© 2013 Valerie Dionne

SEX IN ART by Angel Martin

I guess I would be censoring myself if I omit that I was actually excited about attending the Noontime Art Talk by Colby College Art Professor Véronique Plesch, Sex in Art. I must admit that I had chosen to attend this event because of the explicitness of the title (not surprising at all, we all know that sex sells) and I was curious about how it would relate to censorship. The only thing I knew about Professor Plesch was that she has a diverse cultural background and that she graduated in Art History at the University of Geneva and then she continued her studies Princeton University. As a language assistant for Spanish in Colby, I was surprise to see mainly faculty staff and very few students among the audience. I expected that more students would be interested in whatever there is to say about censoring sex in art, but it’s understandable since the event took place at noon during a weekday in the middle of the semester.

The setting of the talk was a corner of the Colby College Museum of Art, in which they displayed a selection of works of art that included some paintings, sketches and photographs that were supposed to be sexually provocative. Professor Plesch herself participated in picking that art collection and I thought that she was going to talk about this stimulating display of pieces of art, only some of which I considered essentially provocative at that moment. As I acknowledged after the talk, that is subjective and depends on the choice of perspective to see art with. Professor Plesch clarified that these pieces of art were also selected for her seminar class of this fall semester, which is also titled Sex in Art and is focused in censorship. After explaining the work that professor Plesch had been doing with her seminar students, she started her talk presenting with slideshows a different set of pieces of Western work of art, her area of expertise.

In this enlightening exhibit of pieces of art, sexuality was the framework, a way to view art history. We were about to look at art through the important lens of sexuality and this new framework makes us question how we see some art. I cannot comment on my new insights of all the stimulating pieces she showed to us after the talk, but I can say that the one that surprised me the most was Caravaggio’s Bacchus. In this painting, Bacchus is not represented as a god, but rather as a real person from Rome, lying on dirty sheets and interacting with us, offering us his wine and encouraging us to grab his desirable food. That is what I had always seen, but thanks to Professor Plesch, the sensuality of the painting was more obvious when she pointed out the detail of his finger playing with the knot. With such a small detail, the painting turns from sensuous to erotic, and the difference is made by the finger. I am not sure about where censorship lies in this painting. I really don’t know if Caravaggio censored himself to sell his paintings and fit in the canon, but maybe censorship unconsciously lies in the minds of those who don’t want to see an open invitation to sex from Bacchus, more precisely an invitation to fingering, either vaginal or anal.Caravaggio.-Bacchus.-c.1597.-Oil-on-canvas.-Galleria-degli-U

It wasn’t clear to me what kind of censorship would relate to those pieces that were presented, but what I really enjoyed in the talk and also found quite revelatory to me was the aim of the talk: to discover the latent sexuality that lies behind many of the works of the history of art. Some of the pieces that she presented were religious art and ironically one evoked sex and its pleasures in a more explicit way, brilliantly exposed by Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. This work is seen differently through the framework of sex and it is striking that religious art kept some of the most explicit pieces of art with semi naked bodies, like Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ, with the genitals of Christ depicted right in the center of the painting.

Once this enlightening tour around art history was about to finish, some controversial works from our contemporary world were presented. It is interesting to think about the blurred lines between eroticism and pornography, as well as the aesthetically boundaries between art and something else, a question that is easily raised by the work of Jeff Koons with the Italian porn star La Cicciolina, that Professor Plesch also presented to her audience.

The talk was really enlightening in regards to the history of art, but I just couldn’t help to relate it to this debate, that was kept in my mind since Professor Plesch started her presentation raising the question whether we would consider Rodin’s Kiss, with sexual organs depicted, pornographic or not.

I think this debate is really hot these days and anyone is able to have their own opinion about it. While I was writing this post, I came across a very pertinent statement by an actor on last controversial Danish film director’s movie Nymphomaniac: “Pornography has just one purpose, which is to arouse you. To make you wank, basically,” Skarsgard told the Guardian after a screening of the film in Copenhagen. “But if you look at this film, it’s actually a really bad porn movie, even if you fast forward. And after a while you find you don’t even react to the explicit scenes. They become as natural as seeing someone eating a bowl of cereal.”

I wonder if some of the works of art that we saw were merely used as decoration of private rooms or were also considered at some point for other purposes, such as jerking off sexual stimulation.

blue-is-the-warmest-color-us-posterI really want to remark the gracious sense of humor that Professor Plesch had throughout the whole talk, which was something that I think the audience really appreciated, even though the topic didn’t need any extra motivation to keep us engaged (again: sex sells!). I felt thrilled when I finally got to know her better some days after the event: I had the chance to share with a friend of mine a kind and stimulating talk with professor Pletsch. We ended up talking about cinema, but unfortunately I hadn’t seen yet a strikingly beautiful French film (Blue is the warmest color) which has a controversial sex scene that some people considered it gratuitous. I wonder what Professor Plesch would think about it, but in the meantime I can just quote a comment about this scene that I found quite explanatory: I clocked the first sex scene between Adèle and Emma — replete with fingering, licking, and, as a friend called it, “impressive scissoring” — at an approximate ten minutes. Audience walkouts began around minute nine. That turned into spontaneous applause (and relieved laughter), when the women climaxed and finished a minute later. Was that scene, and the many other graphic, erotic moments to follow, “necessary to tell the story?Film.com‘s Jordan Hoffman asked in his review. “Please believe the part of my brain that doesn’t house a lecherous voyeur when I say yes, absolutely.”