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January 18, 2008

Sleaze, Sodomy and Sado-Masochism - Christie Davies considers what has been included - and excluded - from the Barbican's exhibition of sexually-explicit art: Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now at the Barbican

Posted by Christie Davies

Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now
Barbican Art Gallery, London
12th October 2007 - 27th January 2008
Friday - Monday 11am - 8pm
Tuesday & Wednesday 11am - 6pm
Thursday 11am - 10pm
This exhibition contains work of a sexually explicit nature

Seduced is of interest because of its art but even more because of the sex. I do not mean that it is full of porn. You will find more porn in the bulk spam box on your email, along with cheap offers of prescription snake oil from Scotland where it is free on the NHS, sharky loans from usurers to sub-prime people and letters from the widows of Nigerian billionaires whose money locked away in a secret account will all be yours, if you send them a modest cheque. Your spam box is a very microcosm of Gordon Brown's moral compass Britain with its unstable magnetic field.

It is precisely the moral questions that are the most interesting aspect of the exhibition. They are questions that would not arise in relation to an exhibition about art and eating. In the future the positive portrayal of fat people will be forbidden and even now a still life that includes traife is not permitted in multi-cultural art exhibitions in Stamford Hill and Brooklyn but by and large it is true to say that only art involving sex is so constrained. By convention sex is hidden, sex is private, sex is constrained by very forceful rules and taboos.

For all the talk about openness, modern progressive indignation and prejudice have determined what is freely flaunted in this exhibition, what is tucked away in side-rooms with warnings and what is all but omitted.

We do not live in a fully libertarian society in relation either to private sexual acts or to the kind of art that may be freely displayed. It is simply that the egalitarian hegemonic ideology of our age has a different view of what should be forbidden than that which prevailed in the past. The most interesting aspect of the exhibition is the way in which it reveals how changes in the official version of how society holds together held by the powerful bring about changes in the content and significance of the prohibitions.

These rules and prohibitions also restrict how we speak about sex, which is why sex is the subject of so many jokes. Jokes sneak round forbidden discourse, whether they refer to sex, disasters or insults. The use of the word "art" to display forbidden pictures and images of sex is thus also a joke and humour is one of the great appeals of the exhibition.

During my visit, to the irritation of the high-minded punters, there was a certain ribaldry in the response of some viewers to a Japanese shunga that sprang out at you, displaying the enormous membrum virile of a client in a Japanese whorehouse navigating his way towards and into a lady with an orifice of comparable dimensions. In your bulk spam box you will find adverts offering you this kind of magnification. It is also the subject of Alan Bennett's comedy, Kafka's Dick, with Kafka at the opposite end of the spectrum from the lustful Samurai. Bennett's character asks in effect: "is that a thimble you've got in your pocket, Franz, or are you pleased to see me?"

As I was leaving the exhibition, I heard the unmistakeable upper-upper voice of a product of Somerville from the days when it was an all female college protesting to the immigrant woman at the till who was putting her catalogue into a plain brown wrapper that: "There was a lot of quite disgusting tittering in the Chinese section".

I thought for a moment I had missed out on the artistic portrayal of some interesting Oriental perversion but then she went onto denounce the titterers for being English and thus more willing to snigger than solemn sex-and-art-pious Europeans. She went on, "Of course I'm English myself…"

As if we had not realised. Titter ye not. She failed to see that, where there are rules about the hidden, there is going to be laughter. I am sure Chinese Taoists will also find much to amuse them here.

The interesting question is whether visitors from different cultural backgrounds will laugh at different items. When you go to see Seduced take a large linen handkerchief with you to laugh into, lest you offend any ageing Laurence and Gill freaks who think they are in the church of the holiness of sex and the holiness of art and are about to break into singing: "That South Bank religion, That South Bank Religion, It was good enough for father and it's good enough for me". Someone has pulled the Woolwich over their eyes.

The exhibition has on full obverse display works that were once tucked away in the secret recesses of the British Museum, the Naples archaeological museum and the Kinsey library. There seem to be no limits to what art can do with sex, though it is difficult to know how openly these pictures, ceramics, sculptures and mosaics of copulating couples and sodomites penetrating catamites were displayed in the societies where they were produced.

Even at the Barbican they are not shown to anyone under 18, which is odd given that those over 16 can legally take part in such activities and indeed many of them do. Why is seeing more forbidden than doing?

The party line is that in societies where sexual activities were freely incorporated into art it was done within a high moral framework. Thus we are told that the depictions of regal couples' sexual cavortings in beautiful gardens in Indian miniatures are part of the Hindu quest for sensual well-being, one of the four goals of human life. But why does this matter? Would the care and skill of the Indian artists have been any less worthy of our admiration if, like Boucher or Fragonard, they had seen their work as a mere depiction of erotic luxury, the twice-born couples' rewards for having been virtuous elephants or obedient Sudras in a previous existence?

Some of these works of art are quite simply celebrations of debauchery particularly the Turkish/Persian depictions of unnatural vice. The most outrageous is to be found in the set A Shaykh (Shaykh Muhammad Ibn Mustafa Al-Misri) remembers his youth, 1773, in which a continuous circle of Near Easterners, naked except for their little circular Muslim caps and abbreviated jackets, bugger one another round and round and round and round, their feet shuffling desperately to keep up. It is best seen as a dirty joke to be filed by Gershon Legman.

The joke is all the funnier because pious imams would find the image grossly offensive. Schadenfreude boosts humour. To ensure that I will not be arrested for being "Islamophobic", let me allude to a western joke about a visitor to a monastery who finds the monks all lined up buggering one another, with the one at the head of the line shouting desperately "form a circle, form a circle".

And here are the Turks, or possibly Iranians (they are illustrations to a text translated from Persian to Turkish) doing just that. And yet the bright jackets against the black night sky and the frantically moving white legs stamping down the brown earth are the work of someone with real artistic gifts. The entire orgy is so skilfully lit that one can only assume that a group of jolly British firemen must have picked them up in their torches.

Elsewhere there is much deliberate humour, notably from Picasso in his series of drawings from 1968 that includes Raphaël et la Fornarina XV; le pape est de retour, sur un pot. Raphael is engaged in a last over-vigorous bout of sexual activity with his model and mistress, the baker's daughter, the bout that killed him. Their fatal pleasure is shared by a voyeur, the aged grimacing Pope Julius, his face as wrinkled as his scrotum, who is sitting on a chamber pot. These joyful cartoons were done towards the very end of Picasso's life and are a final statement of his sophisticated Catalunyatic view of Catholicism.

Humour is also the best way to regard the nonsense produced by the latter day Surrealist Jean-Jacques Lebel, an admirer of Andrė Breton. Lebel held a happening on 27th August 1966 called 120 minutes dédiées au divin Marquis (120 Minutes Dedicated to the Divine Marquis) as a protest against "the political obscenity he saw as endemic in French society". I had no idea anyone could feel so passionately about the Common Agricultural Policy.

At Lebel's 1966 happening, sugar cubes laced with LSD were handed to the audience. Lebel and another artist spanked two bare bottomed girls over their knees to the beat of the Marseillaise [the hysterical bit that goes Aux arbres, citoyens must have been especially stinging]. A semi-naked soprano singer urinated on the crowd from the rafters and was later covered in cream which members of the audience were invited to lick off.

Only the French could have regarded this piece of circus as of political significance. Like all French political thinking it confuses the accidents of language with relationships between real entities. Instead of having the sense to ignore him, the authorities arrested Lebel and of course the usual gauche gang, Sartre and de Beauvoir (Castor and Bollox), Breton etc. all protested.

Would they have protested if his declared intent had been to defile the foolish and dangerous notions of equality for which the Marseillaise stands? Would they have gone to his support if he had done it as a commercial entrepreneur providing amusing obscenity as a spectacle? All we have left are a few poor quality black and white photos. Happenings do not belong in exhibitions.

At about the same level of political comment is Tracey Emin's glowing pink neon sign that asks Is Legal Sex Anal? Is Anal Sex Legal?, 1998. You could get the same or a better artistic effect with a random pattern of cursive letters selected for appearance. The message is silly shocking. You might just as well ask "Is Legal Sex Banal? Is Banal Sex Legal?"

Having seen the kind of Greek and Etruscan and possibly Moche sodomitical ceramics on display in the exhibition, it is quite clear to me that a rational case can be presented for making anal sex illegal, provided that the law does not discriminate and applies equally to both heterosexual and homosexual couples and is only enforced against the active party. It is often forgotten that heterosexual sodomy remained illegal in England and Wales long after 1967, when all homosexual acts in private between adults over 21 were made legal. The view was taken that heterosexual sodomy should be regarded as coercion on the part of the man, since no decent woman could ever consent to it.

As Warden Sparrow pointed out at the time, the vile gamekeeper Oliver Mellors sodomized Lady Chatterley; this is the real reason why Lady Chatterley's Lover with its talk of Greek vases and the burning out of shame had to be banned - it was an incitement to an illegal and by definition coercive act.

Having had to submit to sodomy was from time to time cited in divorce petitions by a woman anxious to be rid of a thoroughly bestial husband. Those who are more prurient than I am and have the permission of the curators to use magnifying glasses should check the ceramics out carefully. It may well be in some cases the penetration of the women is not sodomy but merely natural penetration a tergo, something to which only missionaries can object, or even mere inter-femoral "coitus". But let us keep all discussion of it in the decent obscurity of the Latin.

The illegality of heterosexual sodomy is never mentioned by gay activist historians in Britain, even though in some American states they have sought to overturn sodomy laws on the constitutional grounds that they are discriminatory because they do not apply to heterosexual couples.

The gay activists also evade the fact that the individuals portrayed on the Greek plates and vessels in the exhibition practising same-sex sodomy are not equals. Sodomy was not generally permitted in ancient Greek cities, despite all the myths and the jokes, but only in certain cities and at certain times in those cities' history. Why the differences existed I do not know; it would be very interesting to find out.

Even where it was permitted, a mature male citizen could not be the passive partner; that role had to be played by a boy, a slave or a foreigner. Only an inferior could play the inferior role of the penetrated one, the inferior position of women in Greek society. As Thorkil Vanggaard showed, ancient Greece was not the world of freedom and equality it has been made out to be. I would guess that where there are two men involved in unnatural vice on plates, only the active partner will be bearded, though I suppose it is possible that some slaves had beards.

The distinction between the two kinds of role has remained powerful into our own times. In the 1920s there was a major scandal that led to the resignation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as Secretary of the Navy. The clergy and other pious worthies running a YMCA near a naval base had found that the sailors were willing in return for cash to indulge in sex with them provided that they, the pious worthies were the passive partners (the despised ones, the pogues) whilst the sailors played the active role. The sailors did not see themselves as gay; only the passive recipients were thus stigmatized.

Somehow the information got out about this navy lark of Hello Sailor and the military and the local police intervened. The YMCA worthies claimed that they were innocent and made a fuss and Roosevelt was outed, outed from office that is. Given his later attempts to pack the Supreme Court and force the resignation of Justices who disagreed with him and his handing over of Eastern Europe to Stalin at Yalta (disregarding Churchill's doubts), it is a pity he did not stay out.

This aspect of sodomy as crude domination does not seem to have been considered by the exhibitors who claim to have:

excluded exploitative images that are savagely aggressive or degrading.
I have no doubt that the organisers did their best but this is an impossible restriction because the words "exploitative", "savagely", "aggressive", "degrading" have no real meaning. They are merely "Yah, boo" words. They are part of the sort of nonsense that has underpinned New Labour's legislation on sexual offences. They are simply a way of dressing up feelings of strong dislike.

They do not differ in any way from the "intolerance, indignation and disgust" invoked by Lord Pádraig Devlin, a spoiled priest turned judge, in his justification of the law's persecution of those whose private sexual conduct could be seen as grossly deviant. Devlin appealed to the prejudices of the man on the Clapham Omnibus and New Labour to those of the woman in the Hampstead taxi. There is neither liberty nor Benthamite common sense in either of these imagined entities.

It is in this context that we must consider the exhibitionists' brazen flaunting of a painting of Alexander the Great buggering his General Hephaestion (unknown artist 18th century, album of Pisanus Fraxi) on a red-canopied bed ….or is it the other way round. As if this were not bad enough, they are doing it on the battle field with a cavalry charge in the background. Even in today's lax times that must be contrary to Queen's Regulations. What would Field Marshal Montgomery or Surgeon-Admiral Jolly have had to say?

By contrast the sado-masochistic homosexual photographs of the gifted Robert Mapplethorpe are hidden away in a backroom adorned with a notice warning visitors that they might find them offensive. Yet why are Mapplethorpe's favoured activities seen as more offensive than Alexander's sodomy?

One reason is a very traditional one, namely that giving a sexual activity a Classical context makes it more acceptable than if it were part of everyday life. Antiquity gives filth a verdigris of respectability. Indeed this could be the theme of the exhibits from the Renaissance to the late seventeenth century as Mars goes into the box of Venus and then looks for Mercury because he has left his armour with Vulcan.

The same excuse allows the exhibitors to break their own rule that "consent is an important watchword" in deciding what they will admit into the exhibition. I doubt if Ganymede, a young boy, consented to being abducted by an eagle to satisfy the lusts of an Olympian pederast but you can see it happening here, as are sundry nymphs being sexually assaulted by satyrs.

At least Mapplethorpe's subjects consented to what they were doing as well as to being photographed and were of an age properly to do so. By contrast in the self-portrait of Picasso getting a blow-job from an anonymous but mature woman the complacent little recipient looks as if he is aged about 14. It is probably just a Picasso fantasy but women get long prison sentences for that kind of thing in brother Bush's Florida.

Likewise the title of Jean-Honorė Fragonard's The Beautiful Servant (pointless resistance) does not imply a level of consent that would satisfy the buffoons who run the Crown Prosecution Service. Still your sensible British jury would certainly acquit; another waste of public money by the incompetent CPS.

However, there is another and more dubious reason for excluding the sado-masochists. Those who indulge in "savagely aggressive" sexual acts such as those delighted in by Mapplethorpe and, come to think of it by Foucault, are liable to be sent to prison for several years for no better reason than that those who hold power consider them "degrading" in exactly the same sense that Devlin did sodomy. That is what happened in the famous Spanner case, when three gay men Colin Laskey, Roland Jaggard and Anthony Brown were sentenced to four and a half years, three years and two years and nine months jail for consensual sado-masochism.

The conviction was even upheld in the House of Lords, though two of the five judges dissented. It later gained the approval of the absurd European Court of Human Rights for no better reason than that the judges felt shocked. The case is discussed at length in my book The Strange Death of Moral Britain.

The exhibitors can not exclude Mapplethorpe's work altogether since that would place them alongside the Christian fundamentalists of Cincinnati who tried to close down an exhibition of his work; besides it would offend our gay friends and we can't have that can we? However, because of his sado-masochism Mapplethorpe has to be set to one side as suspect. There is it would seem nothing wrong in explicit depictions of sex involving all orifices possible nor in portraying "savagely aggressive" behaviour, for example a boxing match but to combine the two is taboo.

My objections to the curators' implied policy are partly libertarian and partly utilitarian, the same objections that I provided in writing to the Law Commission (Consultation Paper134, Criminal Law: Consent and Offences against the person 1995) when they asked me to comment on the prosecution of those (as in the Spanner case) whose violent sexual activities were carried out in private and constituted no threat to public order.

This also brings me to my second reason for arguing that a rational case can be made for making sodomy illegal and for banishing images of it from the exhibition. Sodomy is dangerous and should be prohibited as a health and safety measure in keeping with the precautionary principle that is the basis of all EU legislation. Mapplethorpe and Foucault both died young from AIDs related illnesses, they died not from their wild sado-masochistic activities which were no more dangerous than any other contact sport, but from bare-backing sodomy, the most sure method of transmitting HIV other than the sharing of needles between addicts.

Even if the practitioners of sodomy are careful over infection, they are apt to do far more damage to themselves than sado-masochists do. To prosecute the latter but not the former is merely to "privilege" the prejudices of Hampstead over those of Clapham.

Perhaps for the same reason there are very few art-works in the exhibition dealing with heterosexual or lesbian sado-masochism, even though its practitioners must greatly exceed the number of homosexual sodomites in our society. Because the SMers do not play identity politics as shrilly as the latter, their art is always under-represented.

Also feminists and leftists hate them because their activities overtly demand dominant and submissive partners; this offends against the progressives' obsession with equality, which is the basis also of our crass new laws on sexual offences. Have the organizers excluded SM art because they define it as "degrading", even though sodomy it would seem is not?

I have to admit I did not actually look very hard for such images at the exhibition nor did I have the stamina to sit through all the "scientifically classified" Kinsey photographs but I can only remember two such images.

One is Agostino Carracci's Satyr Flogging a Nymph, 1590-95. He leaves us in no doubt about the sexual nature of this work, for the nymph is naked and tied to a tree, her left arm tied to a high branch, so that she is stretched upwards and struggling to keep her position on the bark of the trunk. Carracci has placed her prominent buttocks right at the centre of the picture to be laid into by a leather wielding goat-legged satyr. It is paired with Satyr Having Sex with a Nymph, 1590-95, as part of a series. It has been allowed into the exhibition because it is Renaissance/Classical/mythological and therefore suitably removed from reality.

The other sado-masochistic outrage to egalitarian moralism is an anonymous illustration from Jean-Baptiste de Boyer d'Argens's Thérèse philosophe, ou mémoires pour server à l’histoire de D. Dirrag et Mademoiselle Eradice. A pious and attractive woman without underwear kneels in prayer with her bottom towards us. A clergyman has raised her skirts with one hand and is busy chastising her nakedness with a martinet held in the other. This scene from a traditional Roman Catholic penitential, however, dissolves into something else when we realise that the priest is exposing himself and is in a visible state of high erotic excitement.

These French "philosophical" works of the eighteenth century were meant to be subversive of the existing political and religious order; in them hierarchical authority is transmuted into or revealed as sexuality. Both the Surrealists and Lebel were to play the same kind of trick both visually and through their veneration of de Sade. That is why they are in the exhibition, they are part of an antic radicalism that places the images in a modish and conformist leftist context.

The same is true of the weird writings of the gay extreme sado-masochist Foucault on the subject of punishment. Foucault tells us that Bentham is nastier than those who believed in public floggings and torture but this is really because he, Foucault, would have liked to be a spectator at or even participant in such events. But Foucault dresses his obsessions up as an attack on the more measured modes of social control of his own time in order that he could say that bourgeois society is even more repressive than its absolutist predecessors; it just hides its nastiness better. It is a crackpot and unfalsifiable proposition.

Foucault manages to justify both communist style torture and total anarchy at one and the same time but without admitting to either and all done in a subtly opaque way. Some people find this higher Froggy nonsense profound.

Let me now offer an interpretation of why there is an absence of contemporary heterosexual sado-masochistic (other than the odd bit of bondage) images in the exhibition. It is because they have now come to be seen as subversive of modern leftist notions of society being held together by ideas of equality, in exactly the same way that images of sodomy subvert the core ideas of a society based on hierarchy and boundaries.

Homosexual sado-masochistic images are just about acceptable to progressives because they can be fitted into a narrative about gays being equal with heterosexuals. Heterosexual sado-masochistic images are taboo because they are a metaphor for consensual inequality between man and woman, the leftists' nightmare. Feminists see lesbian sadomasochism and its images as a betrayal of all the nonsense they stand for.

When the lesbian sado-masochists set up a club in Soho called Blue Moon, a feminist mob stormed the building and broke one of the member's legs. For such people all art and all sex are intrinsically political and righteous egalitarian anger at forms of sex that mimic violence justifies a real leg-breaking IRA style violence. Still breaking someone's leg is only the anarchic equivalent of the state arbitrarily locking him or her up for three years.

The progressive leftists hate the sado-masochists for the same reason that they hate capitalism, indeed for them such acts symbolise capitalism. They resent the fact that exploitation is the highest form of freedom. It is Pareto optimal. They, by contrast, as Pareto showed, are merely justifying sentiments with a forced logic. Exploitation is a win-win game, even when the winnings are divided unequally, whereas equality is lose-lose. a negative sum game in which everyone ends up worse off.

Likewise in a consensual situation both sadist and masochist are winners and the latter may well be the one who is in control and sets the limits. If one of them wishes to over-ride what the other will permit, he or she will have to reward the other in emotional or material to an extent that more than compensates; there is an implicit contract. The worst consequences of this are going to be far less dire than those experienced by men or women who are persuaded into bareback anal sex.

There are many good reasons for going to the exhibition. You can go either to revel or to be shocked. You can go and enjoy a Rushton-Muggeridge style laughter born of a conviction that sex is not holy but comic or you can laugh as I did because transgressive images are risible in exactly the same way that jokes about the death of Diana or Kennedy or about dim Paddies or promiscuous Essex girls are funny.

Or you can go because Rembrandt and Picasso are as admirable when dealing with the erotic as with anything else and indeed the erotic is the source and subject of Boucher's and Fragonard's, Klimt's and Schiele's greatest accomplishments.

Dr Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, which discusses how the social order determines which particular forms of private sexual behaviour are stigmatised as subversive. He is currently at work on a book to be called Jokes and Targets, which will add a sexual dimension to his earlier book, The Mirth of Nations.


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Absolutely disgraceful. Portrayals of sado-masochism have no place in an art exhibition because it is a vile perversion

It is no good pretending that sodomy is the main means of transmission of AIDS when it is spreading so rapidly in heterosexual Africa, a continent where sodomy is unknown and homosexuality seen as a purely Western decadence.

Posted by: Hilary at January 24, 2008 12:56 AM
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Quite clearly this exhibition should never have taken place. Many aspects of sex should not be depicted for moral and religious reasons. I went to see it and was disgusted by the very portrayals that Mr Davies sees as under-represented, particularly the licentious beating of a woman by a man impersonating a priest or religious. It was a mockery and misrepresentation of priestly punishments and penances .
Also there was a time when decent people never spoke about sodomy but now it is ubiquitous.

Posted by: James at February 2, 2008 05:29 PM
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