Star turn

November 26, 1999

Nudity, sexuality and the Stones are par for the course, as Melody Mellor finds out from Leeds communications students.

"Some of the material you will see today," began Richard Howells, "is so explicit that I could not have got it from the newsagents close to this campus. Instead, I had to obtain it from the library ... and anyone can see it."

Appetites whetted, 50 or so second-year students and I prepared to be shocked at a lecture on "John Berger, sexuality and representation", one of 20 that, together with biweekly seminars, make up a core module on the communications studies BA at the University of Leeds.

To aid concentration, Dr Howells invites students to play any music they consider relevant while waiting for each lecture to begin. "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Honky Tonk Woman" had left us ready for serious sauciness. But first the theory. Dr Howells recollected that the previous lecture had considered some visual works in the context of Berger's Ways of Seeing, a mainly Marxian critique about the relation of art, property and capitalism.

For the first half, he proposed reconsidering Ways of Seeing in the light of Peter Fuller's Seeing through Berger. Opposing Berger, Fuller suggested that we should beware of interpreting pre-20th-century art by the mores of our time or sociologically, but we should use art history and the evidence of our eyes.

Projecting a slide of Hans Holbein the Younger's The Ambassadors, which Berger said was a celebration of status and achievement, Dr Howells said he had ignored motifs such as a skull, visible only from a certain angle, which indicated an awareness of the transience of life, success and material comfort. A more complex message.

Cutting to the chase, Dr Howells suggested that Ways of Seeing was also about the relationship between the visual arts and society as a whole. In Berger's view, art provided evidence of a social imbalance against women: "Men act; women appear." The evidence provided by Dr Howells - slide after slide of art works depicting women who had unaccountably lost their kit, often in inappropriate surroundings - seemed to support Berger. It was everywhere, from the equestrian ready-for-battle statue of the Black Prince in Leeds City Square, which, for no apparent reason, was surrounded by an avenue of almost naked, female torch-bearers, to Bucher's L'Odalisque Brune, who wore little more than a come-hither look familiar to readers of some "specialist" magazines.

Dr Howell's final point was to consider: "How much of what we think of as art is really pornography? More controversially, how much of what we think of as pornography is really art?" He reinforced this with a slide of Courbet's The Origin of the World. "Give it a fancy title, and all of a sudden, it's art," he said, juxtaposing it with images from an edition of Playboy. Courbet won the prize for explicitness, hands down.

Dr Howell not only encourages students to question and comment during lectures and seminars, but gives them time to promote their own events, be they club nights or theatrical productions. They were a lively, questioning bunch, who seemed thoroughly to enjoy the new perspectives and the critical and theoretical armoury on offer.

"The teaching on this module is so good, so entertaining and enjoyable, that I'd want to take it even if it weren't part of the core course," said one.

I might pop back and join them.

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