“Regrettably, the provocative nature of your content is likely unsuitable for our audience at this time.” It may shock you to discover that artists still get told this. It may shock you to discover that—in the fine arts, in Los Angeles, California, in 2017—shock still exists. After all the slutwalking and Vagina Monologuing and pussy-grabbing, pointing the public’s antenna toward the thing their parents did to make them is still, for the individual artist, a gamble. Not a disqualifier, but one more reason the check might not come through.
The disinvitation at the beginning of this essay was written two weeks after an initial invitation extended to me during the opening of a group show dedicated entirely to pictures of dicks—and by the same high educational institutional representative. She arrived in the company of a woman who was, like me, in the show. Sex is everywhere and nowhere, sex still sells and sex still gets advertisers to pull their ads. We are told our culture is obsessed with sexuality yet truly honest discussion of it—and acceptance of it as an important high-Maslow-pyramid-subject—is still idling somewhere around where Western Europe was in 1972.
In this respect sex isn’t really alone or strange. It’s like drugs or democracy or art—everywhere invoked for rhetorical or entertainment value, rarely discussed in the kind of honest detail that would make it easy to get any more of it than we already have. Sexuality and desire pervade our commercial life, but in ways that push it outside the realm of the serious or the actionable. Major newspapers are skittish about naughty presidential quotes or Pussy Riot, and when it comes to printing actual images of art they fear angry letters from the living dead more than the intimation that they’re creating a façade which crops away the better and more difficult part of being alive.
The images in the Dick Pic show were mostly jokey—because joking is what you do when something is important and impossible. No one could ever take a show of dicks seriously, and if someone did make a show of dicks being taken seriously that itself would be a joke. “Penises 1850-2017.” My piece in the show featured someone taking a dick very seriously and it points to half the problem: we have a name for art where people seriously take dicks, and that name is pornography. The pleasures provoked by images of sexuality are as fragile in the face of irony, comparison and deconstruction as the sexually intimate moment itself. It wants privacy.
Sex as a subject makes different demands on different parts of you: the nervous system sees it as poetry, the self-aware part sees it as comedy, and the civic and responsible parts see it medically. Not only can the best counsel of these three angels not be heard all at once, but, more importantly, the very nature of public discourse means the temptation for offended parties to seize a rhetorical advantage by shifting from one to the next is overwhelming. In the ’80s the public had to literally stop laughing at brawny men in leather assfucking one another long enough to realize they were both dying and deserved not to die—this required an art that did more than protest. It required Mapplethorpes as much as Wojnarowiczs—it required an art that painted AIDS as not a punishment for sin but a punishment for being a person and which painted these dead men’s desire as essential to their humanness. This required, in other words, that art do a job that overlaps the job of pornography.
Shock and offense aren’t the only defenses against sex—outside the parents who wander into art accidentally while looking for Cezanne-patterned throw-pillows and old people who forgot they ever weren’t parents, the feigned smiles of jaded disdain are adopted reflexively whenever a part of the critical caste encounters a fetish it doesn’t have. Oh, boners again. Who ever wanted to see one of those? (Besides the majority of people.) Unfortunately, our “sex-infused” culture’s problems with fucking are not over, any more than seeing food all day has made us all great cooks—or all well-fed. And until they are—and no-one in Kabul or Miami is having their life ruined or just ended on account who fucked who or how—you can’t say there is too much art about sex, and to do its job that art will have to be serious, and funny, and hot.