There isn’t enough sex in art today; artists of the 20th century did it better. That’s what British art critic Jonathan Jones said in 2009 and it’s still true. The avant-garde of the 21st century are marshmallows:
Jones put it this way:
“Look back at the 20th century and the whole point of modernism was to liberate the carnal. DH Lawrence, priest of love, competed to shock the last survivors of the Victorian age with James Joyce, who rambled uninhibited to detail Leopold Bloom’s underwear fantasies. In art, Picasso introduced the modern age with his brothel scene Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and the surrealists confessed to unspeakable lusts.”
No one seems to makes art about lust anymore or even erotica. Jones reasoned that sex is so merchandized and advertised, the popular media is so glutted with ads about erectile dysfunction and painful intercourse that it’s easy to feel routed if you’re an artist. There’s nothing left to liberate.
It’s not that we’ve stopped caring about sex. After all, it’s in the human condition to care. But with the jillion references to it in the media, there’s not much left for artists to be bold about.
All of which got me to wonder if the rise of performance art, which often re-enacts sex acts, has risen out of artists’ need to find a place to be shocking and revolutionary.
I’m thinking of Spencer Tunick, an American performance artist who photographs large groups of naked people posed in unexpected places. As an example, there were the 2,000 Israelis bobbing backside up in the Dead Sea. Israel’s ultra-orthodox Shas party objected. No surprise. The Old Testament frowns on public nudity.
So why did Tunick, who is a Jew, think Israel was a choice spot for what he does? My guess: for the shock value. His answer: To show people floating in the buoyant salty water. It’s as if he doesn’t even recognize that his models are nude.
The latest in performance art with nude people took place last week: the premier of the world’s first “public nude performance art festival” held in the streets of Biel, Switzerland. Why? A spokesman’s answer: to introduce the idea that the nude is an artistic medium – you know, like paint.
Apparently nudity is such a commonplace nowadays that in order to be daring, artists feel the need to put it in the street. The last taboo, right?
Nope. The next thing to come is already on its way, according to a festival spokesman: an invitation to street audiences to strip down and join the performance.
Comes the revolution.
But can we call this an art revolution? The better question may be, is revolution the point of art? Does art need to be the baddest and the boldest to be art?
Sadly that’s what visual art has become – played out exertion. Consider an exhibit that opened this week at Hauser & Wirth gallery in New York titled “The Ethics of Desire.” Can there be anything more played out than turning desire into a colloquy on ethics?
Artists need to give us something less about the collective and more about the personal. They need to be themselves. They need to quit trying to be daring. Now that would be daring.