PRINT April 1989

Like Art


Ah, the smell of it!

I OPENED UP THE FEBRUARY issue of Elle magazine and there they were: the most beautiful breasts in the world. Well, the most beautiful photo-breasts, anyway. Crowning a headless torso, they are the focus, the face of the picture. Beautifully lit breasts. Artfully illuminated breasts. Symmetrical.

Proud erect nipples, cool and prominent. Slight goosebumps texture the breast’s surface, around the aureole, as if registering a chill or a thrill. These breasts top a torso of perfect proportions. There is the slightest shadow suggesting a navel. Arms are raised, the right in front, the left in back, at an angle parallel to that of the uplifted nipples. Nipples raised up to heaven by living globes of sustenance. These breasts are in an ad for Calvin Klein’s Obsession for the Body, the first real full-frontal big-time mainstream topless ad.

In 1962, Harper’s Bazaar ran a Richard Avedon photograph of a European socialite, Christina Paolozzi, nude. A few cranks canceled subscriptions, there was a stir in the press, but the picture was a hit. Bareness had broken into fashion magazines, and there was no going back. It was the beginning of the sexual revolution, and it was the best thing that ever happened to the fashion business. By the ’70s, breasts were a regular sight on the beauty, health, and exercise pages, as well as in the beachwear features. But in fashion advertising the frontal-nude taboo stubbornly hung in there. Until now, at the end of the ’80s, as Calvin Klein’s Obsession for the Body boldly breaks the bust barrier with its fierce, shameless nipples.

Calvin Klein has used nudity in print advertising for some time. And there were some shocking moments, such as the original Obsession layout, a group figure study by Bruce Weber with orgiastic overtones and weird werewolflike scratches on the photo. But the breasts were covered with an arm (or a leg!). And nude backs, sides, and butts were old hat in the ads of the rag trade. There was never anything frontal, though, before Obsession for the Body took it all off.

The very artful photo in the ad was taken by Bruce Weber. The breasts remain anonymous, although perhaps they are the breasts of Christy Turlington, Calvin Klein’s house supermodel.

The only copy in the ad is the name of the product: Obsession for the Body/Calvin Klein. The product itself is not visible, although since it is a scent, we may assume that it’s there, evaporating on the breasts, perhaps producing a slight chill, hence the goosebumps.

What does it all mean?

The term “goosebumps” comes from the appearance of the skin of a plucked goose, referring to the bumps raised when the feather follicle is plucked.

Obsession comes from the Latin obsidere, to sit down before, besiege, beset, from ob, on + sedere, to sit.

Obsession: The state of being beset or actuated by the devil or an evil spirit. Compulsive preoccupation with a fixed idea or unwanted feeling or emotion, often with symptoms of anxiety. “Between love and madness there is obsession,” says the Obsession television commercial. And the original Obsession campaign was heavy on the madness end of the spectrum, portraying a whole pretentious family (three generations of males and an older female) waxing apeshit and horny over the Obsession-scented, spoiled-wacko female model.

Fixed idea. An idea, especially an incorrect idea, held persistently and essentially unmodified by an individual despite contrary evidence or rational refutation.

Obsession might also mean: To sit on it.

What do breasts have to do with obsession? Tits! Boobs! Knockers! Hooters! Bazongas! Bazooms! Balcony! Upperdeck! Melons! Swingers! Hand-warmers! Gazongas! Brown Eyes! Bumpers! Headlights! Jersey Cities!

Breasts are often the subject of fixed ideas, but in this ad they seem to mean even more than the representation of a fixed idea. Perhaps these are something else. Perhaps these are The Tits. Platonic tits, perfect, prime, timeless.

Breasts are a symbol of freedom and also of bondage. They symbolize love and nourishment as well as manipulations. Breasts are a two-edged sword. They are the symbol of the bimbo and of the amazon. They are gauges of desire and repression.

But these breasts aren’t talking. Interpretation is up for grabs. Is this the symbol of the milk of human kindness? Or is this the symbol of “milk it for all it’s worth,” beauty making suckers of us all?

These breasts are simply ambiguous, and compared with the old images of Obsession, they are a breath of fresh air. They’re not talking doom and gloom anymore. They’re just looking fresh. That’s what we in the trade call repositioning.

In African-American lingo, “to bite” is to imitate, plagiarize, rip off. When the March Vogue arrived, there it was, a full-page ad for Lily of France lingerie consisting of nothing but a nude woman, eyes closed, pouting in rapture, her right arm caressing her body, creating extra cleavage between her plush mammary devices. It could have been a page in Playboy, but it was a no-lingerie lingerie ad in Vogue. These are only two ads so far, but already they seem to be a trend, a movement, an indication that we are entering an age of gender crossover, where all-purpose advertising erotica targets both male and female consumers with the same image.

The new Obsession campaign also features a companion nude male torso ad selling Obsession for Men for the Body that might also represent a multiple gender targeting strategy. Another Obsession ad features a naked man carrying off a naked woman, caveperson-style; in another, an enraptured young man nuzzles a topless woman’s torso so that her nipple touches his forehead at the third-eye location.

After the sappily decadent and wildly successful TV campaign that introduced the product, this simple, romantically anatomical approach represents a significant repositioning. Why reposition a big success? The “between love and madness there lies obsession” thing worked, but times change. Season to season. Enough madness already! Reposition while you’re ahead. Obsession or bust!

But a blockbuster campaign like this might not only reposition the product, it might reposition the word “obsession” itself. Forget the demons, forget the anxiety, the madness, and those nagging fixed ideas. Don’t obsess on neuroses. Focus on these instead. Here’s a new image of physical health and optimistic upward mobility. Goodbye Freudian post-nuke family confusion. Hello babycakes! In this new era, obsession might mean nothing more scary than “sit on it.”

Glenn O’Brien, a writer who lives in Brooklyn, contributes a monthly column to Interview magazine, “Glenn O’Brien’s Beat.” His column on advertising appears monthly in Artforum.