Of Art, Ads and Naked Men

I was driving into Orchard Road with the family a few weeks ago when I saw the huge billboard (above, from Mr Brown’s site) from Abercrombie & Fitch. I was so stunned that I took a second look and probably put myself at risk of an accident. It was a black and white image of a rippling male body with his genitals barely hiding from view underneath the low-slung jeans.

I said to Goy: “Wow, that picture is going to cause a few accidents.” but left it at that. After all, the billboard did its job of capturing my attention and the male model does have an amazing body. And it was a very well-taken photograph, never mind that it had little to do with A&F apparel at all – such is the nature of brand advertising.

In recent days, the billboard has become a tabloid-style news story. First it was reported that the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore (ASAS) had suspended the billboard. Then it came to light that the Authority had no authority to do so, since A&F was not part of its group and not beholden to their bidding (which I found was the more newsworthy bit, rather than the near-naked guy). The Media Authority of Singapore  supported ASAS’ call but said that the industry is self-regulated. In short, nobody can take down the ad except A&F themselves, and I’m sure many ad agencies are rubbing their hands in glee thinking about what they can achieve now with their clients.

I don’t know if they’ll ever get the billboard taken down but I oppose such a move on artistic grounds. Yes, we are a conservative society, but we are also living in a wasteland of mediocre visuals and advertisements. If you’ve ever visited Rome, one of the key attractions is a statue of a very nude man – Michelangelo’s David.

I’ve visited the statue twice, and both times, I’ve just sat there staring at the sheer beauty and perfection of the sculpture. No, I’m not gay, but there is something enthralling about the artistic depiction of a human body. And you don’t see people going “eeeee, that man is naked!” because it is undoubtedly art, and it is not vulgar.

And the Christian fundamentalist shouldn’t wrongly compare the story of Adam and Eve who fell into sin and quickly covered their nakedness in front of God – our Creator made them perfect and unclothed but sin caused them to become self-conscious of their bodies. Man would of course fall greater into sin and lose self-control of their bodies, which is what the Bible warns against repeatedly. Then we should also consider what happens when someone views an image that he purports will make him lose self-control of his body – this is the line drawn between art and pornography.

When it comes to art, everyone has the right to disagree on the interpretation. What is vulgar to someone may seem as virtuoso to another. But art is always judged and weighed in the zeitgeist of the times, and overlaid with common standards of morality and sensibility. It is not surprising to see ASAS’ objection to the ad, but one also must ask: “Are there a lot of people who are upset with the ad?” Personally, I haven’t heard anyone complaining and demanding the billboard’s removal. These sort of images, my dear ASAS, are par for the course these days.

And as a Straits Times forum writer pointed out, there are far more vulgar ads going around that ASAS does nothing about. It’s just that they are all smaller than the billboard in size.

I’m more upset with the general low standards of advertising in Singapore which celebrates the lack of wit, creative expression and artistics standards. Marketing managers are happy to adapt the most boring global visuals they can get from their HQ and just get their media agencies to book the ad space – because they don’t know what they can achieve in creating customer excitement. Most of them have never stepped into Bras Basah’s Basheer Books and flipped through the vast collection of award-winning advertising visuals and graphic art, and thought about doing it better themselves.

I’ll be very clear here: I don’t wear Abercrombie apparel, nor am I a fan. I’m a conservative in many ways, but I also appreciate art deeply. I’ve taken my fair share of sexy fashion photos during my photography days and I hope they weren’t seen as vulgar. I’m also very inspired by the billboard’s abs of steel and I shall do more sit-ups tonight.

If ASAS hasn’t gotten it by now, the whole furor has just given A&F the absolute best advertising in town – public controversy where the advertiser hasn’t really done anything illegal. The more ASAS tries to pull the billboard down, the worse it will look on them, because all A&F did was to put up a thought-provoking visual and it turned out that ASAS is really toothless after all its public statements. Bigger powers may step in, and they will be in turn branded as prudes or overreacting by the younger crowd in Singapore.

It’s always amusing to us media and ex-media alumni how stories are generated in Singapore. Many times, newsmakers do not know when they are exposing themselves to ridicule or embarrassment when they decide to go public with something. Then the media has a field day and the newsmaker wonders how did things go this way.

Just leave the billboard alone folks. A&F will change it when next season’s apparel arrives anyway. So far there haven’t been any car accidents right?

One Reply to “Of Art, Ads and Naked Men”

  1. Ian, you are wrong. Sit-ups won’t give you abs like that. Planking will. Sit-ups just hurt your back and screw up your posture. 😀

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