Monday, October 18, 2010

Sex Is Dirty, Again (Or Is It?)

At an AIDS volunteer training session I attended (seemingly a life time ago now), one of the instructors was this amazing hard-boiled and hilarious nurse who ripped through the political correctness gauze woven throughout the three-day event and taught us about what the AIDS patients we'd be helping were really going to be like (it runs the gamut, she said, from obviously overwhelmed to obnoxious little sh*ts, just like in any other realm); what they really needed from the system, from their families, from us volunteers; and most of all how to listen for the questions the patients would ask that indicated they needed to talk about their feelings. I'll never forget, for example, how she explained that if a patient asked "What do you think happens after we die?" that they weren't really interested in my musings on religion or the afterlife as much as they were in talking (and being listened to) about their own fears.

She also said the most memorable thing I've ever heard a health care professional say about sex. "Sex is dirty," she announced to muffled gasps. "Save it for someone you love." In the politically chaotic days before pharmacological regimens had extended life expectancies as much as they can today and having sex was still often viewed as an act of defiance against hopelessness, this was a very controversial (and yet ultimately comforting) approach, I thought. It helped me cut through the awkwardness of discussing sex not only as a volunteer, but in my own life as well.

Flash forward a good number of years, and uninhibited sex was everywhere, especially in the art market during the boom. I remember walking through fair after fair with my friends calculating which body part dominated at each event: vaginas, penises, or simply breasts. "It's a dick show," we'd conclude at this fair. Or at another, "Tits...definitely more tits."

As Lindsay Pollock reports in the The Art Newspaper, however, we seem to have entered another era in which "sex" is awkward for us again. At least if Frieze is any indication:
This edition of Frieze appears to be one of the most asexual in recent memory: quite a switch from the boom, when titillation, testosterone and temptation-stocked stands helped fuel sales. “Normally you see a wiener in the first 15 minutes at an art fair,” says Los Angeles dealer Marc Foxx (B6). “There is a lack of glitzy-type art at the fair this year, perhaps a cumulative effect of the recession,” says Matthew Higgs, the director of New York’s non-profit White Columns art space. “Along with the bling, out goes the sex.”
In this atmosphere, it seems noteworthy then that sexually charged images from Jeff Koons's "Made in Heaven" series have been dusted off and re-presented by Luxembourg & Dayan Gallery. They weren't particularly popular the first time around, and the response to this reshowing has been rather deflating from high-profile critics, like:

Christian Viveros-Fauné:
There is, to put it simply, absolutely no valid reason besides money to exhibit this dreck today.
And Roberta Smith:
Occupying some no woman’s land of female objectification, they are visual train wrecks.
Many of the other online reports on the exhibition treat it rather matter-of-factly, though (yes, there's very explicit sex here, but we're mature enough to not judge), perhaps inadvertently confirming the aforementioned, return of awkwardness that Smith and Viveros-Fauné both simply side-stepped to actually judge the work on its merits as art, being the pros that they are.

Personally, I've always found the "Made in Heaven" series about as sexy as my Grandmother's doily-covered end tables. Maybe it's the butterflies and cheesy strip mall photographer's backdrops. In the overall body of Koons' work they have been among my least favorites, but as I have never actually seen them as highly sexual (which may be simply my own sexual preferences) I haven't actually been as embarrassed by them as I have been embarrassed for Koons (and Staller) for putting them out there. To my eye, they make sex look not only sterile, but somehow very lonely. Again, sex is (or should be) dirty. And some folks should definitely save it (only) for someone they love.

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6 Comments:

Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

This is a typically Winklemanian post: you start out in one place, stop briefly in another, end up someplace else, and then tie the whole thing together. I love when you do that.

I have just one quibble: those end tables you mentioned, with the peekaboo doilies, have infintely more sex appeal than the Staller-and-Koons pictures.

10/18/2010 03:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think now everyone sees the Koons images for what they are, so there is nothing to talk about. They are lame self absorbed attemtps to market one's identity as art. Wow! Koons has a nice Cock... let's buy some of his art.

10/19/2010 12:44:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i never understood why Koons has been taken seriously as an artist. I mean, the work itself looks cynical enough but once I heard him speak and all was confirmed...his work is about nothing at all other than getting over on his buying public. At that he has been immensely successful.

10/19/2010 03:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He was an investment banker before he was an artist. I wonder what he'll be next.

10/19/2010 06:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The first time, I felt some sort of reflexive need to defend Koons when the show was on at the Walker Art Center because our local paper made such an embarrassing redneck fuss about the ob-seen pitchers at the myooseum. But free speech is defensible and kitsch is not! Why this dreck is getting ink (or pixels) yet again mystifies me.

10/20/2010 04:51:00 PM  
Anonymous matt said...

"i never understood why Koons has been taken seriously as an artist. I mean, the work itself looks cynical enough but once I heard him speak and all was confirmed...his work is about nothing at all other than getting over on his buying public. At that he has been immensely successful." You summed it up nicely.

10/21/2010 01:40:00 AM  

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