What happened to landscape painting? It’s just not sexy enough.
An exploration of how our depiction and perception of sex in art has changed. Originally published in Anchor Magazine.
In 1902 Gustav Klimt’s master piece, the Beethoven Frieze, was met with embattled rejection. Produced as part of an exhibition celebrating the life of the late composer, Ludwig van Beethoven, the Frieze depicts the three Gorgons in their nude, female form to symbolise lust, lechery and intemperance.
The figures were despised by the public for their lack of purity, chastity, and temperance. The male and female genitalia strewn across the work caused an outcry at the time. It is now one of the Austrian artist’s key works.
In 2010 The Secession Gallery, home to a permanent display of Klimt’s work, incorporated a Viennese swinger club as part of the exhibition. Visitors had to pass through its titillating walls before reaching the climax of the exhibition, The Beethovan Frieze. The project was considered by many to be obscene and pornographic — one Freedom party politician describing it as ‘dragging the cultural capital of Vienna into the mud’. Funny how a similar criticism was once targeted at the Artist now renowned for being one of Austria’s cultural icons.
Closer to home, an innovative young Artist named Clayton Pettet recently announced plans to lose his virginity on a canvas in front of a crowd of 100 people, all in the name of ART of course. The performance entitled ‘Art School Stole My Virginity’ aims to question attitudes towards virginity, much in same way that chastity and purity are confronted in the Beethovan Frieze.
“I had the idea when I was 16” says Pettet during an interview with Dan Wilkinson for Vice,
“It was incredibly hard for me to ask why I was still a virgin and why it meant so much to people. My piece isn’t a statement as much as it is a question.” And many questions can be raised about virginity: Why are so many of us obsessed with losing it or, in Pettet’s case, having it taken away from us? Are we a different person after we have had sex? Is it different for men and women?
One may wonder how two men having sex on a canvas in front of a crowd of one hundred curious audience members will really help to answer these questions. But in Pettet’s defence, he is right to confront what remains a heteronormative definition of virginity — he is losing his to a man. Nonetheless, the performance says a lot more about contemporary Art than it does about virginity.
Contemporary British Art has become dependent on provocative subject matter often used in a desperate attempt to shock the audience. In 1999 Tracey Emin was shortlisted for the Turner prize (now renowned for showcasing controversial contemporary works) for a piece entitled ‘My Bed’. Emin’s bed documents the aftermath of a week spent wallowing in a depressed, bed-ridden state, with the sheets stained by excrement and decorated with limp condoms. Shocking right? It certainly sounds a bit more interesting than a blank canvas.
Is the art world just absurdly gullible? The world of books and the world of music could never dream of getting away with the same antics.
‘You wouldn’t buy a book of loo paper, neither would you pay to see blur defecate on stage’ writes Craig Brown in a satirical review of Tracey Emin suitably titled ‘My Turd’.
Perhaps we enjoy occasionally being dragged out of our comfort zone and nodding our heads in appreciation of something grotesque or farcical. Somehow the art world has a license to stamp anything with its prestigious 3-letter title so long as the work is about sex, or about death, or anything sufficiently tendentious or solemn for that matter.
Whatever happened to landscape painting? It’s just not sexy enough.
We live in a generation of constant distraction, if we are not busy typing away on Facebook, our minds are most likely preoccupied with thoughts of sex or food (or maybe both). Artists need to be able to grab our attention, something which is easier said than done in the 21st century. A painting of three lustful women was enough to achieve this in 1902, now it is necessary to have sex with a man in front of one hundred people. Confrontational art work is designed to shock us, but the ‘shock factor’ is still not a sufficient explanation for why we are drawn to it. Just like a reality TV show with a similar name, the ratings are slipping and the ‘shock factor’ is rapidly losing its once irresistible appeal.
According to Grayson Perry in his first Reith lecture, ‘Art cannot shock us anymore — we are all Bohemians now”.
We have become immune to affronting and raunchy imagery and almost completely desensitised to violence. Could sexuality be the next controversial issue to move into the realm of familiarity and hence disinterest? Perhaps we are no longer shocked in our hectic lives, but we can still be intrigued and, on the off-chance, mildly offended by a work of art… if we’re lucky. Or perhaps, on a more cynical note: what we are ‘meant’ to value in art is becoming even more dictated by the contemporary art world and its chorus line of professional interpreters.
The Art world is gullible for a reason: some of the major artistic influencers in Britain are quite literally capable of buying shit. In 1961 Piero Manzoni (neatly) placed his excrement in a can and in 2000 it was bought by Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate galleries, for £22,600. Like so many YBAs*, Tracey Emin owes her success to Charles Saatchi, who bought ‘my bed’ for £150,000 in 2000 and reportedly keeps it in a room in his own home, one can only hope he never forced Nigella Lawson to sleep in it. I wonder whether Pettet’s post-sex canvas will attract the attention of these two elevated critics and give it the platform it needs to become ‘Art’.
The art world is still a wonderful place to be. Creativity is thriving, and Art is still widely appreciated; where would culture be without it? The contemporary art world is daring and capable of confronting topics which are easily hidden beneath our selfish consciousness. The artist is the bastion of the inquisitive life, always ready to respond to any attack. A paintbrush and a canvas are immensely powerful tools, or in Pettet’s case, a canvas and the gyrations of two bodies, engaging in the most human of our many activities.
But, it is important to remember that with controversy comes media attention and with media attention comes celebrity culture. Where would Kim Kardashian be without her sex tape and of course her consistent wailing of “oh Ray-J!”? The contemporary art world has begun to suffer the curse of the 21st century celebrity. If fame becomes even more important than creativity and innovation, art becomes a cause célèbre. As art gathers more media attention for all the wrong reasons, artists will be more prone to sell themselves for the sake of fame and before we know it Tracey Emin will be on the front cover of ‘OK’. And that is not OK.