NSFW (not safe for work!)

Lately I’ve been entirely fascinated by contemporary art. It’s been a creeping thing, as I’ve been exploring the art beyond the medieval period, trying to follow what interests my eye, and the contemporary stuff is so compelling, in part because it is SO BIZARRE. I love it, and for the first time in ages and ages, it feels like my brain is on fire.

It started pretty slowly, last year with the photography show by Vik Muniz on my birthday, but it’s been picking up steam ever since. The time at the SAM has given me a chance to see more modern art and really sink my teeth into some things (visually), and also to get my head around a new iconography, a new way of seeing, looking, and talking about art.

Anyway, fast forward to the last month or so; it started with the Hirst article on that damn shark. Now I can’t get enough. I’ve spent time at the library at the UW, and I’m on JSTOR at the SAM when I’m on the info desk, reading things and downloading them. And, while I’m at work, I’m looking at images, too, following links. This is what gets me into trouble, like a few days ago.

See, I’m essentially naive about these things. I like sex and death as much as the next person — the pushing of boundaries is part of what excites me so much about contemporary art. (I do wonder if I’ll get bored of this in a few years…) So, imagine my SHOCK AND SURPRISE when a few days ago, I’m poking around looking at things that Jeff Koons has done (I have no idea who he is — I’m a freakin’ medievalist), and amongst the bizarre glossy kitschy ceramic dogs and flowers and strangeness, there are a series of images of who I later learn are Koons and his wife: the first scene looks like the cover of a bodice-ripper romance novel, all air-brushed and ’80s-style cheesy, but then it quickly progresses to some pretty hardcore all-out straight-up porn. And this is ON MY WORK COMPUTER SCREEN. As soon as I figured out what was going on, I couldn’t close that window fast enough. Eeeek! There’s not much that shocks me, but oh man, I wasn’t really prepared for that. Damien Hirst’s severed animal parts and jewel-encrusted skulls, and things? Yeah, those would pass the censors, and likely wouldn’t get me fired. Porn, no matter how tasteful, even if it is art: somehow that is so forbidden that it can’t be justified.

And maybe that’s Koons’ point. Sex is still totally transgressive. Because I’m a total nerd, I’ve been reading Foucault’s The History of Sexuality (Vol. 1). It is surprisingly readable, and I’m only 30 pages in, but already I’m starting to see sexual politics differently. We have this way of putting a box around sexuality, silencing it, keeping it under wraps. For Koons to glamorize and gloss up his private sex life, especially after he has become an established artist — well, do we interact with the images differently? I dunno. I mean, I, for one, I think still have the same visceral response that I do to normal pics of nekked folks getting it on, that is, a mix of morbid curiousity/disgust/fascination and I’m a little turned on. But, the images also bypass all the other underground channels where we normally receive such images — the blackout rack of the 7-Eleven, the pay-channel of your home cable, the privacy of your own home, essentially. I imagine when these were first shown, they were in a brightly lit big gallery, with large prints, with lots of well-dressed people, and possibly even with the artist himself in attendance. Hardly something where you can crawl under the covers and, well, rub one out.

I was stung again today by sex-art when I was poking around at images. I was looking at archived images from the Gagosian Gallery from NYC and came across something quite explicit, and once more had to close my browser window damn quick. Not that I think IE will report me — more that I don’t want colleagues to see and think that I have prurient browsing habits (ok, I might, but I try not to at work). I’m curious if Koons was the first to really put explicit sex in his art (a la hardcore porn), and I’d be curious to know what contemporary critics have had to say about these things. There’s a piece at the SAM right now by Sue Williams — lots and lots of squiggles in orange and blue that if you look for a few minutes, you suddenly realize are a large collection of orifices and organs. What is this transgressive impulse to display sex? And why does sex — and the pleasure that it brings — raise more red flags than the work of someone like Hirst?

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~ by ecp on October 31, 2007.

One Response to “NSFW (not safe for work!)”

  1. Additional quick thoughts (to be deleted):

    -spencer tunick: just nude bodies! – no visual tension
    –Prof. Wollesen at U of T once commented that there was a distinction between where to draw the line between nudity and nakedness??

    -reminded of manet’s Olympia (naked – frank sexuality and vulgarity combined with sensuousness) vs. titian’s venus of urbino (borderline nude – more sensuous, subtle)

    -how much do we read in facial expressions, too? not just reading the body, but the face?
    -the male form is almost never present (ref. Smart Set article about David’s “nose”), and as soon as you have the presence of actual *sex*, then it is absolutely no longer art

    -Manet seems to be interested in this tension between naked and clothed (Déjeuner sur l’herbe – two men having lunch with one naked woman, one in a shift)

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