The fragile boundary between art and pornography has always worried scholars, museographers and guarantors of morality, which from the mid-nineteenth century, when the category “obscenity” assumed a legal status in England, gave rise to countless proceedings, committees and reviews of the illicit.
In the midst of the sexual liberation, what happened inside the courts seemed insulated in a bubble, alien to the radical changes that were affecting even the meaning of art. In the Longford Committee on Pornography (1972), historian Kenneth Clark defended the object of his profession: “Art exists in the field of contemplation. If it becomes an incentive for action, it loses its true character”.
Note that the Aphrodite of Cnido would be at least a sinful pin-up for Clark, taking into account the passions she awoke, according to Plinio, and that inspired an erotic tale to the satirist Luciano in which he narrates the suspicious white spots with which one day the morbid marble get dirtied. Someone had entered the temple at night, moving clearly from “contemplation” to “action”.
Returning to Clark’s time, in those years “inciting action” is what promoted the vanguard movements, the correspondence between art and life, breaking taboos. Specifically, in the field of sexual self-expression, women artists crossed the cosmetic surface in which advertising and traditional art enclosed them and opened their orifices exploring them, spilling their flows.
Shigeko Kubota had already begun to use vaginal imagery with her Vagina painting (1965) as a counterpoint to Pollock’s drippings, Judy Chicago photographed herself removing a tampon (vindicating her intimate “homeland,” red flag, 1971); in 1974, the sculptor Lynda Benglis paid a double-page advertisement in Artforum in which she posed nude holding a dildo between her legs. With this action, she denounced the absence of women in the main means of cultural dissemination, while publishing (against payment) in a reputable art magazine an image more suitable for a porn magazine related the art market with the porn industry.
We can not deny that voyeurism, fetishism and merchandising lead both industries. The most transgressive and critical feminist with the art system was not limited only to celebrate sexual freedom but appropriated precisely everything that connaisseurs had expelled from the reputable domains of art: the obscene, the pornographic, the illicit.
In the late seventies, Karen Finley began to stage traumas caused by incest, abuse and humiliation. One of her performances, in which she muddied her naked body with chocolate (We keep our victims ready) to denounce the recent rape of a young woman whose body had appeared full of feces, was branded as “indecent” by the American senator Jesse Helms and the funds granted by the National Endowment for the Arts were withdrawn.
But she is a natural born fighter and answered the rejection by posing chocolate-smeared for Playboy, so that the same action in a less “decent” context put the focus not so much on the social commitment but on the uncovering of the social hypocrisy
Another woman who blurred the boundaries between both disciplines was Cosey Fanni Tutti. She was born and raised in a provincial town near London, Hull, but from that relative isolation she became known, along with her mate Genesis P-Orridge, in the most cutting-edge circles of contemporary art. They founded COUM Transmissions, first, participating in international mail art events, and, later, with performances that even the most daring Fluxus artists could not digest.
The world of art has always been more elitist than the world of music, a field in which they will be remembered for their contribution to the birth of industrial music, with the cult group Throbbing Gristle.
Although for the mainstream they could only appear as a footnote in art books, it was significant and pioneer Cosey’s gesture of integrating her experience in the world of the pornographic industry (as a model, actress and stripper) in a gallery of art. Prostitution (1976) was the last joint exhibition of Genesis and Cosey as COUM: bloody tampons and syringes that they had used in their sadomasochistic actions alternated with Cosey porn photos framed as works of art. What is surprising is not so much that after the show they were vetoed from the art world but that an institution like ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts, London) would have organized a so daring event.
Scarlet was the stage name of Cosey Fanni Tutti as a porn actress, Study in Scarlet was the title of an album she recorded with Chris Carter, and now has been resumed to present a collective exhibition in Le Plateau (FRAC Île de France) raised as a network of generational influences and interdisciplinary contagion that starts with COUM, and integrates visual artists such as Meret Oppenheim, Lynda Benglis and Karen Finley, and musicians such as Monte Cazazza, Chris & Cosey, Throbbing Gristle …
Cosey learned in the porn industry to play in each case a role (secretary, maid, naive girl …), parodying the stereotypes of male fantasy. It is curious that in the next decade Cindy Sherman would adopt a similar parodic strategy by embodying the same feminine clichés, in her discourse inspired by film and advertising.
Cosey’s daring also came ahead of Anni Sprinkle ones. She is not included in this exhibition but her case is paradigmatic. From porn star to an art performer, from being a sexual object manipulated by the other’s camera became a subject of desire that produced and staged her own fantasies, which involved a “one hundred eighty degree turn”, spinning the camera and driving the male voyeur out of his comfortable dimly lit room.
In her performance Public cervix announcement, Sprinkle inserted a speculum in her vagina and invited the spectators to look inside. With an ironic and lighthearted gesture, she had moved his admirers from the private bedroom to the gynecological bed, taking the voyeurism to the extreme foolishness.
From pornstar to post-porno star, Sprinkle has played a leading role for new generations of artists and activists who claim a non-normative sexuality.
The actions of Cosey and P-Orridge, by contrast, were not meant to set a trend. Their equivalence between art and life went beyond the confines of experience. Pleasure turned into pain, sex turned into nausea. Blood, urine and vomit. The funny thing is that after the last performance (the title “Cease to exist” already points a kind of self-imposed exile), they cleaned carefully the exhibition room, as Genesis sarcastically explained: “after all, it’s not fair to insult a gallery of art”.
This “cleaning” (“nothing happened here”) made the transgressive action a festive parenthesis, referring to what for Bataille was this concept, “transgression”: eroticism as a momentary interruption of the Law (which “raises the prohibition without suppressing it”); life as a perpetual tension between opposites (work-desire, submission-liberation, moderation-disproportion).
The delicacy of sex play is an unknown idea in the West, wrote Roland Barthes, precisely because it is a game trapped in the language of transgression. It seems that here he agreed with Foucault when the latter said that verbalizing sexuality does not preclude sexual liberation, rather the contrary: moving from the confessional booth to the psychoanalyst’s couch was not a liberation but a redefinition of its limits. Pornography, medicine, legislation … impose their truths (scientific, moral…) according to each era.
Artistic expressions that flirt with pornographic imagery and creates new discourses based on that, undermining sexist roles assigned to each genre, analyzing and deconstructing staging and sexual fantasies, at least, invites us to move from the physical masturbation to the mental ones.
A Study in Scarlet
curator: Gallien Déjean
a group exhibition in Le Plateau. FRAC Île-de-France, París
until 22th July, 2018
With Lynda Benglis, Kévin Blinderman, Monte Cazazza, Chris & Cosey, COUM Transmissions, Vaginal Davis, Brice Dellsperger, Harun Farocki, Karen Finley, Brion Gysin, Robert Morris, Meret Oppenheim, Throbbing Gristle, Cosey Fanni Tutti, et al.