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On Prurience in Art
Part II

by Miles Mathis

The problem with contemporary art, realist and modern, is not prurience but it's opposite: alienation.   Both sides have conspired in this alienation.  The methods of modernism are well known, but there has been no opposition from the other side.   Walter Benjamin, hardly a 20th century progressive, recommended the assumption of "critical distance," and his writings have influenced many.  So contemporary realists come from a school that is hardly less "critical" than the avant garde.  Philosophy and criticism have moved all of art, both avant garde and "kitsch," into ever greater realms of analysis. In the avant garde it has become self analysis; in realism it has most often become analysis of technique.

       Both are far-removed from any accusation of prurience and voyeurism, seems to me. Voyeurism, as an interest in the "other", would actually be a sort of tonic to either brand of alienation.  Voyeurism (a species of prurience, no doubt) can be pathological, of course, if  it stops short of contact.  But it is difficult for an artist to look at a model without contacting her first.  Art has always been voyeuristic—it is necessarily so.  Modern art is less voyeuristic than Victorian art or Renaissance art, but not, I would argue, to its benefit.   It might easily be shown that voyeurism is precisely the thing that kept art from slipping into solipsism for so long.  In the early 20th century, art finally fell headfirst into the deepest of solipsistic pits.  It has still not climbed halfway out.  Politics has been used since mid-century to redirect the artist's gaze outward, but it has only partially succeeded in resocializing him, or anybody else.  Politics may create general connections, but it cannot create human connections like a direct interest in the body always did.  That is to say, the right sort of politics may make you love your "neighbor" (as an abstraction); but only a sexual interest will get you a date with the girl next door.   

       We are now less prurient as artists than artists have ever been (yes, there is a tear in my eye.) The avant garde is the least sexy bunch ever to make the world stage. Vulgar and exhibitionistic, yes. But hardly ever about sex. Sex as a pathology sometimes rears its head, among all the other pathologies on view, but sex as sex is pretty much unknown in contemporary art.  Love as love, not at all.  So we are privy to bleeding traffic victims and hacked up war casualities, but not to the artist's lover, painted with tenderness or emotion.  In the last instance we might be subjected to some hidden level of misogyny or "phalludation" or other residue of the patriarchy.  How could we ever forgive ourselves if our daughters came to think that men were looking at them?  Best turn all the "dirty old men" into propagandists for some -ism or another.  Or better yet, give art entirely over to the post-structural women and other politically inebriated sub-groups who would never think of looking at anyone with desire. 


Furthermore, some will say that an acceptance of voyeurism can only lead to a degraded art.  They fear an explosion of outright pornography within realism itself.  I am not sure this fear is unjustified, but its likelihood is based more on exhibitionism than voyeurism.  Voyeurism and exhibitionism are commonly thought to be the complements of one another.  But they are complements only in the cultural context that exhibitionism is rare.  If exhibitionism becomes the norm, then voyeurism is extinct.   The joy of looking is overthrown by having everything in full view at all times. You cannot sneak a gratifying peek at something that is being thrown in your face. 

       Beyond that, there are clearly different levels of voyeurism—different people looking, different ways of looking, different subjects treated in different ways.  A man staring at the David and a man staring at a porn site are both staring.  They are both agape and agog, and not always for entirely different reasons.  Still, it is best to differentiate the two.  Art supplies its own context and rules, where a porn site does not.  The only rule in porn is that anything goes. But nudity, even prurience, in art is always tied to one mythopoetics or another.  With the David, the mythopoetics is obviously biblical, and so one cannot possibly look at that sculpture in the same way one might look at a pornsite.  Even non-Christians cannot do so, since the entire work depends on a view of the nude that is modest and indirect.  The genitals are downplayed and stylized, for instance.  The gaze is averted: David looks away.  He is busy with something else.  And so on.  This applies to all art nudes, worthy of the name.  Manet's Olympia is not the depiction of a sexual free-for-all, despite its depiction of a courtesan.  She is actually very cool and detached, hardly sexy at all.  Munch's Puberty is likewise almost wholly un-lascivious, since what is so successfully painted is  not a budding sexuality, but an incipient crisis. 


All art is voyeuristic in that it must be concerned first and foremost with its subject.  Despite what we have been told by the critics, art is not primarily about materials or forms or politics. It is about a subject and the artist's connection to it.  It is a lack of subtlety or depth in consideration of subject that leads to baubles or illustration, not the consideration of subject itself. If you say, no, Michelangelo wasn't interested in the biblical David, he was interested in creating a great sculpture, which is mostly a formal consideration; I say I believe he was mainly interested in capturing the beauty of that particular young man who he found to model for him, which is even more a direct interest in subject than the biblical one. If you argue that is a prurient, low interest which cannot lead to great art, I point to the sculpture itself. It did, so it must be able to. He chose the right young man to be obsessed with, and the model's grace and beauty had its own ineffable depth and subtlety, which the artist only needed to see and find and capture. If he had chosen a different type of model, the sculpture could not have succeeded, even infused with Michelangelo's genius. The same is true with Jesus, in the Pieta.  Force Michelangelo to work with an inferior model and you have made the Pieta impossible. Subject, and even more mundanely, choice of model, propel all figurative work and always will. That is where the primary obsession begins and must begin. If the artist feels nothing for or about his model then neither will we. Look at Rodin, sleeping with everyone, to the benefit of his art. Perhaps we should require artists to sleep with everyone they paint or sculpt: then we might get some real emotion in art again. It is not prurience or voyeurism that is a problem in contemporary art.  It is a lack of real emotion that is causing art, both realist and modern, to be so uninspired and unmemorable.  Art may not require prurience, but it requires a full attraction to the world, and especially a personal and intimate attraction to the subject at hand.

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