Text: Nora Rinne
Are you aiming for sexual arousal? If yes, you’re wasting your time reading this journal: this is about art.
What is sex doing in art? When does an artwork cease to be art and become porn or the other way around – and must one of them always make way to the other? Does sex in art deserve our serious attention or should we look the other way? In her book Sex Object. Art and the Dialectics of Desire, Jennifer Doyle explores the place of sex in art and the intersection between art and desire. I discuss Doyle’s interesting insights and her readings of various examples in art, and try to figure out the combination of sex and art, and how its manifestations compare with some other cultural representations of sex, such as the ones in mainstream entertainment and porn.
Doyle starts with a suggestion that art and pornography are not really mutually exclusive opposites and that this idea is “more convenient than it is true”. She sees that these modes of representation overlap and is interested in what is accepted in art and what is not, what we talk about and what we remain silent about. Contemporary art theory, and academic writing in general, are deeply interested in the body, the bodily experience, and sexuality, but as Doyle claims, there is still very little talk about the actual sexual practices 1). We don’t really seem to get into sex.
Social scientist Michel Foucault described in The History of Sexuality how the tendency to think that sexuality reveals the truth in and behind every human being started to develop in the 17th century. We began to see sexuality as something constantly repressed, instead of regarding it as something constructed and as a regime of power 2). Foucault does not argue that sexuality is or isn’t repressed. What interests him is why we started to speak of sexuality in these terms, what was said, how sexual discourses, power and pleasure were connected, and what kind of knowledge was constructed.
The still effectual sexual discourse claims that underneath all these restrictions there is a natural, free flow of sexuality just waiting to be liberated. So if sexuality is the truth about us, liberating it would make us happy and free once and for all. Wouldn’t it?
In its own way, contemporary art has offered an alternative for this view: Doyle points out that sex is often not the Big Secret or the ultimate truth in art. It can be “a small thing that covers” like in Kusama’s Aggregation – Rowboat 3), a sculpture of a rowboat fully covered with mould-like phallic growth, or boring and insignificant. Sex happens in art in all its manifold forms and intensities, its exhilarating passion and mind-numbing boringness, Doyle claims. But for me it seems that the exhilarating passion is exactly the slippery slope where the piece can lose its status as art in a split second, and slide down to (soft) porn that tries to pass as art. Does sex in art have to be boring, bad and messy?
Doyle examines the women in Andy Warhol’s video art and in his art in general. She listens to Ingrid Superstar in Bike Boy (1967-68) rambling on about food to the ‘bike boy’ Joe Spencer, without him paying any attention. During her pointless monologue, she undresses her upper body. Finally she says, “I must be boring someone,” and Doyle reads Superstar’s tone to be almost hopeful, “as if this were her principal aim”. Boring someone is important, when “…the refusal to interest opens up the possibility of something actually happening.” 4) Doyle points out that women’s task in films is usually to hold our interest without becoming a narrative agent 5). Women should be interesting and captivating while doing nothing. Superstar fails to interest the man on screen (Spencer) and the viewer. She’s half naked and boring, and that makes her relax.
Siegfried Kracauer’s essay Boredom advocates the radical power of boredom and its resistance to bourgeois culture 6). Following Kracauer, Doyle describes how Warhol’s “performance of cosmopolitan boredom” can be seen as the postmodern turn of Pop Art, “its refusal of modernism’s weighty self-importance, its negation (emptying out) of the sign.” 7)
In porn, sex is never boring. Everything else might be boring and meaningless, and the sex act is the only act, or the only place where something actually happens. Sex in porn is more like the antithesis of boring in an otherwise boring world. Media researcher Susanna Paasonen has written in her research on porn that people who criticize porn usually complain about the predictable characters and flat or unbelievable storyline. Commonly mentioned criteria for good quality porn are the structure of a narrative film with a proper storyline and telling the story with complex, believable and identifiable characters. This ideal is repeated by critic after critic 8). But some emotions can actually derail sexual desire: feminist porn director Jennifer Lyon Bell concludes, “if the film presents situations or characters that are in any way bothersome to the spectator, the film risks turning them off.” 9) We are given enough to feel engaged, to be able to identify with the character or to feel for the character, but not too much so that the derailing effect wouldn’t make us miss the genre’s main goal: arousing sexual desire in the spectator 10).
And the same rule of unboringness applies to the majority of representations of sex in commercial culture. In mainstream films, for example, sex is often either a wonderful, much anticipated moment of fulfilment happening with the right person, or very distressing, when happening with the wrong person and usually without mutual consent. Mainstream film sex is not boring. It’s either just ‘wonderful beyond words’ or ‘oh so wrong’.
Just like the relaxed and relieved Superstar in Warhol’s video, where she no longer holds anyone’s interest and becomes suddenly self-contained through giving up, sex in art can make us abandon the expectations of constant intense interest and give room for something else: something else than just holding the interest and being wonderful; something else than the purposeful performance of porn; something else than sex being either healthy and consensual or unhealthy and nonconsensual.
In Tracey Emin’s art, Doyle finds something she calls “a bad sex aesthetic” 11). Emin’s work contains stories of sexual abuse, sexual trauma, sexual boredom, class humiliation, painful longing, romantic rejection, and unfulfilled desire. All this Doyle finds very much needed, and Emin’s devoted fans and huge popularity might be indicative of this demand as well. “It seemed to us that we could use more room to acknowledge the importance of experiences of boring or nonorgasmic sex, or humiliation, and experiences that are painful and traumatic (but entirely consensual)”, Doyle writes 12).
Sex in porn never fails, sexual arousal is the goal and it will be reached, at least on film. The spectator’s arousal is the ultimate goal, and if it won’t be reached, it wasn’t so much bad sex but bad porn – the film or other pornographic product – just didn’t do it for her/him, and some more clicking among the endless choices of pornographic material needs to be done. Mainstream commercial entertainment, on the other hand, makes sex to be all about the right person. If you find “the one”, sex is good and fulfilling ever after. In our culture in general, a healthy sex life seems to be an obligation. You should take care of your teeth, exercise, spend quality time with your children and have a healthy sex life. You haven’t worked hard enough if you don’t. And this makes it a tempting option to take off your clothes and start rambling absentmindedly about roast beef.
As Doyle points out, sex in art can be bad without being clearly wrong or against anyone’s will. It can be entirely consensual, but humiliating or boring or unsatisfying. Just bad, but not wrong.
Doyle finds an interesting connection between classical Hollywood melodrama and Tracey Emin’s art. Doyle claims that while watching Hollywood melodrama Stella Dallas 13), and mirroring Stella’s [the female lead] tears, the sentimental spectator “not only identifies with the woman on the screen; when she cries in sympathy, she reproduces Stella’s position.” 14) The same way Emin’s work “draws us too close”. Her work lacks emotional distance and discipline. There seems to be no trace of the disinterested, ideal observer. Doyle describes the emotionally affected visitors and weeping young women in Emin’s exhibitions, as well as Emin’s work, which in itself invites us to relate to it emotionally. Both melodrama and Emin’s works belong to the body genres that involves shedding bodily fluids (mostly tears in these cases). This is the territory “against which high art is traditionally defined.” 15)
Doyle describes how Emin’s drawings are unyielding in bringing the sentimental, the sexual, and art together. This brings up a crucial tension: the artwork becomes too open, too non-independent, clingy and dependent upon the spectator. The art piece seems to want something from the spectator – her desire, interest or tears. The clean, critical thought becomes endangered. Something emotional lurks in something ‘feminine’ and messy. This is modern art’s nightmare of modern art and a postmodern playfield. Even if postmodern times are eager to revisit this territory, the personal, the every day, the sexual etc., it’s often done by carefully keeping a distance, for example, through irony or academic discourse. The sentimental seems to be the brightest warning sign for us contemporary art lovers. Sex is ok if no sentiment is attached to it. If we cannot feel the distance, we get slightly uneasy. What if this is no longer art?
“The fact that porn, like weepies, thrillers and low comedy, is realized in/through the body has given it low status in our culture”, film scholar Richard Dyer writes in his essay on gay porn. ‘Spiritual’ qualities still have higher cultural value than ‘bodily’ qualities 16). The principal aim of porn is to affect our bodies and make the bodily fluids flow. A contemporary artist can play with her/his bodily fluids, paint with blood or collect semen, but art is traditionally far and away when semen, vaginal fluids, tears and saliva come out of the spectator’s body. Art is more like a party pooper in all these situations. If art happens at the wrong moment, you won’t come, cry or laugh.
Radical resistance or timid denial?
When art finds sex, things seem to get complicated, blurry, bad or boring. There are many ways to look at this. Are these messy and unsatisfactory openings a form of radical resistance or cautious denial?
From one point of view, this diversity and obscurity of sex in art can be seen as a very important move away from or expansion of the better-known modes of representing sex: entertainment industry’s romantic, never messy and over intensified first-times with ‘The One’ that make everything else look embarrassing, wrong or violating, or the just-sex representations of porn, which do not allow anything to block the viewer’s journey from arousal to climax. Art is able to bring along all the rest; the sex that doesn’t sell as well as porn’s you’ll-come-for-sure-and-nothing-else-matters promise or romantic first kisses, but broaden the horizon of sex immensely. Doyle’s book is an important portrayal of all this. Sex in art can be boring, bad, messy and without climax, and that’s why it should be embraced.
On the other hand, art just seems to be afraid of sexual arousal. The barrier between art and sex has a long history and it has been very convenient in many ways. This barrier has been one of the tools to tell us what is art and what is not. Art has its added value, its special place in our society (even though we might argue that it should be even more appreciated), and we need to be able to block some things out of that special place. Art has been erotic but not sex. Art can portray the beauty of naked women, but it should not be read as an invitation to sexual arousal. Art can represent sex but the art piece doing that must not be seen as…, well, sexy. If the sex that art represents is boring and alienated, we are safe. If the audience is not sexually aroused, or pretends well enough they are not, we are safe.
Contemporary art has its strength in its ability and eagerness to find contradictions, staggering moments and unbalanced positions. The challenge is to see the contradictions in its own rules and definitions, weaknesses in its own boundaries and the willingness to transgress them. Maybe the next step in art could be away from the denial of arousal and desire. Maybe this is already happening. Maybe the emperor is not only naked but has a hard on. And maybe, just maybe, there is a tear in the corner of the emperor’s eye.
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1) Doyle 2006, xvii-xxi, 147 (note 8. to Introduction).
2) Foucault 1980, 6-7. See Foucault’s ”repressive hypothesis”.
3) Yayoi Kusama, Aggregation Rowboat, 1962-65.
4) Doyle 2006, 93.
5) Doyle 2006, 95.
6) Kracauer 1995.
7) Doyle 2006, 93.
8) Paasonen 2015, 41.
9) Bell 2001,41.
10) Bell 2001, 37–41.
11) Doyle 2006, 97.
12) Doyle 2006, 99.
13) King Vidor, Stella Dallas, 1937.
14) Doyle 2006, 111.
15) Doyle 2006, 111.
16) Dyer 1992,139.
Bell, Jennifer Lyon. 2001. ”Character and Cognition in Modern Pornography”. In Anu Koivunen & Susanna Paasonen (eds.): Conference Proceedings for affective encounters: rethinking embodiment in feminist media studies. Turku: Turun yliopisto, 36–42.
Doyle, Jennifer. 2006. Sex Object: Art and Dialectics of Desire. Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press.
Dyer, Richard. 1992. “Coming to terms: Gay Pornography”. Teoksessa Richard Dyer Only Entertainment. London & New York: Routledge, 138-149.
Foucault, Michael. 1980. The History of Sexuality. New York: Vintage Books.
Kracauer, Siegfried. 1995. The Mass Ornament : Weimar Essays (orig. Das Ornament der
Masse, 1924). Translated and edited by Levin, Thomas Y.. Harvard: Harvard University Press.
Paasonen, Susanna. 2015. Pornosta. Turku: Eetos.