Representation and Reality

There are no human beings in this picture:

Of course, I mean that literally. The people you see, two in the foreground and nine plus an arm in the background, are only representations of human beings, drawn by cartoonist Tom Sutton (1937-2002) in three quite different styles. The partygoers are only lightly sketched in, the spanker is done in a loose, caricature style quite unlike the precise lines that define the girl, who is obviously the primary focus of attention in a cartoon done for one of the spicy humor digests of the Fifties and Sixties. But, in her own way, with her torpedo breasts and sprung legs, she is every bit as stylized as her bemused, diffident date. They are obviously human characters, but no human being ever really looked like that.

I have pointed out before that all art is in some way stylized because, irrespective of genre or mode, it achieves its impact by selectiveness. This is true whether we are talking about modern impressionist painting,

or any number of distinctive graphical styles.

We can see it most obviously when the artist emphasizes style as much as subject, as in this little collection of cartoons by the Italian artist who publishes his distinctive brand of cutesy erotica under the name Coolgirlz:

Likewise in this 2021 painting in the naive genre by the Montana folk artist John Henry Haseltine, who was apparently so nervy about (or excessively respectful of) certain censorious modern sensibilities that he added a parenthetical disclaimer to its title: The Spanking (Consensual).

But a more ‘realistic’ mode still entails its own kind of stylization, and still only features people in a particular, non-literal sense.

Whatever kind of art it is, we always know that we are looking at human figures, even though in another area of our minds we also know that people are made of flesh and bone rather than inked lines and brushstrokes, meaning that we are, simultaneously, not looking at human beings.

Now let’s try a different line of approach, bearing all of the above in mind. Are there any human beings in this picture?

In a sense, yes, there are, because the image derives from this splendid shot by the outstanding Polish stock photographer Konrad Bak:

Symbolic photo of relationships in business team

Again, this is something I have discussed elsewhere: many artists use either life models or visual reference, often photographic, meaning that the human figures in even very stylized work are identifiable as actual people, albeit represented at one remove.

For instance, who is it being spanked here?

It’s the singer Miley Cyrus in her 2018 Easter bunny shoot for Vogue magazine.

And who’s this cowgirl, painted by the celebrated American pinup artist Olivia De Berardinis (born 1948)?

It’s Bettie Page, transferred from the faux-boudoir of Irving Klaw’s 1950s studio to, perhaps, the Old, Wild West.

That’s not the only time Bettie wound up in one of Olivia’s paintings.

Other artists, and other holidays, are also available.

That’s one by Kat Valencia, who often looks to the Klaw/Page canon for inspiration.

So these are pictures in which there are not only actual human figures, as distinct from imagined simulacra, but also recognizable individuals – though it is a moot point whether they are always necessarily meant to be identifiable. (Bettie, yes; Miley, I’m not so sure.)

So now we’re moving towards media where real human presence is not in question.

The issue that now comes into focus is whether anyone is actually being spanked. In some cases, the answer is pretty obvious.

Even when Teddy’s stern paw descends on target, we’re obviously still looking at art rather than actuality, a constructed representation of spanking rather than the act itself.

And that raises the same question about other photos where the pose is again one of contact but the second figure is, unlike those giant cuddly bears, a living, breathing, animate being who’s more than capable of inflicting a sting in the tail.

The obvious answer is that the photos are, technically speaking, too good to be literally what they represent. We can get a handle on what I mean by that if we consider the way some spanking enthusiasts used to despise studio publicity stills from the golden age of Hollywood.

It used to be said, with implied condescension, that photos like these were ‘obviously posed’ – meaning that the actors were in the right positions, but no real spanking was taking place. What these people wanted to see, I suppose, was something more like this, from Stronger than Desire (1939):

18 1939 Stronger than Desire

The motion blur confirms that the actor’s hand is moving (though whether up or down there is no way of knowing), but it also renders the picture technically inferior: ‘posing’ the actors simply makes for a better photo. Moreover, a girl who’s really being spanked is unlikely to stay still for the camera, meaning yet more motion blur marring the final product, as in this extreme example featuring John Barrymore and Doris Dudley in a 1939 performance of My Dear Children:

22 Life

In the end, ‘obviously posed’ also means obviously better, so long as your criterion is how the picture looks and not whether the female subject will be sitting comfortably afterwards.

But then, let’s not imagine that the on-set Stronger Than Desire photograph isn’t itself posed, just as the performance it records was meticulously staged and lit to ensure the best possible composition of the shot. We’re used to thinking of some kinds of performance as obviously artificial, meaning that Lise doesn’t usually get literally spanked in La Fille Mal Gardée, even in productions when the spanking is already underway before the interruption.

But in reality, most performances in most media entail some level of stylization, just as the artworks we looked at earlier were still the products of creative artifice even when their mode tended towards the photorealistic. And likewise, a spanking scene in a movie or play will never truly be the same as an unmediated real-life spanking, even when, as often happened, the actress was really spanked to enhance the authenticity of her performance. The one thing that certainly wasn’t happening was punishment, other than for the fictional character she was playing, because ultimately both she and her spanker were just doing their jobs.

And the same broad principle applies even in the photographic genre that comes closest to everyday life, and has least to do with art and the creative imagination: the candid snapshot, which we’ll illustrate with some examples from a scrapbook compiled in 1949,

and some from more recent times.

These are all pictures of people larking about for the camera. Even if there may be some genuine, playful spanking going on in some of them, they are not pictures of what the participants are jokingly pretending to portray, a woman being spanked nonconsensually for punishment. And that’s good, because it’s something many of us wouldn’t want to see, just as no well-adjusted person would want to watch a snuff movie or footage of a couple having unsimulated sex.

Among the fundamental misunderstandings that underpin the modern critique of spankos is the belief that we want to inflict pain – of a relatively minor kind, perhaps, but pain nonetheless – on actual women who don’t want to be on the receiving end. That may be true of a small, disturbed, atypical minority who prey on those weaker and more vulnerable than themselves. But most of us, whether or not we also actually spank consensually as part of our sex lives, just fantasize about nonconsensual scenarios – and what makes us sane and keeps us comfortable is the latent recognition of the fantasy for what it is.

So it’s important that all these different kinds of mainstream spanking material, whether or not they are ‘obviously posed’, don’t show actual, nonconsensual (or post-consensus) spanking. What we practice when we look at them is the cast of mind that the poet and literary theorist Samuel Taylor Coleridge called ‘willing suspension of disbelief’: we choose to look at them for what they represent, even as at the back of our mind we are always aware that we are looking at fiction and artifice, things created either without specific human subjects or by consenting participants. So the authenticity of the material lies in its verisimilitude rather than the literal representation of actual spanking.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that nobody gets spanked in order to make it look as if she’s being spanked. Obviously that’s not the case in this Santa shot, which takes advantage of faster modern film that has eliminated the motion blur problem:

And the reactions we are shown aren’t necessarily limited to delighted excitement or cute dismay. Back to the ballet we go to watch a more plausibly discomfited Lise having her bottom smacked in Guatemala:

But that’s not pain we’re seeing – it’s performance!

We’ll consider a particular ramification of this next time.

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