Shock ‘n’ roll: The art of Allen Jones and sexual fetishism
It was Adam and the Ants song ‘Friends’ where I first heard the name of the British pop artist Allen Jones. The song was first officially released in 1981 as the B-side of ‘Ant Rap’ but earlier versions had been recorded for a 1978 John Peel session and during the sessions for the 1979 Dirk Wears White Sox album. The Dirk version was eventually released on the 1982 ‘Antmusic EP’ (and ended up being Adam and the Ants last single before Adam Ant went solo).
In two previous blogs, I have looked at both the psychology of Adam Ant and an in-depth look at all his songs about sexual fetishism and paraphilias (based on an academic article that I originally wrote for Headpress: The Journal of Sex, Death and Religion). In one of those articles, I noted that Adam’s predisposition towards sex came not from musical influences but from figures in the 20th century art world. Adam Ant’s final year thesis was on sexual perversion and he was inspired by the iconographic images of Andy Warhol, the autoerotic paintings of Allen Jones, the neo-sadomasochistic fantasies of Hans Bellmer, and ‘sexpop’ travellers like Eduardo Paolozzi, Francis Bacon and Stanley Spencer. In 1977, Adam said:
“The S&M thing stems from (when) I was at College Art School, with John Ellis (of The Vibrators), and all the time I was at Art College I was very influenced by Allen Jones the artist. All my college work is pretty much like this, this is just a musical equivalent of what I was visually doing at college”
As a teenager I collected badges and the ones designed by Adam Ant were clearly indebted to Allen Jones’ interest in fetishism (you can check out the designs in more detail here). Others in the pop world noted this including Justine Frischmann of Elastica. In a Melody Maker article by Simon Reynolds, Frischmann noted that Adam Ant “epitomised the brilliantly elegant side of punk, using all that Allen Jones type imagery like that table which was a woman on all fours with a glass top on her back. All his paintings were developed from Fifties porn – lots of airbrushed women in black leather. The Antz used a lot of that imagery. On one level, it’s very titillating, but it’s also very pop. So we’re gonna make the next album S & M, with us all in black leather. Actually, I think Madonna‘s ruined that for everyone, ruined the concept of pervy sex forever”.
Jones (born in 1937 in Southampton, UK) is arguably Adam’s greatest single influence and has been cited by Adam in many early interviews. He is best known for his use of slick fetishistic and obsessive objects, often of a sexual character (legs, stockings, shoes, etc.) taken from pornographic and women’s fashion magazines (with rubber fetishism and BDSM themes being very prominent). He was an early and leading figure in the pop-art movement as part of the so-called “dynamic generation” at the Royal College of Art (along with David Hockney, Patrick Caulfield, Peter Phillips, and Frank Bowing), and from where he was expelled in 1960 because of his controversial paintings. He was Britain’s ‘shock art’ bad boy decades before Damien Hirst. His early work was influenced by the Futurism school or art, and by reading the psychology of Freud and Jung, as well as the philosophy of Nietzsche. One of Adam’s songs ‘Ligotage’ (French for bondage) was directly inspired by his paintings. In the Wikipedia entry on Jones, he is quoted as saying:
“I wanted to kick over the traces of what was considered acceptable in art. I wanted to find a new language for representation… to get away from the idea that figurative art was romantic, that it wasn’t tough”.
It was in the late 1960s that Jones first started sculpting what art historian Marco Livingstone describes in his 1979 book Sheer Magic by Allen Jones as “life-size images of women as furniture with fetishist and sado-masochist overtones.” The three most (in)famous works (sharing as art curator Edith Devaney argued “a visual language”) were the erotic sculptures Hat Stand, Table and Chair made of fiberglass that featured busty mannequins dressed (or rather barely dressed) in patent leather. These works were met with both acclaim and disdain both in and outside of the art world with critics perceiving the sculptures as being misogynistic. Livingstone later went on to say “these works still carry a powerful emotive charge, ensnaring every viewer’s psychology and sexual outlook regardless of age, gender or experience”. One of the better descriptions of the three pieces was by Zoe Williams of The Guardian in an article provocatively entitled ‘Is Allen Jones’s sculpture the most sexist art ever?’:
“’Hat Stand’ is a mannequin in radial leather knickers and thigh-high boots. ‘Chair’ is the most famous of the three: a woman lies on her back, with her knees against her chest and a cushion on top of her. That’s the seat, her calves make the chair’s back. While all the clothes – black leather gloves, boots and a strap – reference bondage, she also looks dead, trussed up ready for some inept suburban disposal. ‘Table’, being topless, is more classically provocative. It would be pushing it to say the figure was adopting a more active shape, though: she’s on all fours, holding up a pane of glass with her back, her head looking down into a hand mirror. Yet the physics of the position make her look more like a doll than a corpse…Does Allen Jones’s art expose how female stereotypes are performed and maintained, by presenting us with overtly sexualised hyperboles, or is it just another part of the age-old tradition to objectify and sexualise women? The debate goes on… One thing is sure though, Jones’s work still provokes reactions”.
More infamy followed when the sculptures were referenced in one of cinema’s most controversial films of all time – A Clockwork Orange directed by Stanley Kubrick (in 1971). In a later interview, Jones recalled a telephone call from Kubrick. “[Kubrick said], ‘I’m a very famous film director, this will be seen all over the world and your name will be known.’ I held the phone away from my ear, I was just staggered anyone would say that. It showed an ego that dwarfed that of any artist I’ve known”. Because of this, Jones declined Kubrick’s offer but the director’s prop team made copies of his work. His BDSM designs were also a key feature of the 1975 film Maîtresse about a female dominatrix directed by Barbet Schroeder (and which also caused controversy because of its very graphic depictions of sado-masochism). Zoe Williams in her article for The Guardian goes as far to say: “Jones’s images have been so influential that almost no image of woman-as-object or woman-as-other-object can be created, even 40 years later, that doesn’t nod to them”.
In 2014, the Royal Academy of Arts hosted a retrospective of Jones’ work and Richard Dorment in the Daily Telegraph asserted: “you could argue that Jones’s work isn’t really about women; it’s about men and how they look at and think about women. Men use various strategies to neutralise or control desire. One is to fetishise the female body…[while] another is for the man to appropriate it”. The brief biography of Jones on the Artsation website also noted that: “Allen Jones was accused of being sexist and depicting women as undignified, mere willing objects of lust. Jones obviously never intended to show women in such a way, he wanted to question prohibitions and moral boundaries. ‘Nothing is as it seems’, the artist once said and also in this case one should not confuse the appearance of the object with its message. With his objects the artist carries trivialities like sexual connotations from advertising and show business into fine art to stylize and satirize them”.
Bizarrely, perhaps one of Jones’ unforeseen legacies is that his work appears to have unwittingly spawned a new sexual paraphilia – namely forniphilia. As I noted in my previous article on forniphilia, it is a form of sexual objectification and is viewed by many as a form of sexual bondage as the human body is typically incorporated into the shape of a piece of furniture where the person has to stay still for extended periods of time. The difference between Jones’ art and forniphilia is that forniphilia involves real humans whereas Jones’ works of art uses ‘humans’ made of fibreglass. The term ‘forniphilia’ was allegedly coined by Jeff Gord, the man behind The House of Gord (“The Home of Ultra Bondage”). In The House of Gord, there are many types of furniture that women had been temporarily turned into. This included many different types of table, lamps, pedestals, various types of chair (office chair, rocking chair, etc.), footstools, ceiling decorations (including chandeliers), lawn sprinklers, and bird tables. If Jones’ art was the direct inspiration for Gord and his followers, I wouldn’t be surprised. But even if it wasn’t, Jones’ work will continue to live on and will continue to garner controversy and feminist critique.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Ant, A. (2007). Stand and Deliver: The Autobiography. London: Pan.
Artsation (2015). Allen Jones – Biography. Located at: https://artsation.com/en/artists/allen-jones
Deurell, J. (2014). 10 key facts about Allen Jones. AnOther, November 10. Located at: http://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/4103/10-key-facts-about-allen-jones
Dorment, R. (2014). Allen Jones, Royal Academy, review: ‘dangerous, perverse and brilliant’. Daily Telegraph, November 14. Located at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-reviews/11220351/Allen-Jones-Royal-Academy-review-dangerous-perverse-and-brilliant.html
Gregory, H. (2014). Fetish, fantasy & “women as furniture”: The complicated legacy of Allen Jones. Artsy.net, December 3. Located at: https://www.artsy.net/article/editorial-fetish-fantasy-and-women-as-furniture-the
Griffiths, M.D (1999). Adam Ant: Sex and perversion for teenyboppers. Headpress: The Journal of Sex, Death and Religion, 19, 116-119.
Guadagnini, W. (2004). Pop Art UK: British Pop Art 1956-1972. Milan: Silvana.
Levy, P. (2014). A Fetish for Art. Touring Pop artist Allen Jones’s London workspace. Wall Street Journal, November 14. Located at: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303309504579185690844235078
Livingstone. M. (1979). Sheer Magic by Allen Jones. London: Thomas & Hudson.
Wikipedia (2013). Allen Jones (artist). Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allen_Jones_(artist)
Williams, Z. (2014). Is Allen Jones’s sculpture the most sexist art ever? The Guardian, November 10. Located at: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/nov/10/allen-jones-sexist-art-royal-academy-review
Posted on September 1, 2015, in Adolescence, Case Studies, Fame, Gender differences, Pain, Paraphilia, Popular Culture, Pornography, Psychology, Sex and tagged A Clockwork Orange, Adam and The Ants, Adam Ant, Allen Jones, Andy Warhol, Ant Rap (song), Antmusic EP, Barbet Schroeder, BDSM, Carl Jung, David Hockney, Dirk Wears White Sox, Edith Devaney, Eduardo Paolozzi, Elastica, Extreme fashion, Forniphilia, Francis Bacon, Frank Bowing, Friedrich Nietzsche, Friends (song), Furniture art, Hans Bellmer, House of Gord, John Ellis (guitarist), Justine Frischmann, Ligotage (song), Maîtresse, Marco Livingstone, Patrick Caulfield, Peter Phillips, Pop art, Royal College of Art, Sado-masochism, Sexual bondage, Sigmund Freud, Stanley Kubrick, Stanley Spencer, The Vibrators. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.