There's nothing like a good ole neologism to make half of the population feel bad about itself. Emily Rappaport's essay on "beta" males has made the rounds on social media this week, and it's an entertaining, if problematic read. It highlights the prevalence of a certain sulky-creative-entitled male temperament that's distinct from the alpha-aggro-entitled male temperament so often lampooned in the media. While Rappaport makes some interesting points, it seems dubious that anyone, especially feminists, should be in the game of policing temperaments. The full version via Topical Cream.
This summer, when I was on the brink of a new relationship, my best friend sent me a series of advisory texts. “I think that Nike frees are a red flag,” she wrote. Then: “Inability to commit is a red flag.” And finally: “Being a misogynist is a red flag.”
These warnings weren’t random. My friend meant that the kinds of guys I’d been drawn to in the past—solitary ones who constructed their power around a studied set of tastes in art, music, and, always, sneakers—used aesthetic preferences, rather than self-awareness or emotional generosity or really any meaningful interactive quality, as proof of opposition to and superiority over stereotypical bros in equivalent positions of privilege. She meant don’t be tricked by Nikes, by an aaaaarg account, by a playlist of noise music, by a studio. She meant don’t be boring.
In a 2014 Rhizome interview, Ann Hirsch asked Jennifer Chan—a net artist whose practice touches on masculine tropes like cash, pizza, and bongs—to define the term “art bro.” Chan gave her response in the form of flowchart quiz that told users whether they were an “Alpha Bro,” a “Nice Lil Beta Bro,” or an “Amazing Omega Male.” She elaborated that the alpha designation, for those who agreed with statements like “I will stop at nothing to succeed in the business of art,” referred to guys who are “shameless” and “sociopathically opportunistic.” This is type of young male artist is seriously industrious. He’s got interns. Stefan Simchowitz wants to make him famous. In an Observer article from last September called “Dean Levin and the Rise of the Bro Artists,” Nate Freeman wrote, “The artists set hours, diligently, and can afford apartments in Manhattan.”
We associate this brand of rising art star with an industry sexism problem that is ancient and known. Like most systemic failures, it can be—and has often been—illustrated through the use of statistics.The centerpiece of an ARTnews special issue on “Women in the Art World,” published earlier this year, was a report called “Taking the Measure of Sexism: Facts, Figures, and Fixes.” (Ratio of men to women artists in MoMA’s permanent collection: 5 to 1. Number of advertisements, out of 73, advertising solo shows by women in the September 2014 issue of Artforum: 11. Discrepancy between the most ever paid for a deceased male artist’s work—a Francis Bacon triptych—a deceased female artist’s work—a Georgia O’Keeffe painting—at auction: about 100 million dollars.) At the time of writing, ArtRank, the (non-parody!) website that provides “data-driven” art investment tips, listed 10 male artists in its 10-person “Peaking” category. We all get the picture.
It’s easy to articulate and condemn misogyny when it’s institutional or financial, and much harder when it’s interpersonal, because you run the risk of sounding petty, and probably also scorned. In other words, the Alpha Bro is a much more obvious target than the Beta, who, Chan explains to Hirsch, “may be polite and eloquent but he tip-toes around being a bro; he feels entitled…to the accomplishments of art bros and schmoozes with who [he] perceive[s] to be art power while crying bitter tears of rejection.”
You may resent the Alpha’s status or dislike his work, but there’s no denying that he’s highly productive. But the Beta, despite self-identifying as an artist, forms his connection to art mostly through consumption. He goes to the right openings, reads the right criticism, browses the right websites, wears the right sneakers, but doesn’t show anyone his work. A female artist wrote to me in an email about her experience, five years ago in New York, of “dorky, angry white guys streaming down from Columbia University, immigrating back from their stint at Staedl,” “circle jerking each other to the tune of French theory” and “giggling about 4chan.”
Their handsome heirs, she wrote, “all got nice studios and well-appointed apartments before they had even made a single artwork….Their scuffed up Nikes were the new New Balances! This was the birth of the art fuccboi, There was a uniform to put on, a vernacular to pick up. I swear it’s like there’s some underground black-book we women have never seen for how to style oneself into a straight white male artist. I guess it’s called the Internet, lol.” The uniform specific enough so as to be completely neutral; the vernacular is canned and, frankly, super boring. The problem is that self-styling, here, is self-definition through the expression of taste, aesthetics, and cultural consumption instead of through work, values, and—most importantly from my perspective—interpersonal relationships.
In a recent article for Medium, “Have You Encountered the Softboy?”, Alan Hanson defines the titular character in sentence-long paragraphs: “He has some art to show you” directly precedes “The Softboy does not necessarily have soft body. In fact he is often wiry and angular.” Much like in the case of my friend’s back-to-back texts about Nikes and commitment, there is no non-sequitur here.