Friday, July 24, 2015

Erotic Criticism: Making It Explicit in Six Theses and Five Objects

"In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art." -- Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation

"In ancient Greek philosophy, in the texts of the pre-Socratics, Plato and Aristotle, aithesis refers to lived, felt experience, knowledge as it is obtained through the senses, in contrast to eidos, knowledge derived from reason and intellection, from which we get the word idea." -- Clive Cazeaux, "Introduction," The Continental Aesthetics Reader

1. In a few recent posts, I've been trying to apply, to concretize, my heretofore abstract idea that art and sex, aesthetics and erotics, run off the same circuit of desire in human consciousness. Art is sex, I contend, and sex is art. (The latter part of that sentence, the idea of sex as an art, was common knowledge in Ovid's day, but the phrase 'art is sex' remains jarring; maybe the fact that hardcore puritans have always hated both should have clued us in.) When we enter a gallery or art museum, we are alert to anything that attracts us. In a very real sense, we are 'cruising' the art, scanning the walls and vitrines for potentially pleasurable or even transformative experiences, just as a man or woman in a nightclub or bar might be cruising for a good lay.
Warren Cup. Roman. 1st cent. AD. British Museum. (The image shows opposite sides of the cup.) This ornamental drinking cup, apparently excavated near Jerusalem in the early 20th century, depicts two scenes of male-male anal intercourse: on one side a youth rides a bearded man, and on the other a youth penetrates a young boy. This is the finest surviving example of Roman erotic silver and one of the great masterpieces of Western pornography. The Warren Cup effectively demonstrates that pornography is art and always has been.

2. We homo sapiens sapiens (the species so nice we named ourselves twice) seem genetically engineered to be creatures driven by desires in search of objects. The desire is prior to what seems to provoke it. Objectless desire, a desire that precedes and exceeds all objects, could be the fundamental fact of human consciousness. Psychoanalysts might counter that the desire isn't objectless at all; it's provoked by the loss of a first object, the mother's breast, for which all other objects are substitutes (or substi-tits, as it were). Regardless, by the time agency arrives, long before maturity, our desires are experienced as floating free of any single object and constantly in search of a more  promising one. There is at least a little Don Juan in all of us.

Bronzino, Allegory with Venus and /Cupid, ca.1545. National Gallery, London. The enigmatic allegorical meanings in this densely packed painting are overshadowed by its outrageous eroticism: Mother Venus slips her son Cupid the tongue while he pinches her erect nipple in the V between two of his fingers. Meanwhile, Cupid's green quiver is positioned to resemble an enormous dildo aimed directly up his ass. Bronzino's jewel-like coloring adds to the erotic intensity and simultaneously chills it, deflecting the viewer's ocular desire. Unlike the worlds of most erotic works, this one excludes us. It is too perfect to be polluted by our lesser presence.

3. The desire to experience an art object seems / feels / is essentially identical to sexual desire. Both are desires to experience beautiful things, to feel the intense pleasures they alone can bring. And both posit a phantasmatic parallel economy where pleasure is the coin of the realm and beauty is more valuable than gold. "How much is this worth in cold, hard cash?" is an even more vulgar question in the bedroom than in the art museum.

Hedy Lamarr in ecstasy in Ecstasy (1933). This scene is one of the first and finest depictions of female orgasm on film
4. Likewise, when we permit ourselves to look so intensely at and think so deeply about a work of art that we 'lose ourselves' inside the work, that release from the mundane buzz of our daily lives is directly analogous to the moment of sexual climax, when the mind empties and the world retreats and we experience those few seconds of perfectly ecstatic inner silence that are probably as close as we will ever come to floating in pure Being.

Pablo Picasso, Reclining Nude With Necklace, 1968. Tate Modern. This very impressive work from the artist's still-underrated final period depicts the female body as volcano, gusher, geyser, a veritable Yellowstone National Park of boundary-bursting sexuality. This is Picasso '68" Sous les paves, la a la plage, la femme.
5. Just as the experience of art can be understood sexually, so can its creation. When I stood in front of the large, late Picasso nude in the collection of the Tate Britain (above), I profoundly appreciated the extent to which art is not sublimation but excess. The Freudian doctrine of sublimation implies in its hydraulic metaphors a libidinal 'scarcity economy' that misrepresents the dike-topping (pun absolutely intended), geyser-gushing, bottomland-flooding excess of sexuality--as biology, emotion and idea--in the human animal. As in Picasso's late nude, even the borders of the body are transgressed by the signs of sexuality. In the most literal, biological sense, we squirt and secrete, dribble and drool, spit and swallow all manner of bodily fluids during sexual intercourse. Products of our body quite literally become parts of the other's, and vice-versa. And as emotion and idea, as feeling and fantasy, sexuality does not flow within a Corps of Engineers-maintained channel carefully designed to prevent flooding--and to divert the flow into the reserve channel of sublimation when necessary. No, sexuality is the flood that drowns all channels. This wild excess, this "will in overplus," as Shakespeare called it, can be imagined as a product in a post-scarcity universe (call it Pornotopia) where there is more than enough of everything needful. In the minds of artists, this excess flows into the forms of art; it is the raw, impulsive fuel behind novels and paintings and operas and plays. Art, therefore, is not sublimation's anal / Apollonian channeling; it is sexuality's ecstatic Dionysian overflow.
Paul Cadmus, Jerry, 1931. Toledo (Ohio) Museum of Art. Cadmus's masterfully original and remarkably intimate portrait of his lover, artist Jared French, was virtually unknown until the Toledo Museum acquired it in 2009. By the end of this decade, it will probably take its deserved place among the masterpieces of American gay art. My favorite detail is the outrageous anal sex reference encoded in the copy of Ulysses at lower right. The sitter marks his place in this then-banned and scandalous book by inserting his phallic finger into a crack in the book's bottom. Cadmus thus both conceals and reveals the then-unspeakable (male-male anal intercourse) by hiding it in plain sight, purloined letterishly, inside a copy of the then-unpublishable Ulysses.

6. Created erotically, art can also be experienced erotically. The point is to experience art with our minds and our bodies. To think about the artwork, yes, to intellectualize it as much as we can,* but also to pay attention to how the work makes us feel, how it affects our bodies. Is my heart beating faster? Am I afraid? Did I just catch my breath? Am I widening or narrowing my eyes? To what part of the painting / sculpture / etc. is my sight repeatedly drawn? Am I attracted? Repelled? Does the image turn me on? Is my dick hard / pussy wet? These questions, especially the outrageous last one, should be considered as valid as inquiries into the possible motives for a Cezanne color choice or Picasso's decision to distort a face in a specific way. In the discourse of art, the reactions of the penis and the pussy are as valid as those of the eye and the brain.

* In opposition to the anti-intellectualism that is rampant today, it is necessary to be actively pro-intellectual. Personally, I'm so philo-intellectual it hurts. Even reading Foucault makes me hard.

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