Newsflash (not), sex sells. Advertisers, marketeers, business people, basically everyone except Mary Whitehouse (God rest her soul) can’t get enough of this joyous orgiastic bandwagon. Everyone wants to leap on its back and sell, sell, sell. And the art world is no exception. And never has been.
Interesting it should come at a time when everything our society holds most dearly to its heart, ie money, is in freefall – that suddenly the exhibition circuit is awash with sex. When money is in short supply, wheel out the only thing everyone loves almost as much. Everywhere you look people are shagging. Or if not actually shagging then alluding to it with varying degrees of subtlety or lack thereof. I’m not complaining. It’s the stuff of life and as such an entirely fitting topic to come under the microscope of artistic investigation. It’s just the sheer volume of it that’s surprising.
Take Anish Kapoor at the Royal Academy. He’s the first living artist ever to be given the entire gallery space. And what has he filled it with? Sex.
Ok, there’s a bit more to it than that. His work is about the human condition. Its absolutely reductive nature allows space for the viewer to open into, thereby catalysing engagement with the spiritual. Within that context, much of his work is intensely visceral. It’s about the body and the memories stored in the muddle and mass of tissue that constitutes our human physicality.
Whatever. The fact remains that, at what my history teacher used to term a ‘grass roots level’, it doesn’t get much more blatantly sexual – without being a larger than life sized sculpture of the artist shagging his Mrs of course – than Shooting into the Corner. As the title suggests, every twenty minutes a cannon fires its load into the corner. For twenty minutes the tension builds, the anticipation is almost unbearable, finally the performance: violent and deadpan. There’s a loud bang… and it’s all over.
If that weren’t unambiguous enough, two rooms across and we’re looking at Svayambh, translated from the Sanskrit as ‘self-generating’ apparently, wherein a gigantic blood-red loaf on wheels trundles phallically through a series of arches, leaving its gooey mess in its wake. “That’s a very large loaf Anish. You know what they say! Mid-life crisis peut-être?”
And where is this loaf off to? It terminates its trajectory at Slug, a twelve-foot high bright red shiny vulva attached to a Laocoön-esque trail of imperiously writhing tubes. You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud.
So, if that’s got you in the mood, then it’s off to Sold Out at Tate Modern, aka Pop Life. Pop Life wonders whether Andy Warhol may have been the first to tread the path since followed by a handful of ǜber-commercial artists, to prostitute their work to such a degree, that arguably, it becomes artistically bankrupt, utterly void of integrity and meaning, and no more intellectually or spiritually relevant than, say, a $3000 handbag or a pair of very expensive pumps. I’m not saying this is my view. I’m not saying it’s Tate’s view. But it is a question worth asking.
What I am saying though is that Andy Warhol didn’t invent vacuity. He didn’t invent selling the everyday as art (and what realm of the every day sells better than sex?) He didn’t invent producing art in such a way that he was able to make a shed load of money out of it. Neither was he the first person to employ a studio full of assistants to help him keep supply in line with demand at the most profitable tipping point. What about Gainsborough? How many versions did his studio knock out of prettified society ladies dressed up as Hebe or some such, wherein he’s painted the face and some minion’s coloured the rest in. Plenty. A whole career based on it. A livelihood. And what about Hogarth? So ecstatic with the popularity of his titillating morality tale A Harlot’s Progress in 1731 he virtually invented etching as we know it so he could hang ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, we’ve all got to make a living. I’m just saying, I don’t think we can lay all the credit, (or blame?) exclusively at Warhol’s door for the ‘Pop’-ularisation of art. Whether popularisation is the same as sell out is another question, but presumably not given the outcome of the row over the proposed title of the exhibition.
But back to the topic du jour. When it comes to no frills sex in art it doesn’t get much more in yer face than Jeff Koons’ Made in Heaven series. This guy surely must be a few sandwiches short of a picnic? The reluctant recipient of one too many wedgies in High School perhaps. Just looking at him freaks me out, his gurning faux naïve face conjuring up unwelcome images of a perverse Sunday school teacher. It’s disturbing even before you’ve seen the close-up shots of his ex-wife’s genitalia that dominate Pop Life. And far worse than the work itself is all the random banality he dribbles out about it - cynically or crazily - like some sort of new age motivational fodder for the emotionally depleted: “It's about control, and chaos - do you want to serve or be served? Do you want to show a lot of love to your dog or do you want your dog to bring you the paper? Do you want to show your neighbour the same kind of respect that you'd like for yourself? It's about humankind's relationship to itself, the external world, whether there's a higher power outside of oneself ...”
Bollocks. It’s about money. Money and power and sex. He claims his work isn’t ironic or kitsch. He claims it’s optimistic, it exists (apparently) to make people feel better about themselves. What an altruistic little bunny he is. The whole thing makes me frightened, it really does.
So, it doesn’t get much more in yer face than the horizontal antics of Jeff Koons and La Cicciolina, but, it turns out, it does get a bit more so. The boys have had their stab at it. Now it’s the girl’s turn. And this one takes the biscuit. For the boys it’s all about scale and power. For the girls, a little more interrogative: Andrea Fraser’s 60 minute video Untitled (2004).
Jerry Saltz in an article written in 2007 describes a conversation he had with a fellow critic wherein Saltz mentioned he was writing an article about Fraser and the other guy responded: “Andrea Fraser is a whore”. God Bless America!
In fact Andrea Fraser is not a whore. She’s a performance artist who uses her own body to undertake a highly engaged enquiry into the workings of art institutions. For Untitled (2004) Fraser asked her gallerist to find a collector who would be prepared to pre-buy a piece of video art documenting that collector having sex with the artist. The selection of the collector was left entirely up to the gallery. The result is a silent, unedited video of Fraser in a hotel room having sex with a collector who’d pre-paid an ‘undisclosed sum’ reportedly in the region of $20,000.
It’s a powerfully extreme and honest way to conduct an investigation into the machinations of the commercial art world and the function of art itself. The question it asks is “what do we want from art?” The answer it ultimately provides is “transcendence”.