Conventional wisdom has it that in visual culture the female body, not the male, is viewed as the primary object of desire. Germaine Greer argues that until the nineteenth century the image of the female body was not drawn from life but constructed on aesthetic principles. The naked body that was instead studied and portrayed with heart-stopping immediacy in hundreds of guises, most of them to some extent erotic, some of them sadistic, is that of the boy.
Since the elevation of the female nude as the subject of the artist's gaze, we have become curiously insensitive to the short-lived beauty of the young male. Though male nudes display their genitals (as female nudes never have done) we do not admit to ourselves that they too may be objects of heterosexual desire or that women have eyes to see. By censoring their response to stunning depictions of ravishing boys, perhaps presuming that they are designed to appeal only to homosexual men, women deny themselves a wealth of refined and complex pleasure.
With over two hundred images drawn from the whole history of Western art, illustrating the vicissitudes of the beautiful male – as toy boy, virgin soldier, naked martyr or winged genius, angel or seducer, narcissist or worshipper – we are invited to appreciate boys in all their sensuality, spontaneity and vulnerability. In exploring the iconic ideal of the beautiful boy, whether a sculpture of Cupid or David, a painting by Caravaggio or Van Dyck, or a photograph by Nan Goldin or Sally Mann, Germaine Greer demolishes one of the last great Western taboos.