The Gioconda of the gentleman’s club

August 25, 2018

You’re disgusted. I know it’s been more than a few days, and with the media gnashing and thrashing on such a lightning-fast cycle, you’ve probably forgotten it. The country is riven and raging, and all we want to do is fight — half of us on the left and half on the right. Everyone, it seems is just complaining and yelling, pain and outrage boiling from their apoplectic faces.

So let’s take a little time out from fulminating and enjoy a spot of art. I refer to the photograph attached to this commentary. It shows Stephanie Clifford, an adult entertainer whose stage name is Stormy Daniels and who is famous, for some reason.

According to the Columbus Dispatch, Clifford was arrested July 12 during a performance at Sirens strip club because she allegedly allowed three patrons who turned out to be undercover police officers to touch her.

Clifford was bundled into a van, where she was informed that she would be charged with a misdemeanor violation. Prurient paparazzi followed the van to the police station, where one of them found an ideal vantage point from which to depict her salaciously in handcuffs as she was marched into a shadowy ground-level entrance.

In reply to the voyeurs’ shouted requests for comment, she replied simply and rather calmly: “What happened is wrong.” Then they took her picture. Then the police took her picture, which you see here — her mug shot, if you will.

And then the case was dismissed.

Wait, what? The “art” is where?

Here, I say. Because Stormy rocks the real thing, the sfumato eyes of the original Gioconda.

Yes, I mean Mona Lisa. And now maybe you’re getting disgusted again.

But hang around for a few more words. I’m not talking about good and evil, nor the meaning of eternal beauty, nor the mastery of painterly brushstrokes or the chronicling of Renaissance thought. I’m saying that art can be found in an image, constructed or identified, that makes the viewer think.

In this case, as in Leonardo’s painting, the image depicts a stare that acts as a mirror.

Now, to be clear, I don’t agree with the simplistic premise that adult entertainment is the single fundamental well-spring of American immorality and crime. But I do think it can be exploitative, addictive and spiritually destructive. I would be deeply concerned if I saw someone dear to me going near the pornography business.

But that doesn’t mean that Clifford has nothing meaningful to say, or that this graphic registration of a moment in her life doesn’t contain a wealth of visual meaning. Why make a fuss about this photograph? Because she returns the camera’s gaze with a penetrating and enigmatic expression, which might be a smile or a frown or a scowl or a smirk.

The expression is slightly disheveled and smudged, and it confronts a fraught situation, but unlike so many images and messages in our media, it is unpanicked.

I’d rather never test this possibility, but if I’m ever the subject of this kind of portrait, I hope I have a tenth of the dark-and-stormy composure you see in this photo. She has it together and she’s handling business on a bad day. And mug shots aren’t usually like this; they’re a bit rough, a bit rustic, and redolent of bleary confusion and old sweat, with perhaps an added dash of fear, squalor and shame.

We can see something in this portrait’s self-possessed gaze, and I don’t mean just “that dirty girl who does that for a living.” Perhaps we see someone who has made sage observations about the media and about sociopolitical currents in the United States. Perhaps we see a businesswoman who has taken a particular path to get here from there and would not recommend that path to her daughter. Perhaps we see someone who would fight like a lioness to protect her child. And if we’re going to dismiss those possibilities and just write her off because she’s that dirty woman, perhaps the mirror has something else to tell us.

In dismissing this case, the Columbus city attorney’s office determined that enforcing Ohio’s no-touch law is “legally problematic” and that its application was inappropriate in this instance. Being neither an attorney nor a policeman, I’m no expert on whether it takes not one but three undercover detectives to defend citizens’ propriety by touching go-go dancers. One is tempted to observe that if you enter the forest at night, you’re going to encounter some wild animals. And that’s where this portrait came from.

I expect Clifford would chuckle at the idea of someone taking the time to deconstruct her mug shot, because unlike many on the left and on the right, she can laugh at herself and comment with some subtlety on the nature of public insult. She has shown that she can count to 10 instead of saying something dumb, and knows how not to flail reactively and dissemble vengefully.

Unlike many on the left and on the right, she states what she is and does so without apology or pretense. According to the New York Times, when a Twitter troll opined that “dumb whores go to hell,” she retorted, “Whew! Glad I’m a smart one.”

Another wag asked “Are those real?” to which she replied, “Well you’re not imagining them.” Not to get all semiotic, but this comeback was kind of snappy. Almost Churchillian.

Maybe it’s just provocative and superficial to compare the photo to Leonardo’s painting. For all that Mona Lisa is, she doesn’t have a storm of scandal swirling around her. Perhaps the frank gaze in the mug shot has more in common with other historic images of women.

Titian and Toulouse-Lautrec painted alluring views of courtesans and companions who looked right back at the viewer, unapologetic about their possibly compromising circumstances. And in Manet’s “Lunch on the Grass,” this gaze comes from a woman who is sitting in an idyllic scene without much protection from the elements, and is flanked by two clothed gentlemen who are besotted with admiration and ready to follow wherever they are led.

Like Clifford, she is cryptically bemused by the attention you’re lavishing upon her, because she understands what brought you to her, and that would be the hook.

Whether the medium is Titian’s tableau, Twitter on a tablet, TMZ or the Daily Telegraph, you pay attention because that hook jump-started the lizard part of your brain, baited the click from your twitching finger, and sucked you in.

So I ask you for five minutes to consider not falling for the hook and consider what a picture is and whether it can be considered art just because someone identifies it, frames it and points it out as such. Perhaps the criterion for answering this question is whether the identified image goes beyond just conveying information or looking pretty and makes you, the viewer, think new and clear thoughts — thinking for yourself, as opposed to raging reflexively because Rachel Maddow or Sean Hannity told you to. Maybe the image, which I’ve rashly called art, isn’t at all, but maybe it will make you think something new.

And if that happens, maybe you could enjoy a five-minute break from the anger. Five minutes you aren’t worrying that San Antonio middle-schoolers are chanting “Build a wall!” to shout down other San Antonio middle-schoolers expressing themselves in class. Five minutes you don’t have to hear the left combatively exhorting the public to harass senators in restaurants. Five minutes you don’t have to watch the right ham-handedly advocating the forcible separation of families.

Five minutes.

Jeremy Beer is a human-performance researcher and writer living in San Antonio.

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