Many of you have seen the video series that I recently participated in, Hysterical Literature, from photographer and friend Clayton Cubitt. In response to the videos, many people have commented on different aspects of the project. There are few topics these days that continue to remain as sensitive as sex. I personally want to respond to Reid Singer’s article, which questions the integrity of creativity when mixed with a fair dose of sexuality. Can it be considered art if influenced by sex, and if so, will it ever enter the elitist echelon on “high brow” art?
First and foremost, I’m an artist and curator. Most people know me as such, and not as a model, actor, or sexual deviant (well, at least the first two), so you can imagine that this would be reason enough to contribute to the conversation. I could start off by going into the history of sex and why it’s taboo, how its relation to the progress of agriculture and the ties to religion directly correlate to its controversy in art. Though I would rather debug its negative implications, so we can begin to view art, and in turn, the human condition removed from a shit-colored lens.
Sex is the basis for most everything in life. It’s the primordial ooze that fuels the cogs of civilization as we know it. From the furthering of our species, the often unsavory growth of capitalism, and even personal exploration and understanding are influenced by sex to one degree or another. We have to start addressing sex in a positive, fearless, and shame-free manner because our DNA is literally built from it. An inherent transparency about this is a critical element to gaining more understanding about who we are as a whole. This begins with educators, revolutionaries, and of course, artists.
“Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced,
not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious,
but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature.”
- Tom Robbins in Still Life with Woodpecker
What determines the level of validity one artwork has over another: craftsmanship, artistic intention, education, popularity, endorsement? Is that framework of judgement actually upheld, both in contemporary critical theory and into the past? Throughout history, sex has had undeniable influence: the Paleolithic cave paints, Greek and Roman sculpture and ceramics, Eastern paintings and manuals such as the book of Kama Sutra, and even the medieval illuminated manuscripts of Europe that married both erotic and religious content (gasp!). These pieces are in museums, galleries, and forever revered in history books. Did they garner status through the thoughtful regard of whether to be high art or not? Of course not. Art is simultaneously a reflection and reaction to society; its mere intention is to be honest and unfiltered.
If this is understood, why then does sex now cheapen the artistic message? The invention of the printing press and the first signs of mass circulation led to the eventuality of a larger dissemination of imagery. After print came photography in the 19th century and the moving picture not long after. What is regarded as the ingenious today is inextricably married to its cheaper modern day iterations. The connection between art and porn is completely understandable; the difference only being time and technological advancement. The real issue here lies not with the pornographic content of art, but rather the mass production of works that drives it away from the perceived specialness of high art.
If high art is defined as something that is aesthetically and conceptually pleasing to all, is washed of its grit, and displayed in the sterile gallery environment amongst the 1% of the population, how much effect does it actually have? If the one percent is comprised of wealthy collectors and educated critics, why are those people, of all people, the ones who are dubbed the most informed about what’s high or not? It seems to me that the notion of high and low art is a false construct, inconsistently upheld by an unrealistic system of categorization, informed primarily by class.
Singer’s article confirms this confusion. By saying “so-called art videos”, he assumes a level of judgment. Perhaps he is convinced that Cubitt’s intention was only to produce what he or society confirms as art. I can’t speak for Clayton personally, but if I were to guess, his intention has more to do with communicating an idea than it does with trying to be art. The title, Hysterical Literature, directly references an era where the “disease” hysteria in women was running wild. During that time, culture was ingrained with fear and the lack of acceptance of sexuality, especially that of women’s. The selective education enforced by church and state bred misinformed doctors who facilitated misdiagnosis and treatment. If you strip away our intellect you are left with raw evolution. Despite our ethics, the institutions that enforce them, and technological advancement - we are animals. This is a wonderful thing because we are part of the world we live in. The project touches on the bias in science and society if it’s removed from its roots, which is ironic considering Reid’s review. Hysterical Literature blatantly confirms that, even to this day, our learned intellect battles our inherent animalism. Its eroticism is merely a by-product of deep-seated issues that ultimately surpass the concern of arbitrary sex for sex’s sake.
Let’s not forget to mention the actual reading in each video: why does each woman select the passage that she does? What significance does it have to her personally and to the theme at large? The psychology behind each passage connects on a very intimate level for each of his subjects. Sometimes the text itself is erotic, other passages are only later considered to be such because of the scenario they’re in. If you can look past the overt qualities of each video, you will find subtler points to take note of. Is that not what good art critique prides itself of? For this, Singer misses the mark. By getting hung up on the novelty, which Cubitt begs that you reconsider, Singer ignores the opportunity to investigate such ideas, and unknowingly says more about himself than the work at hand. By not addressing these other pivotal ingredients, one misses a large part of what makes these pieces so interesting.
Art relies on freedom from restraint, which makes it impossible to effectively qualify it. The judgment and categorizations of what is properly art alienates the sole purpose of why art is considered invaluable. The more the pedestal of the art industry is perpetuated, the more the potency behind that art itself is removed - the inevitable sadness of the caged animal.
“The history of modern art is also the history
of the progressive loss of art’s audience.
Art has increasingly become the concern of
the artist and the bafflement of the public.”
- Paul Gauguin