Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Moral Outage

The late American novelist and teacher, John Gardner – who wrote, among many other books, Grendel and The Sunlight Dialogues – was a champion of something he liked to call 'moral fiction'. In his view, moral fiction aspired "to discover those human values that are universally sustaining". I've never been quite certain what he meant by "universally sustaining" and how he came to define that as moral but I used to think it had little relevance to my art. At first glance, my most recent work has been defined by a thematic constant of moral ambivalence. However, I think they do have a 'moral' under-pinning, even if it is not exactly what Gardner had in mind when he wrote (in On Moral Fiction, published in 1978) about his elevated ambition "to test human values, not for the purpose of preaching or peddling a particular ideology, but in a truly honest and open-minded effort to find out which best promotes human fulfillment."
A few people, including some influential (mostly middle-aged, male) curators and gallerists, have expressed disquiet about my recent work and its graphic depiction – its 'glamorisation', as one put it – of my own unabashed user-experience of the sex trade. I suspect they mistake realism for a crude marketing ploy – or worse, think that a young woman should shy away from delving too deeply into the darker inclinations of her own, uncertain sexuality. I don't see anything glamorous in my recent works. I am simply trying to draw the instinctually remote viewer into much the same emotional transaction – and literal dissection – as Damien Hirst offers in the opportunity to walk through the glassed-in, formaldehyde-preserved viscera of a dead cow. I want the sweet-sour scent of sexual fluids, cheap lube, booze and stale perfume to pervade my paintings to the point that they teeter between prurience and discomfort.
Maybe what's most novel about the precarious juggling act of my most recent works is that it's performed by a female artist. I suspect that this amplifies the dismissive clamor from those arbiters of taste who think that contemporary art post-Emin should somehow not be so intimate – and even if it is Emin, raw, 'deviant' sex still isn't really a suitable subject for a woman.

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