Seduction; Sex and Art from Antiquity to Now. Barbican Art Gallery, London, 2007-08
In the proposal for his new exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery Martin Kemp asks ‘Where does art stop and pornography begin?’.(1) In an exhibition that purports to explore ‘the representation of sex in art through the ages” exploring the dichotomy of cultural codes of ethics, it would be expected that there was an even presentation of pornography through the ages. Questioning the morality and purpose of representing sex, the exhibition provides a chronological overview of over 300 works. Included are ‘Roman sculptures, Indian manuscripts, Japanese prints, Chinese watercolours, Renaissance and Baroque paintings and 19th century photography with modern and contemporary art’. Here the word ‘with’ suggests a divide between post nineteenth century art and that prior. The divide relates to Kemp’s question of the dual function of erotic art; as art and as pornography, titillation or arousal. It indirectly implies that arts function as an arouser is no longer pertinent.
It is not so much through what is exhibited but through what is left out that we can begin to answer Kemp’s introductory question. To elaborate, it is no secret that Greek and Roman culture’s use of sex was a lot more diverse and freely celebrated; depictions of sexual acts had religious reverence but were also used as decoration. As Catholicism created a millennium of prudes in Europe it is not surprising that there was a suppression of sex in life and art from the Renaissance to beyond the advent of photography.(2) During this long period explicit representations of sex were confined to the secret rooms of the British Museum, or such places as J M W Turners private sketch book. Photography and print expanded the circulation and quantity of representations of sex exponentially. Photography separated titillation from artistic thought allowing it to exist independently. Print created mass production of these images. Sex was turned into a global and highly lucrative industry: the ‘porn industry’. So why in this exhibition are contemporary representations of sex only represented by contemporary art and not also with the ‘porn industry’?
Sex and titillation are still prevalent in contemporary art, but are used to convey an ideology or often a critique of the ‘porn industry’. Contemporary art is never simply about pornography.(3) For instance, being heavily influenced by psychoanalysis, the Surrealists saw sex as a method of improving one’s psyche. Robert Mapplethorpe’s ‘sado-masochistic’ photographs have a political charge questioning the notion of consent.(4) Nan Golding photographs intimate accounts of lovers with their children, reinvigorating the romantic ideals of love and sex. This seems reactionary to the way pornography has de-humanised perceptions of sex. Unlike the ‘porn industry’, contemporary art’s explicit imagery always has a cause or excuse.
As Kate Bush assured, ‘it’s an exhibition not a sex museum… the show is not about pornography’. This attitude adds to a censorship of the history of sex, undermining the role pornography played in classic civilisations. Photographic images produced purely for arousal are ignored by this exhibition after the start of the 20th century. With regards to Kemp’s question ‘Where does art stop and pornography begin?’ this photography or early pornography is the most important element of the exhibition. It shows explicit sexual images existing independently of artistic ideologies and mediums. Kemp highlights where pornography begins to separate from art. Unfortunately, in excluding the current ‘porn industry’ the ‘Now’ part of the title has been undermined
1 Martin Kemp is Co-Curator of ,‘Seduction; Sex and Art from Antiquity to Now’.
2 I mean the suppression of the representation of coitus rather than the use of nudity in painting.
3 Apart from when it is bought; this is another debate.
4 If his photography was really to be Sado-Masachstic then it would be illegal.