I was probably inspired to start talking about authority as a principle active in art by Harold Bloom, who has a lot to say on the topic, usually with reference to the Freudian transference. It just occurred to me that his use of the concept is a brilliant swerve away from the discourse of power. You have to be of a certain age and to have lived through a certain history to be fed up with hearing about power, whether it’s feminist talk or the formulaic Foucauldian clichés that get passed around in the university. Art has nothing to do with social power, and has no responsibility for whatever people do to each other. It is not implicated, or complicit, or oppressive, or does anything to sustain or abet any evil at all. But it is constituted around authority, like all other aspects of the human monkey’s life. Another area of interest for Bloom is the authority of religious texts, certainly a relevant topic today, with the war of the Caliphate in the Middle East. Religious wars are fought on behalf of the authority of a poetic fiction. So am I wrong about the innocence of art? Absolutely not, because today all genuine art is blasphemy.
As an image of male power, this picture is definitely comic—but no less serious for that—and comic especially in relation to the other male nudes by Rubens reproduced on this blog over the last year, all of which are abject and very narcissistic/erotic. One might say this nude is realist, and realistic about power, where the others are narcissistic fantasies. In the other three the genitals are covered by a little wisp of cloth, which gives a sense of how proportionately small they are in relation the massive muscled bodies. In the Bacchus that doesn’t seem to be the case, because it’s simply realist. In the other three the entire body is a phallus—the sexual organs shrink in depiction as they grow in fantasy, no pun intended. An aspect of art as sexual display, a recurring topic (cf. Andrea Fraser, Jeff Koons, Carolee Schneeman), and maybe worth more thought under the heading of authority versus power.