There is a famous photograph of a bodybuilder in this show – biceps flexed, sinews taut, posing like Charles Atlas on a summit. The figure is naked, the attitude somewhere between heroic athlete and statue. But there is something missing: it may take a second before you notice the lack of a penis. This is Lisa Lyon, photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe in 1980, after becoming women’s world pro bodybuilding champion.
Hanging alongside this glamorous double take is another of Arnold Schwarzenegger in much the same pose, biceps colossally exaggerated. He looks absurd, whereas Lyon does not. Whatever it is that makes a man – which is the vexed subject of this exhibition – it certainly cannot be muscles.
How masculinity is performed, coded, socially constructed, hetero-normatively affirmed, disrupted, subverted – the socio-jargon is unflinchingly 70s – is laid out at the Barbican Art Gallery in more than 300 photographs and films by 50 artists. Some are well known. Herb Ritts’s gleaming portraits of porn model Fred, topless with tyres, comes from the aptly named Body Shop series. Richard Billingham’s tender closeups of Ray, his skinny, drunk dad, are part of a prize-winning anthology. Catherine Opie’s high-school American football players are regularly shown as evidence of the crisis in masculinity, along with Rineke Dijkstra’s bruised bullfighters, blood marring their elegant jackets.
But there are revelations alongside these familiar classics. German artist Marianne Wex’s comical cuttings archive observes, among much else, the ubiquity of manspreading in 1977. Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase’s time-lapse portraits of himself with his ageing father are a magnificent memorial to paternal love. And Larry Sultan’s tender images of his dad trying to fix the vacuum cleaner, practising his golf swing, or standing uselessly by the empty pool in California, seem to reverse the roles, so that the son becomes anxious parent to the father.
But these father-son studies are unusually affecting and personal. The show veers hard towards generalities. There are the mandatory photographs of off-duty soldiers, teenage cowboys and young transgender people, with a regular emphasis on vulnerability, as if they were all the same. There are the obligatory shots of coming out on Christopher Street in New York in 1976, and gang members cradling small babies. Hal Fischer’s Gay Semiotics of 1977 is shown in full, from the leather boy to the cowboy to the guide to signalling with handkerchiefs and keys. This was apparently regarded as deadpan wit, back in the liberated day; now it looks more like a catalogue of stereotypes.
Which goes straight to one argument with this show (which is, admittedly, all about talking points). It seems to treat men as types. The whole first room is devoted to soldiers, as if that is where we all might begin – with masculinity as inherently martial.
There are photographs of Palestinian fighters asked to pose like film actors in Beirut; Israeli soldiers dozing (vulnerably) on a bus; the Taliban holding hands, in heavy kohl, with a backdrop of flowers. These are all presented as subversive, but only if you think of soldiers as a single homogeneous type. The Taliban shots were discovered, heavily retouched, in a Kandahar photobooth. The curators claim they “directly contradict the public image of the soldier in this overwhelmingly male-dominated patriarchal society”. But the Taliban are obviously monkeying around with the props; and it seems a trivial point anyway, considering the AK-47s in every second shot.
A wall of Richard Avedon’s Rolling Stone portraits of post-Watergate power brokers shows them as mainly white, in suits. Or at least that is how you might perceive The Family in this context, especially given its positioning opposite Karen Knorr’s crudely satirical shots of gentlemen’s clubs. But Avedon’s series is enormously more subtle: it includes Katharine Graham of the Washington Post, the FBI associate director who would turn out to be Deep Throat, and Nixon’s smiling secretary, invited to stand in for her skulking boss.
Of course, there are exceptional exhibits throughout. Duane Michals’s The Return of the Prodigal Son – the boy arriving home naked, his father handing over his own clothing, piece by piece, until he is himself naked – is a superbly concise parable in five shots. Kiluanji Kia Henda’s safari scenes are shattering parodies of everything from African dictators to museum dioramas. And nobody who sees Anna Fox’s My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words – photographs of her poignant attempts at beauty and order, captioned with his horrifying threats – is likely to forget it.
But too often the show feels dated. It is one thing to include Warhol’s riveting 1979 interviews with male models – artist, schoolboy, Cuban immigrant – who are trying to support their studies with easy money and don’t care much about their looks. But there is very little representation of men today, no Timothée Chalamet to set against Arnie, no sense of the terrible pressures on boys, and nothing to counter the ho-ho humour of Hans Eijkelboom’s 1973 sequence With My Family. Here the artist knocked on strangers’ doors asking to take a family photograph. In each shot he himself assumes the role of paterfamilias because the real fathers were never there, having left their wives and children at home.
There is not much here about work – unless you count the wall of Hollywood actors playing Nazis. You would never think, from this show, that men ever earned a living, cooked a meal or read a book (though there is a sententious vitrine of Men Only magazines). Beyond the exceptions given, there is scarcely anything about the heart or intellect. Men are represented here almost entirely in terms of their bodies, sexuality or supposed type.
It is hard to tell whether the inclusion of the worst work here is cock-up, so to speak, or conspiracy. But it shows the flaw in presenting men as instances instead of human beings. It is a film of frat-house jocks at Yale competing to see who can shout loudest and longest. The winner will receive a keg of beer. The film-maker’s inducement makes him party to the very stereotypes he seeks to expose.
• At the Barbican Art Gallery, London, until 17 May