Sunday, October 15, 2006

sexuality in the arts

hey jedi counsel- you know who you are. i've been thinking a lot about sexuality in the arts lately and have lots of questions. in the christian subculture, themes of sensuality, sexuality and erroticism are avoided for many reasons. i'll just toss out a few in no particular order:

most commonly is the want to maintain a certain or assumed moral standard with the assumption that if we don't engage these themes, we will be more successful at maintaining this higher morality.
- additionally, desire is not something that is always embraced in faith circles- creating a fear of being awakened to sensuality- so we pretend it isn't there or show people precisely what it should look like.
- another layer is the trans-generational audience found in the church that is often not found in other artistic venues creating a difficult forum in which to dialogue around sexuality.
- and then there is the "sacredness" of sexuality in the christian tradition, which i acknowledge. however, this ideal is often projected on to unions who's "marriage beds" are found wanting in life. thus, shrouded by this alleged "sacredness", we fail to engage our experiences of sexuality.

i bring this up because i find myself wanting to engage these themes in my artwork but not really knowing how to. what's appropriate? what's too much? when does it become porn? why are we afraid? what does it mean to be co-creators/artist's in the image of God, as whole people?


Sarah said...

Porn: You'll know it when you see it.

Until then, trust that you are celebrating the human body as God intended.

Lian said...

I don't have any answers about this of course, but I do think there are far better ways to address issues of sexuality than what is usually attempted by our voyeuristically forensic culture. I think we've lost much of the art of metaphor and symbol - we've lost a sense of longing in much of our art. The longing, the suggestion, that is so much more powerful than the having - than the thing itself.
Mueck's work for instance, even though it features extensive nudity is not, in my opinion, particularly sexual or even about sexuality per se - it uses the naked body in many other ways, notably as a manifestation of vulnerability.
If I were you, dude, I would take my cues from the Song of Solomon which is scandalously sensual and yet never explicitly mentions any part of the human body or any sexual act. I suppose it is the primary source for the discussion of sexuality amongst the people of God.
When explicit nudity (in my view) is used in art to illustrate sensuality I think it will always fall short of the mark and be a kind of high porn. Perhaps that is because the essence of sexuality and the sexual encounter is ultimately not in body parts rubbing against one another or becoming aroused but in the desire, longing and primal connection that results in a momentary fusion of mankind back into a single being. I think you can either explore this desiring or you can merely arouse a shadow of it in your audience - the easy way out and the more pornographic.

elnellis said...

lian, thanks for bringing up the ideas of longing and having (or consuming). and as much as i feel resistant to the catch-phrase in the first comment, there is something important in noticing the subtle difference between the pornographic invitation to consume and the representation of sexuality that connects the viewer to holy longing and celebration of beauty.
i'm curious about more specific thoughts on what it would look like to use the Song of Solomon as paradigmatic for the discussion of sexuality in the visual arts. (the difference between poetry/song and visuals here)
and also, i feel like what we are discussing so far is a "via positivia" approach to these themes that risks looking a lot like thomas kinkade's stuff... ie: a depiction of life that is unable to hold both glory and brokenness- what about the disconnect, frustration, disapointment, insecurities, sin and shame that doesn't show up in the song of solomon?

jen said...

phil...great, great, great questions. i've been loosely wondering around these things a bit, but haven't come to much yet. your thomas kinkade comment sparked a bit of familiarity when i hit a crisis not too long ago. if creating for so long had been rooted in the anger, desperation, longing, and fragmentation of this girl inside of me, then what would happen when this girl started to become less fragmented and more whole? would i even still create? my roommate said that i would start painting like thomas kinkade and i shirked back. not that his works don't carry beauty, but that isn't the kind of work i hope to enter into...and if that's all that's left to someone "whole", then i would rather be angry, fragmented, and depresssed.

anyway...all that to say, at this i just have questions too and echo yours of how this is done...and what would it mean to push back darkness with the beauty of the songs of solomon visually? it seems like the only images around are ones where the beauty has been devoured... bah. would love to hear your thoughts as you continue in this direction...

Lian said...

Jen, I don't think there is anything "whole" about Kinkade's "art". If anything, wholeness in our post-fall times is the ability to embrace pain and joy and the ambiguity of their symbiotic relationship rather than running from them.

Phil, from one melancholic-misery-artist to another I think we could learn a little from the exuberance and total abandon of the Song of Solomon. I know I find it virtually impossible to express positive experiences or emotions in my work. And, again, Kinkade is not the product of "happiness in art" he is the product of safeness and commercialism in art - escapism, bottling a pleasant mood and selling it. Personally, I find Song of Solomon so unabashed it is embarrassing, not feel-good.

As far as visualizing all this kind of stuff, I would say, don't be afraid of some of the most ancient and central elements of all art: fertility symbols. Phalluses and yonis can take so many shapes and express such an endless range of sexual (even non-sexual) emotions, paradigms and conflicts that one would find the use of naked forms positively restrictive. I know I sound like some kind of expert when I'm not but those are, I think, indespensible tools in the artist's bag that Christians have too long been scandalized by.

elnellis said...

jen, i hear what you are saying... so much genuine and great art arises out of pain, brokenness and fragmentation. but like lian said above, becoming whole in this life, i believe, looks like the ability to hold both in tension, not either or. i've come to really appreciate Hélène Cixous' "Three Steps on the Ladder of Writting" as a paradigm for the maturing artist who is thematically willing and able to descend "up" the ladder, because at the deepest, most whole place, the artist is able to hold both death and life. and that will always be disruptive and scandalous- this is the type of art that is kafka's "axe for the frozen sea inside us." a different world than that of kinkade.

and lian, thanks for calling this "melancholic-misery-artist" to consider a wider range of themes in art.
oops, i'm late for work... more later.

chuck said...

ya chad i dig the arachic symbols approach as a way to express the elemental nature of anatomy. but i think this can be taken even further. i was in the antique store yesterday thinking about this. there was a section promenantly displayed with a mix of nudes and landscapes. all very tasteful and 'modest'. the women were sometimes faceless, in gray light with saggy features, if not petit or looking morbid. but then i found a corner off to the side with framed painting of nudes also, but these were hourglass women, bathed in soft light, with smiling faces and rosey cheeks, almost offering themselves to the viewer. even though these were paintings, it was something we'd label as porn and i knew this too b/c i was much more hesitant to examine them.

i was disturbed at the lack of balance here. but why do we feel the need to always depict sexuality in drab, abstract, faceless dimensions in order for it to be 'tasteful' or 'artsy'? certainly the pre-raphealites would agress with me that there is something amazing about healthy human sexuality that begs to be captured and articulated. why is it that we can no longer paint a curvy, gleeful woman in art and yet slap the art label on the grey emaciated widow getting out of bed looking miserable? we've lost our ability to depict sexuality, especially female sexuality with justice in art because the line has been drawn so clearly. this is also a reflection of our view of women in church and secular: either she's a sex object or a teacher. either its art or porn. can we redraw the lines of sexuality or are we doomed to be stunted by cultural and religious triggers? if art truly has no boundaries than i'd like to believe the former can still be true.

joy said...

i find all of this discussion intriguing. being someone who studies the body and physically examines people evey day (i'm a pediatric resident), it strikes me how disconnected we can become from our bodies. Even though they are constantly with us we may be truly unaware of our whole body to the point of marginalizing aspects of our anatomy. i think this ignorance of ourselves leads to the fear in having artists depict what we ourselves want to deny is part of us. if we don't really look at our nude selves, how dare an artist do it! it's a sense of someone pushing you to look at yourself as a complete physical human being when you only want to intellectualize genitalia - or should i say the unmentionables?!

as far as artistically depicting the human body vs porn, i came across an interesting definition in wikipedia. let me paste it in.
Pornography (from Greek πόρνη (porni) "prostitute" and γραφή (grafi) "writing"), more informally referred to as porn or porno, is the representation of the human body or sexual activity with the goal of sexual arousal. It is similar to, but distinct from erotica, though the two terms are often used interchangeably.
In general, "erotica" refers to portrayals of sexually arousing material that hold or aspire to artistic or historical merit, whereas "pornography" often connotes the prurient depiction of sexual acts, with little or no artistic value. The line between "erotica" and the more pejorative term "pornography" is often highly subjective. In practice, pornography can be defined merely as erotica that is perceived as "obscene". The definition of what one considers obscene can differ among persons, cultures and eras. This leaves legal actions by those who oppose pornography open to wide interpretation.

this definition emphasizes the artistic intention of erotica which is absent in pornography. yet what this looks like depends on the person and place. it varies. for me the beautiful picture describing the full bodied warm faced women strikes me as right and good. (having on seen it i can't say for sure.) one could look at it as a woman happy with her body, her full hips and soft face. she is content with herself. or maybe she is inviting her lover. would that be so bad? i don't think so. she's not doing it without first accepting herself. for what woman can truly be so willing to share herself and love if she despises herself? i wonder if the reaction to the picture could be in part to looking at a woman who loves herself. this is rarely seen now. we live in a world of eating disorders and depression. let's remember then to celebrate the woman. but not the perfect woman. the woman. femininity. maybe that's the difference between pornography and erotica. erotica is the beauty of a woman with her femininity while pornography is her masculinized with her femininity stripped away.

i think what is important to remember that we are physical beings and sexual beings. and that this applies to our whole life and body. i think it's needlessly limiting to say that the nude body is the only possible sexual depiction. however it is one and should not be ignored. the belittling of the naked physical body can lead to trouble in the marriage bed and to poorly educating our children on their bodies. neither is desireable. the ideal would be respect for our bodies and our sexuality that allows us to express ourselves in meaningful ways as artists, musicians, physicians, mothers and fathers.

elnellis said...

wow joy, you raise some important issues here. thanks for pointing out the platonic/gnostic dualism in which we have split ourselves from our bodies in so many ways. i'm wondering how all of this is played out on a theological level: our ambivalence around our bodies. after the fall, God marked our brokenness by bringing shame into our relationship with our own bodies. we blame and hide and are lustful and angry. perhaps this is why the dualism is comfortable to take on, because that way we don't have to engage our sexuality that much at all.
but when we are called towards wholeness- to engage the totality of our world as total people, then we our asked to face our sexuality. that is why i like what you said, joy, about specific people, in specific bodies, comfortable with themseves. this is another move away from the "platonic forms" of what a perfect body is or isn't. what this means for self expression as artists, musicians, physicians, mothers and fathers?.... i still have no idea. but i desire to continue in conversation about it.

Anonymous said...

Great ?s which lead to further ?s...What is tasteful art? How sacred is the human body? Would we draw a nude of our wife? mother? sister?... Isn't porn a form of legal prositution? Does erotic art stimulate both sexes for good pleasure?

Anonymous said...

Hey bro, I'm so glad you through this out there, this is such an important discussion to have. I love your comments, Joy, about being a full woman before offering one's sexuality. I also resonate with the idea of holding both our fragmented parts and our art in tension. I have begun to understand that mutual pleasure is only possible if both people remain subjects,co-construting thier intersubjective field between them. The temptation is always to either become an object or to objectify the other. The tension of remaining a subject is vulnerable and can easily rupture. I love this quote by Andre Breton, "Reciprocal love, such as I envisage it, is a system of mirrors which reflects for me, under the thousand angles that the unknown can take for me, the faithful image of the one I love, always more surprising in her divining of my own desire and more gilded with life." This might be the story between two people, but in regards to art, I believe that if images can communicate whole and realistic perspectives of persons, then it might be possible to remain intersubjective with the picture, because "art speaks." In my own personal life I am beginning to celebrate images of whole women who are comfortable in thier bodies, not trying to get anything with thier sexuality, but are just "being." Some of them have a lot of complexity going on in thier face, as if they are thinking, pondering and enjoying thier internal world. Most are not posing, as if sexuality is an end in itself. These pictures have heightened my sense of mystery in our bodies...

elnellis said...

great thoughts janeil. i love the idea of images bringing "whole" pictures of whole people together.