Eroticism – does it still exist in contemporary art? If so, in what form?
To find an answer to the question, we should take into consideration the relationship between eroticism and sensuality, an intrinsic relation that is hard to separate from each other. Erotic desire, if we are to consider it outside the artistic field, is essentially aroused by sensuality. And when translating this reaction into the analysis of artistic creations, the question arises: does sensuality still exist in the representations of the body in contemporary art?
On a closer inspection we find that, lately, the treating of the body becomes almost obsessively equivalent with treating it as an object. Of course, it’s not a question of change in paradigm that would’ve happened during postmodernism. Taking into consideration the artistic works meant for the general public during the years, the representation of the body as an object becomes prominent with the Rococo. Thus we take into account Boucher’s paintings, in which the female nude evidently becomes strictly a representation of sexual desire. If this type of representation still offers a bit of mystery for our society, it is not because of the way the body is represented. It’s much more the scenography, the voluptuous portrayal of the bedding, the luxurious drapery, which now may seem excessive, topped by the obsession for splendor that is characteristic for Rococo. Thus, this type of painting becomes a fetish through the fascination that it brings forth with its environment, which is almost exotic – an exoticism that is the result of the impossibility of finding a similar scene in our times, in our surrounding reality. Worth mentioning is also the fascination for the painting itself, which in this era is not yet separated from the object it represents. In this way, the preoccupation with the body intertwines with the fascination for the color, leaving the body to dominate through modality of representation.
This fascination for the pornographic representation still considered erotic, because of its historical transformation into exoticism, disappears when we take into consideration Courbet and his The Origin of the World. In this case we are only dealing with realism, which is programmatically retracting from any type of metaphor, furthermore transforming the body into an object from an intellectualized perspective. The desire to represent the body without any use of metaphor, just for the sake of it being an object of desire also becomes a representation of an object that happens to be the female body, a source of pleasure, and only after that a source of life. The transformation of the body into an object is caused by the impossibility to identify that body as being unique, the Lover, the one and only, subject of desire and obsession. Nothing metaphysical here. Just flesh and function. Mostly function. Though there’s the case of the impressionists (Degas’ nudes, Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass), where metaphor is elided, where we won’t see a reference to the function of the body, only its nude presence, as pretext to demonstrate the artistic perfection of the painting.
Courbet’s representation can be considered symptomatic and representative for the way the portrayal of the human body is understood, especially the female one (we shall not get into the eternal debate regarding why it is almost always the female nude the object of desire), an object lacking sensuality, which fades in its sexual function. Yes, function, not desire!
The avant-garde period is significant from another point of view, which will establish an important step in the way in which the visual subject will later be treated. We are talking about an entire obsession for technique and ways of visual representation, manifested in different ways. In this rush to find the new, the representation of the so-called classical portrayal of the body is abolished, thus also abandoning the attempt of its sensual representation. Still, sensuality does not disappear altogether. Works of art still need to raise the interest of the public, or in other words, to seduce it. How can this be done without the presence of the nude? Through fascination for the technique. Through the pleasure of searching for new forms of representation: the delight in finding multiple angles of depiction of the structure in Cubism (including of the body, which once deformed until the point of unrecognizability, cannot arouse desire); the pleasure of searching for the representation of speed in futurism (including Marinetti’s Manifesto, the rejection of history, museums and anything that meant art having a connection to the past, including the nude); the pleasure in strict analysis of the form and/or color in the case of Kandinsky, Klee or Constructivism. Sensuality, passion and pleasure are shifted in this tumult towards the technique of the rendering of the work of art, fascinating not only the creator of the work in his frenzy of creative act, but also the viewer, through the richness and tension built up by the artist’s pursuit.
Descending, if I may say so, towards more present times, we meet a series of seemingly divergent manifestations, but which all have in common one thing when it comes to dealing with eroticism, namely its elision. If we take into consideration the representation of the body, this becomes almost pornographic, a characteristic of postmodernity. Baudrillard states that in contemporary society the representation is pornographic even when it doesn’t imply an actual depiction of the body, precisely because of the zeal that the image has, thus resulting in a society of the hyper-real. And in this hyper-real representation what remains of sexuality is the sexual act itself. The body is left with this only function, sex, treated mechanically and lacking the ability to fascinate. The act that it evokes should be fascinating, but it isn’t because of its disavowal. In fact, artistic representation, or display if we are referring to performance art, is not concerned about evoking mystery anymore, only about presenting primal function. The mystery can only be saved by the intellectualization of the artistic creation. Thus, function becomes pretext for the inflammation of the ideational content, or for ludic approach, on the limit of farce. Jeff Koons successfully exploits this aspect, answering to the charges of pornography with the naturalness of the act (but not its representation), stating that the two depicted are the painter and his wife.
Regarding this kind of treating of the body, backed by an ideational content which is meant to be stronger than the image, an important segment is represented by the evoking of the grotesque through the body. The case is interesting. It’s not just a matter of the reformulation of the traditional memento mori, because in this case it’s not only about the imminence of death invoked. And neither is it a calling on an honest, pure life. What we are really talking about here is the obsession for the so-called correct drawing, but which keeps away from academism, orienting rather towards a hyper-realism. And it is betrayed by bringing forth the grotesque. Grotesque, which is obtained by the deformation of the human body, by the illustration of diseases that attack the body in hideous ways, becomes pretext for displaying technical virtuosity. It’s not about provoking scandal, because that would be no longer possible through such means, even more so because this is after the Viennese Actionism, which explored and exploited these subjects in a much more appropriate way to serve its purpose. And in this context it is even more obvious that we can’t talk about eroticism. Even if the naked body is in the center of attention of the spectator, it is a body devoured by grotesque, miles away from eroticism. The body is no longer the source of pleasure, but of disgust. It is also interesting when the invocation of the function is accompanied by a grotesque environment. In this case, the spectator will feel disgusted by the sexual act, or condemn it for being immoral. Quite an opposition to what eroticism should mean. It’s more like a condemnation of pornography, which in its pure form is easily accepted.
Neither is erotic photography what it claims to be … Because eroticism doesn’t result from the presentation of the naked body here either. The spectator observes the nude which has the same attitude as it would have dressed up. The lack of a smallest gesture of shame does nothing more than to transform nudity into normality, leaving aside whatever uniqueness that particular body could’ve meant, whatever mystery would have unfolded along with the act of undressing. With this type of photography, it is the scenography that evokes the erotic: a ray of light that highlights a certain part of the body, drapery and bed sheets that suggest that there is more to the picture, that in a moment inaccessible to the spectator there would be more to be seen, but the mystery lies in the very moment and action that are missing. Therefore, the ambience is the source of the erotic, not the body which, in this case, may only serve a function.
And if we have already mentioned Viennese Actionism, it’s worth taking a look at performance art and happening as well. Just as in the case of the Actionism, where drawing and grotesque bring forth a dilatation of problematics and there’s no question of eroticism involved, neither can be in performance art that doesn’t deal with grotesque. Firstly because performance rarely deals with the problem of sexuality or eroticism. And even in the cases where it is invoked, it doesn’t qualify as eroticism because of its excessive nature. A conclusive example in this sense is the happening of Adel Abdessemed, in which several couples are invited to make love. Quantity is what shocks the spectator at first, who can only look and take account of the methods used by the couples. The most evident thing in this case is the function of the body, as sexual act itself is discussed, reverberating and repeating in various states, so there can be no seduction, no eroticism, only, yet again, intellectualized pornography. So if we are to take into consideration Baudrillard’s words regarding hyper-real society, and if we accept that performance and happening are categories subordinated to hyper-real par excellence, we can only conclude that we are talking of pornography (in a broader sense, obviously), without there being any way in which eroticism could be invoked.
In conclusion, the main method of pursuing sensuality within contemporary art remains, just as with avant-garde, the fascination for technique, in various states: color, form and idea. The fascination for the body is out of the question, as it has transformed into an inventory of its functions and states, with an interest worthy of the study of anatomy. Nothing excites in the presence of the body anymore. The result is nothing more than the transformation of the body into object and function.
Image courtesy of Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation