Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Clinic and the Brothel: A Thought on Two Constructions of Sexuality under Modernity

If Foucault and his followers are at least partly right--as they probably, partly, are--and we partially create through our discourse the very sexualities that we purport to 'represent' or 'investigate,' then the sexuality that we have constructed for ourselves under modernity can be seen to exhibit a curious and obvious bifurcation. Sexuality as constructed by intellectuals, scholars and scientists differs drastically from that created by modern artists. The intellectual discourse of sexuality, descending through Freud from the pioneering 19th-century sexologists (old Crafty Ebbing and Have-a-look Ellis) to Kinsey and the comedy team of Masters and Johnson, et al. (to say nothing of the longtime owner of Courbet's l'Origine du Monde (and who because of that fact, as we shall presently see, should have known better), Jacques Lacan), has yet to successfully fight free of its clinical origins. Indeed, the way intellectuals (especially scientists) have talked and written about sex for the past century is almost a parody of medical discourse: a robotically hyperrational, Vulcanly calm, Spockianly emotionless scientific language. (Of course I'm overstating; hyperbole is my pianoforte.) The intellectual discourse, in short, has yet to leave the hospital where it was born. By contrast, the artistic discourse of modern sexuality, from Courbet's pathbreaking pussy painting to Deborah de Robertis's 2014 performance piece in front of it at the Musee d'Orsay, has long been a discourse of the brothel. I'm thinking not only of Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec's literal (and literary) brothel scenes, but also of Matisse's sinuous odalisques and Philip Pearlstein's enamel-cool nudes. The sexuality of modern art is matter-of-factly and rudely embodied; it meets our gaze like Manet's Olympia and dominates us as powerfully as Picasso's mademoiselles from Avignon (the Barcelona brothel, not the French papal city, although that anticlerical ambiguity is surely intentional). It is a sexuality unconstricted and pornotopic. In Nietzschean terms (often the best terms for anything), the sexuality of modern art is a Dionysian display that bursts the bounds of the Apollonian critical discourses that attempt to 'explain' it. This perhaps explains the embarrassment and hesitation, the distaste, the rhetorical distancing, that characterize most intellectual engagements with erotic or pornographic artworks: because the sweaty art of the brothel is a threat to the deodorized discourse of the clinic, the critic must condom her language in a sheath of poststructuralist jargon before approaching the dangerous object. The result: articles about Picasso's 'deployment of the signification of the phallus' and Manet's 'deflection of the male gaze'--articles that rehearse critical commonplaces without ever coming within viewing distance of the paintings' true powers. To discuss modern art, we need a discourse less clinical and more pornotopic. We need to (temporarily) put down our Freud or Lacan or Zizek or whomever and let Picasso teach us how to read Picasso, let Degas instruct us in the language of Degas, let Deborah de Robertis show us the origin of the world.

Addendum, 2/26/16: I note that the ridiculous gang of  Victorian spinsters who run YouTube have now removed the above video, charging it with a series of crimes of which it is not guilty and failing to mention that they removed it because it showed a part of the female anatomy they would prefer to pretend doesn't exist. Plus ca change, even in our highly dubious techno-u-dys-topia.

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