does our culture keep the idea of sex and the idea of fine art
so far apart? All the other grand aspects of life are familiar
and well-respected subjects for artists of all disciplines.
Love, traditionally so close to sex, is a veritable home base
for artistic inspiration. What more appropriate subject could
there be for art than love? Great paintings, great novels, great
poetry, great sculpture, great photography -- there are dozens,
hundreds, of examples of each that address one aspect or another
of love, inspiring praise and wonder from all strata of society.
The same is true
of art and beauty, whose interface we take for granted -- a
time-honored artistic convention, beyond question, beyond reproach.
Art and joy, art and tragedy, art and religion, art and death
-- all of these connections we honor and encourage.
We apply the language
of art to all the fundamental issues of being alive, all the
great wonders of life, all the great mysteries. We invite art
to offer us insight into the complexity of what it means to
be alive and to be human, and we are enriched, expanded, and
grateful when it does. Art helps us to understand ourselves,
our place in the world, our place in the universe. It adds depth
and subtlety, complexity and nuance, to how we see ourselves,
our lives, and the people around us. It lifts us beyond the
mundane, beyond the temptation to be simplistic, beyond kitsch.
It reminds us about what is important, and raises questions
otherwise muted by the noise of daily life and the constant
assault of facile media.
Indeed, it's the
desire to say something meaningful about life's big issues,
to express deep feeling, to convey vital experiences that inspires
the creation of most great art; and these artistic expressions
speak to us in ways that are simply not available through other
means of communication. We learn things from art -- whether
it be visual or verbal, paintings or novels, photos or poems
-- that we cannot learn from scientific treatises, from newspaper
reports, from documentary narratives, from statistical analyses
of quantifiable data, even from counselors and therapists.
All of this vital
insight, all of this enlightening perspective, all of this subtle
wisdom, is denied us in relation to sex when we decree, formally
or informally, that fine art and sex must have nothing to do
with each other. Without a cultural base of true sexual art
-- work that is genuinely both sexual and artistic -- the ways
we think about sex and the ways we think about ourselves as
sexual people become stale, repetitive and trivialized.
Because we live
in a culture that is obsessed with sex, a culture that is loaded
to the gills with flip sexual references and innuendoes, we
are flooded with messages that collectively encourage us to
believe that sex is trivial and superficial, that sex is nothing
more than a compulsion (at worst), or an amusement (at best).
Advertising, television, Hollywood and commercial pornography
all share this light-hearted, uncomplicated view of sex. It
is the view of sex that most people want to hear. It is the
view of sex that sells a seemingly infinite range of commercial
products. It is the view of sex that fits most comfortably into
our sexual fantasies, and therefore is most pleasing and effective
when we want to masturbate.
But art is not
about selling commercial products and art is not primarily about
turning us on and getting us off. Not that there's anything
wrong with sexual material whose main intent is to make our
times of masturbation more enjoyable. But this is a different
function from what we generally ask of art.
What we want from
art is that it tell the truth about its subject, and tell that
truth in an illuminating way -- as both photographer Tom Millea
and poet Lenore Kandel suggest in the quotes above. We don't
ask a photograph or a novel about grief to help us grieve better,
faster, or more intensely. We ask it to convey something about
grief that we don't already know. Or, perhaps, to portray grief
in a way that is so clear, so powerful, so accurate, that the
portrayal awakens something inside us and therefore helps us
see something that we didn't know was there, or see something
differently from how we saw it before. We read a story or a
poem, we see a painting or a photograph, and it gives us language,
that we didn't have before, to understand what we have been
experiencing. "Yes," we say, "that's it. That's
what I feel. That's what I have felt." And as a result
God knows, we can
use all the help we can get to see and understand our sexuality
more thoroughly, which makes the presence -- and the absence
-- of artful examination of sex -- all the more important.
though it has always been, and continues to be, an uphill battle
socially and politically, the last fifty years have seen the
slow, painful emergence of some truly illuminating artistic
perspectives on sex. In literature, there was the groundbreaking
work of D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller, two writers who directly
and truthfully portrayed sex, not as some idealized fantasy,
but in the matrix of the real confusions, fears, and conflicts
that were at the core of their respective sexual worlds.
For telling the
truth about sex, for refusing to dilute either the importance
of sex or its complexity, both Miller and Lawrence were attacked
as immoral and ridiculed as insignificant hacks. For decades,
this writing, now acknowledged as among the finest English prose
of the twentieth century, could not be published in the U.S.
for fear of subjecting its publishers to obscenity prosecution.
Eventually, of course, the work of both Miller and Lawrence
was indeed published and successfully defended in court, and
the idea that it was artistically legitimate to write so frankly
and directly about sex became accepted in even the most established
As a result, many
others have written eloquently and perceptively about sex, speaking
their own sexual truths, confirming the sexual realities of
thousands, millions, of readers. Gore Vidal, Lenore Kandel,
Dorothy Allison, Marco Vassi, John Berger, Monique Vittig come
to mind, but there are hundreds of others. Collectively, these
writers have built a sex-literary foundation from which truly
thoughtful, complex sexual fiction continues to spring.
In the visual arts,
it has been more difficult for sex and fine art to establish
widely accepted cultural ground. In 1968, Betty Dodson pioneered
a monumental show consisting of powerful sexual drawings --
an exhibit of beautiful images that depicted couples being sexual
in no uncertain terms. Her drawings were exhibited in the heart
of New York's respectable Madison Avenue gallery world, and
well received by critics and the public alike. A subsequent
show of her work, however, celebrating women masturbating, proved
more than the established New York art world could handle. The
show was condemned critically, a blow from which both Dodson
and mainstream New York art have yet to recover.
In the realm of
photography, there has been an even stronger objection to the
idea of sexual fine art. Although there has been a truly monumental
outpouring of thoughtful, brilliant work by dozens of skilled
photographers, particularly in the last ten or fifteen years,
little of this photography has been shown in mainstream galleries
and museums, or published by mainstream presses. As a result,
the contribution of this work toward bettering our understanding
and appreciation of sex has been extremely limited.
A pioneering retrospective
of celebrity photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's work, including
a generous sampling of Mapplethorpe's intensely explicit homoerotic
s/sexual imagery, was shown at New York's respected Whitney
Museum in 1988 without major fuss or critical condemnation.
A similar Mapplethorpe retrospective in 1990, however, became
the subject of intense political controversy, and even police
intervention. The Corcoran Museum in Washington, D.C. canceled
a scheduled Mapplethorpe exhibit under the heat of right-wing
Congressional criticism, setting off a national debate about
Mapplethorpe's work and, more generally, about publicly-funded
art that deals directly with sex.
exhibit did find homes in respected museums in Boston, Berkeley,
and Cincinnati, but seven of the exhibit's photos were physically
seized by police when the show opened in Cincinnati, and the
curator of the museum was arrested and charged with obscenity.
(He was later acquitted.) So, while the Whitney Museum's courage
in showing Mapplethorpe's sexual work was a real breakthrough
in legitimizing the intersection of fine art photography and
sex, the subsequent controversies served to warn other galleries
and museums of potentially dire consequences if they ever dared
to exhibit equally explicit sexual art, regardless of how artful
or thoughtful that work might be. In the wake of the Mapplethorpe
flap, and in the increasingly anti sexual political climate
of the 1990s, fine art sexual photography remained most decidedly
outside the boundaries of anything resembling mainstream legitimacy.
In an attempt to
draw attention to marginalized, but beautiful and important,
fine art sexual photography, I began work five years ago on
a book that I hoped would be a testimonial to the possibilities
and the importance of this body of work. That book, Photo
Sex: Fine Art Sexual Photography Comes of Age, has just
been published by Down There Press. Photo Sex brings
115 sexual photographs by 31 photographers together in one volume
in the hope that the collective power and beauty of these images
can demonstrate to the non-sexual art world that it is indeed
possible to combine unambiguous sexual focus with high artistic
quality and intent in the photographic medium.
The verdict is
still out on how our culture feels about the integration of
art and sex in the visual realm, and most pointedly in the realm
of photography. One thing is sure, however: As long as we continue
to dismiss and punish artists who choose to honor sex as an
important, fascinating, and complex aspect of life, the more
impoverished all of our sexual perspectives and sexual lives
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