I have just jumped out of the shower where I was contemplating oral sex. Well, sex and art or something like that. Let me explain before you start thinking I have just made the world’s most inauspicious start to a blog entry! I was thinking about a film I saw once, which was called “Inside Deep Throat,” a documentary of that somewhat famous porn movie (which, as it happens – but nothing to do with virtue – I have never seen). It was funny, interesting, and sad and provoking e.g. Gore Vidal saying, “People always lie about sex because they are taught since they are children to lie about everything.” Anyway, I wasn’t thinking about the film per se but about the strange dynamic that occurred amongst the audience when, all of a sudden – and only for about ten seconds – the big screen was filled with Linda Lovelace performing her most famous act. And suddenly I was embarrassed and awkward and wishing I was anywhere else! And I sensed that other people were also. And I thought this was very strange because we were watching a sex act in the dark and we were all grown up and know that’s how grown ups act and that it is not shameful or dishonest or bad; that we would not feel the slightest embarrassment to see our fellow humans shooting each other – for longer and in slow motion and even with great cruelty.
Now, where exactly am I heading with this? You see, the protagonists in the film could mainly be drawn into two main camps – those that see even bad performance as a form of art and those that see pornography as non-art and offensive and demeaning. As usual, I kept thinking that neither was quite the whole story – even if you accept Oscar Wilde’s dictum that there is no such thing as a bad book or a good book; only a badly written or well written book. Anyway that is another story because I wasn’t even thinking about the pros and cons of pornography as art (if it isn’t, then what else is not art – war like Guernica by Picasso, martyrdom like all those religious pictures of St Sebastian with arrows in him, Jesus on the cross?) Or does art stopping being art when it is based on exploitation? Is that why pornography makes us feel a little morally bereft? And if a film about oral sex is not art then what is a documentary about a film of oral sex? Buggered if I know – it’s not what I was thinking about!
I was trying to get my head around how when we look at something we change its nature. This is not making much sense, I know, but I find it puzzling and interesting.
A few years ago in New York, I went to the Guggenheim Museum. There was this photo, very large, a colour print of a naked woman with a very newborn baby in her arms. She is standing, facing the photographer in front of a white (hospital?) wall on which only a light switch is evident. A thin trickle of blood runs from between her legs and down to her ankle. Her expression is difficult to judge, ambiguous – though not unhappy. The nakedness and starkness, the blood and the tiny baby create such a sense of vulnerability yet, at the same time, of a greater, simpler truth about us all that it strikes deeply, an effective amalgam of the profound and the everyday. Mostly though, it is the framing and viewing of the scene that changes it, transforms it into art. After all, it portrays an event, a moment of the ordinary and common. Most of the adults in the museum have experienced variations of this event, have known women and babies and hospital walls – why do we pause now and so troubled?
Another picture, smaller and black and white, was also confronting but for different, though related, reasons. A naked couple are about to kiss, she slightly on top of his prostrate body. She is also holding him erect in her hand. They both look at each other’s eyes. This picture is avoided by most people, even their conversations pause then move on – not out of offended dignity but out of social discretion (like me in the movies!). Out of good manners!
Do you see what I mean about the act of viewing, the public presentation of this private moment that leads to the transcendence of the act itself? This last picture could have as easily been a single shot from an X rated movie, there is little abut the photograph that is “artistic.” But its enlargement, its framing, its placement on a museum wall for viewing has created the effect of art. Now this moment is held up for public view, placed in a context where social conventions are different and somehow inadequate. We are challenged by a variety of emotions – embarrassment, voyeurism, titillation, confusion. And all in public! It’s as if the act of stripping away the walls from these intimate scenes has somehow stripped the walls from us. The formal expression of intimate acts somehow confounds us and changes the meaning of the acts themselves.
And yet, if the man and woman in the photograph or the woman with the baby were actually in front of us, this would not be art, would it?
Or would it…?