3 girl and the porn star simply invite us to do as we wish.
High culture is do with the transcendence and transfiguration of the dusty, fleshy world we inhabit; the degraded state of our media and much of our society arises from the fact that high culture has been sidelined. It is ‘difficult’ and ‘inaccessible’; those who promote it ‘elitist’ and probably racist.
Conservatives, then, need to assert the need to teach the superiority of the best of art, music and literature over mass-produced cultural artefacts and, yes, the best of western culture as objectively more valuable than many of the products of other cultures. In turn, this involves arguing for a return to clear standards of judgement and a renewed understanding of the links between aesthetics and morality. Otherwise, we cannot provide a compelling alternative vision of life to compete with the rapid-fire, endless succession of instant gratifications offered by our lowest common denominator mass-produced culture.
This then is the outline of a conservative response to the drive by totalitarians of the secularist far left and the Islamic far right to exploit the vacuum at the heart of our society for their own purposes. It relies not on state coercion or on the imposition of barbaric codes such as shariah law but on the teaching, especially to the young, of the idea that the exercise of individual responsibility through the deployment of aesthetic and moral judgements is what it takes to be a free and fulfilled human being.