I visited the Allen Jones exhibition at the Royal Academy yesterday, the day after it opened. The paintings are interesting, with bright pastel colours and strong movement, often literally bursting out of the frame; the sculptures of dancers are fun, like Matisse’s La Danse come to life. But it’s the fibreglass sculptures of women as furniture – Table, Chair, and Hatstand – that inevitably take centre-stage.
Jones, in interviews, is still mystified at what all the fuss is about. His art doesn’t objectify women, he says: “Women are not the object, they are the subject. Sculpture is the object.” He wanted to make a comment about sculpture, not about women’s place in society; he simply saw an illustration of a woman used as a table in an adult comic and thought it would work well in 3D.
I was prepared to give Jones the benefit of the doubt; to believe that the sculptures were an ironic commentary on the subjugation of women. But that Jones seemingly still has no conception how they could even be viewed as objectifying women, despite describing himself as a feminist, is a tad odd.
There is a film connection to all of this: Stanley Kubrick, for one, admired Jones’s sculptures when they were first exhibited, and asked Jones to work on the Milk Bar scene of his film of A Clockwork Orange. Jones did some sketches, then raised the subject of money. “I’m a very famous film director,” said Kubrick. “This will be seen all over the world and your name will be known.”
In other words, the internet model of paying writers and other artists in “exposure” rather than money is, sadly, nothing new. Jones declined, as it would have taken him several months’ work, but allowed Kubrick to copy his style. The controversy over the resulting film put Jones’s sculptures in the shade.
Kubrick himself withdrew A Clockwork Orange from distribution in the UK after it was linked to the murder of a vagrant by a 16-year-old boy. While I was at Time Out it was shown occasionally at the Scala by Steve Woolley, now a noted director and producer himself, with its title disguised in the listings under pseudonyms such as “A Fruity Mechanical Treat”, but otherwise it remained unseen here until after Kubrick’s death.
The film, in my view, suffers from a similar problem to Jones’s sculptures: it can lurch across the line from being a commentary on sexual violence into a glamorisation of it. The scene where Alex and his “droogs” break into a home and assault a woman while dancing and crooning “Singing in the rape”, to the tune of Singing In The Rain, is justly horrific. But the rape scene in the theatre is filmed in a titillating and voyeuristic way, using a pendulous-breasted and feebly protesting dolly-bird actress.
Apologists will say these were just the times – the fetish scene had gone overground in films such as Barbarella and TV programmes such as The Avengers. And, yes, the extraordinary testimony this weekend about child abuse and murder by ex-MPs and their highly placed cover-ups were of their time, too. It doesn’t make it seem much better. And it doesn’t explain why, even now, Allen Jones can’t see why his sculptures are breathtakingly offensive. Substitute black men for women in the sculptures, and it’s doubtful they would even be shown.