Sunday, January 01, 2012

Fetish Pictures

In late 2007, the largest exhibition of erotic art in the UK, Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now, was described by the respected institution which mounted it (so to speak) as being about not about sex but "boundaries of acceptability". This didn't stop an English critic Jonathon Jones writing about his sexual response to it in The Guardian newspaper.
It's not often that a respected critic admits that sex in art has anything to do with sexuality. But Jones had the late art historian, Kenneth Clark to back him up: "No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even though only the faintest shadow - and if it does not do so it is bad art and false morals." Jones goes on to describe Picasso as being "the most sexual artist there ever was".
Picasso was intensely sexual in his art and life. For him, sex and art were inextricable. His lovers were his muses and he often had several at once. It's as if every new art work began with a sexual relationship, resulting in a large body of work that was inescapably erotic. But Picasso has never been dismissed as an 'erotic artist': in the encoded langauge of art insiders, the term 'erotic' is often dismissive, even derogatory. Especially when the artist is a woman.
Like male artists who sleep with their model-muses, my art is entangled with my sex life. My libido and 'creative energy' are the same thing and I feel it even when my subject matter isn't sexual. I have a rudimentary tattoo near the base of my spine, a reworking of the eliptical shape of an atom symbol into the shape of a butterfly. Done when I was young, it marks the origin of a faint vibrating hum between my spine and my pelvis that is at its most intense when I am fucking or making art.
Most critics and curators are discomforted when an artist talks about sex and art in the same breath but they begin to squirm when that artist is a woman. Talk about it too openly and you risk not only accusations of being exploitative but also horrid abuse. Take this example in the comments section of my blog:
"Don't pretend you haven't traded on sexuality when it suited you - your work and blog is littered with it and you revell in it. On top of that, you clearly manipulate a substantial segment of your collector base with images based on sexualised themes, sell them the source Polaroids and you're quite happy to bank the cheques."
And yet it's long been accepted that male artists' sexual desires, incited (but only partly satiated) by their muses, influence their creative drive. As Jonathan Jones notes, in his article about the Barbican exhibition, "It was said that Raphael so adored his mistress - and loved sex - that a patron had to install her in his house in order to get Raphael to finish his frescoes there."
The term 'erotic fetishism' was coined by French experimental psychologist Alfred Binet to explain the behaviour of people who were turned on something other than the human. He divided it into 'spiritual love' (which is not about religion but a desire based on ideas) and 'plastic love' (a desire for physical objects).
For me, being excited about art is exactly the same feeling as having a raging libido. For me, both begin with art not a person. It doesn't often work the other way round; I don't get ideas from sexual attraction or sex. I suspect that Picasso's and Raphael's raging sexual desires were incited not by their so-called 'muses' but by visions of the art they would make (regardless of who they were trying to seduce).
The assumption that an artist is aroused by a muse or lover fits with a conventional notion of human sexuality. It also neatly equates their creativity with procreation, fitting it into a religiously inclined 'natural order' – first comes a desire for a person, then a desire to create (whether its new life or art) – and a church-bound moral edict that its ok to fuck to procreate but not for pleasure.
To be turned on by art (with sex only one part of satsifying that arousal) is, by definition, fetishistic. But I embrace it. When I am not making new art, my libido wanes. When I am, my libido is high. My sexuality is not just inextricably linked to art, it's a by-product of it. I suspect that it was no different for many other artists, male and female, who – as it were – came before me.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

and so 2012 has started.