“We live in a world where the pornification of popular culture is nearly complete — where the satisfaction of every kink is an Internet click away and where a celebrity isn’t really a celebrity unless an unauthorized sex tape is in circulation. We’re a society of licentious prudes who freak out over a bared breast on the Super Bowl while stocking up on “Barely Legal” DVDs. The result is a nation obsessed with sex as plumbing, with the mechanics of carnality divorced from the soul-nourishing pleasures of desire.”
So writes Ty Burr Boston Globe (13 October) about “Shortbus,” a film that depicts real sexual activity as opposed to the use of images and editing to suggest sexual activity. And it strikes me as funny, as always, this strange thing we have about sex in art and culture. Why is the depiction of actual sex somehow more confronting than its suggestion? It’s as if the knowledge that something is “acted” legitimises its portrayal, in fact, is necessary to its categorisation as art. Maybe we bring to art an expectation that it will represent reality – clarify, illuminate and heighten reality – but not be reality. And there is a certain truth in this – effective artistic representations of death, love and nature do, in fact, reinvent reality in a form that enables us to see it through new eyes.
Is this the same for sex? Can it only have artistic merit if it is distorted through a lens that recreates its meaning? And can this only be achieved through simulation? Perhaps, the truth is that sex is always distorted through a lens of our own making – elevated, deified, worshipped and pursued to the point that its meaning has become lost. We have come to expect that mainstream films will enable us to view sex in a safe way that is easily transformed into what ever we wish it to be, to be subject to our own imagination, beliefs and prejudices.
Maybe “Shortbus” forces us to confront sex as it is when stripped of the safety net of “acting” – maybe that is where it becomes art. How is this different to pornography? Well, I guess, the context becomes all-important here. Perhaps pornography is real sex wrapped in unreal circumstances while art is real sex wrapped in a view of the world that is as purposefully revealing of the human condition as the sex acts themselves.
But I don’t really know. What do you think?