SEX & FINE ART

by DAVID STEINBERG

David Steinbert writes frequently on the culture and politics of sex in America. His books include Photo Sex: Fine Art Sexual Photography Comes of Age; Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life; Our Wonderful Bodies and The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self. He is U.S. photo representative for Cupido magazine (Norway/Denmark), and Associate Editor of Sexuality and Culture. His writing has appeared in Salon, Playboy, Boston Phoenix, Los Angeles Weekly, SF Weekly, Cupido, The Sun, Libido, The Realist, CleanSheets, Scarlet Letters, Metro Santa Cruz, and Anything That Moves. He is currently completing a book of essays, This Thing We Call Sex: Reflections on the Culture and Politics of Sex in America.

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Art is the search for meaning, the experience of meaning made visible. In a work of art, soul meets soul; essence meets essence. Art is... the continuous removal of veils in order to expose the soul -- the individual soul, the common soul, the universal soul.
-- Tom Millea, photographer

Poetry is the manifestation/translation of a vision, an illumination, an experience. One primary responsibility on the part of the poet [is] that he tell the truth as beautifully, as amazingly, as he can; that he ignite his own sense of wonder; that he work alchemy within the language.
-- Lenore Kandel, poet

What happens when we apply the language of art, the language of fine art, to the subject of sex? Hard to imagine, isn't it? We don't generally mention art and sex in the same breath, in the same sentence, in the same room, in the same part of town. Indeed, some say that sex and fine art are antithetical by their very natures and therefore should be kept apart, that the introduction of sex -- which is low and unclean -- somehow sullies anything in the realm of fine art -- which is high and virtuous. In 2002, the New York State Board of Regents, responding to a petition from the Museum of Sex for recognition as a non-profit artistic institution, proclaimed that the very name ‘Museum of Sex’ was ludicrous, that the subject of sex would "defame" and "ridicule" the essential concept of what a museum was all about.

Why 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 we grow.

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.

Even 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 literary circles.

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 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.

The Mapplethorpe 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 will be.

David's monthly column, Comes Naturally, is available free and confidential.