Friday night I heard a very bawdy standup female comic do a routine that included some jokes about pedophilia. Kinda risky stuff, you might say. And you might say that about this song from Ray Davies and The Kinks from 1981. Now, it so happens that this song dates from the very year of my daughter’s birth, so, while I didn’t go jogging in the park for “an excuse to look at all the little girls,” as the speaker of this song says, I did go pushing a stroller in the park. Yup.
Now, the thing about this song that made it one of my favorites of this period of The Kinks is that it has the old panache—say, the wit and whimsy—of some of the classic Kinks tracks. We used to say about RayDay that he could write a song about anything he chose. And this topic, taboo enough, one imagines, gets a highly subtle treatment here. Though, if you played it for any Neighborhood Watch people I doubt you’d get many nods of appreciation. Likewise any parents concerned about where convicted, likely, and prospective sex offenders might be living. It’s a song that is both creepy and clever. And how many things can you say that about. But it’s also sweet and sad, and chilling.
Davies keeps the comic bits in sight so that we won’t get too unnerved. “I’m not a flasher in a raincoat / I’m not a dirty old man / I’m not gonna snatch you from your mother / I’m an art lover / Come to daddy.” Clearly, the grimy roué is mocked here, as well as the child-napper, and that vague “dirty old man.” In Michelle’s standup routine she hazarded that, for a teen out on the make, 55 is the cut-off age for “older man.” But if the object of lust is a child, well, then even a teenager is a “dirty old man” by comparison. And that, you see, is the interesting part of this. An underage kid may lust for the underage girl in his class (and God knows we all did), but a “grown teen” can’t, without some kind of censure. And yet lust doesn’t really work that way. Davies, I daresay, wrote this song, shy of turning 40, because at a certain point you realize, getting older, that ogling the age group you’ve always ogled (and you decide, “how low can you go”?) makes you—presto!—a dirty old man.
But what makes this song remarkable, to me, is that it’s not about lust at all. No, get your minds out of the gutter, friends. That’s why it’s called “Art Lover.” “Pretty little legs, I want to draw them, just like a Degas ballerina / Your white skin, like porcelain / She’s a work of art, and I should know, I’m an art lover.”
This is the point at which we might bring up Balthus and all those paintings of provocatively posed underage girls exposing legs and undies and so on. Recently, even Balthus has come in for censure from the badges of moral rectitude, but, once upon a time, one could draw the line between the prurient and the aesthetic. Even though that line was never hard and fast. Witness the gyrations, back in the day, needed to make things like Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Ulysses “acceptable.” It’s not smut, it’s art! But, other than the old “I know it when I see it” dodge, how do you know? And don’t let’s get started on Mapplethorpe and all the rest. Except to recognize that all of that is lurking—in the bushes, no doubt—in the periphery of Davies’ arch little ditty.
We might say the song is a send-up of the whole “it’s OK, it’s art” excuse for lewdness. Then again, there’s an argument somewhere about what makes the difference between art and porn anyway (cue Joyce’s Stephen and his claim that art cannot inspire desire or repulsion, to be art). But. Who can really police—and why would you want to—all the different things that might “stir desire”?
Back to me pushing that stroller: yes, that little girl is “a work of art”—though not really. She’s a mortal creature that I must protect and instruct. But. If I make an image of her, that image might be a work of art. Or witness all those people sharing photos of their kids in the vein of “look at what I made.” Not the image, but the being the image attempts to represent. Beauty may be a factor in a work of art, but beauty does not make something “art.” The child, as Stephen would insist, is not attained by an intentional method conducive to the making of a lasting object. It’s attained by the rather unsavory or exciting or in any case unmentionable act that is, beneath all this, in some ways “the problem.”
|Dad photographs kid, 1983|
“I’d take her home, but that can never be / She’s just a substitute for what’s been taken from me”—here, in the sad part, Davies alludes, perhaps, to the notion that what makes one a prospective sex offender, or “not quite right” in that regard, is that one has been molested oneself. So that “what’s been taken from me” is that native innocence that is what the speaker really wants to see—and not the naughty bits at all. Or it could be that the speaker, divorced, has had his child “taken from me” and goes about to look, longingly, at the kind of charming little tykes he might otherwise be spending time with, of a Sunday afternoon. Or it could be that Davies ask us to reflect on what has been taken from each of us, individually, by this process called “growing up.” That “stuff” those kids still have, God love ‘em.
In any case, if that weren’t all quite good enough, there’s that great corker at the end: “So, c’mon, give us a smile before you vanish out of view / I’ve learned to appreciate you the way art lovers do / And I only want to look at you.” Here there’s a whiff of the “keep off the grass” in parks, don’t touch the exhibits in museums, don’t handle other people’s children, on the playground. Look, but don’t touch is the motto. And so, this should be fine . . . . But when looking becomes objectionable? (I always love the line “she can’t see me staring at her because I’m always wearing shades”—and the music makes a little flutter as though mimicking a dastard giving us the old high-sign eyebrow twitch.) The point this part always makes me appreciate is that, yes, for anyone visually inclined, looking is what it’s all about. Contact? So vulgar. Aesthetes merely look, note, and move on. So much better for everyone. For, in the end, no one can be a work of art. And so the art lover will never love you.
|Kid photographs Dad, 2012|