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Sexing up the art scene

Does contemporary art get pulses racing?

By Barry Neild for CNN
U.S. artist Jeff Koons uses sexual imagery in his work.


Is contemporary art all about sex?
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- In popular imaginations, artists are a passionate bunch, driven by basic needs such as throaty French cigarettes, inexpensive hooch and, as they fly in the face of society's constraints, plenty of ... well, you know what.

Pablo Picasso did little to dispel the image, declaring: "Sex and art are the same thing," then trotting out a hundreds of drawings, paintings and engravings depicting sex acts presumably inspired by his own experiences.

A recent scientific survey completed by Britain's University of Newcastle upon Tyne seemed to confirm these suspicions, showing that creative people appear to be more promiscuous than the rest of society.

As a primal urge, sex has always featured strongly in art, from the primitive daubings of early man to the more sophisticated erotic expressionism of the renaissance and baroque artists.

But can the same really be said for the world of contemporary art, where seemingly sexless conceptual creations are displayed in sterile spaces, sending messages that tend to baffle audiences rather than appeal to their raw emotions?

It is hard to read any sexual content into exhibits like Brit artist Rachel Whiteread's giant concrete casts of empty space, or chilly arctic stacks of white plastic boxes. Likewise, unless fluorescent light installations really do it for you, there's unlikely to be even a whiff of pheromone around the work of American minimalist Dan Flavin.

Then again, there's Tracey Emin's jokey "Everybody I've Ever Slept With: 1963-1995," a tent embroidered with the names of her past sexual partners. And there are the cynical paintings of John Currin, populated with massively endowed women and wide-eyed slatterns who ooze sexuality.

Add to this the kitsch intercourse imagery of Jeff Koons and the soft-porn inspired paintings of Richard Phillips and you get a pretty steamy view of the current art scene.

"Contemporary art is sex," says oddball filmmaker John Waters, who is so convinced of the link that he has penned a book on the subject with Los Angeles artist Bruce Hainley.

"The artists, the cute kids working in the art galleries, the paperwork from the galleries, the crating and shipping, all the young 'hangers on' crashing the openings -- it's all about sex," he writes in his prosaically titled "Art: A Sex Book."

Hainley is equally forthright.

"Sex is a prime motivator for making contemporary work, even when the art seemingly doesn't have anything to do with sex or nudity. Making art -- especially if it's interesting art -- is a sexy occupation."
People scratch their heads at Rachel Whiteread's sterile white boxes.

Both Waters and Hainley argue that even apparently sexless art is still a longing for fame and its attendant trappings -- that is to say, sex. Also, successful art requires confidence, and confidence is sexy.

In the hands of other contemporary artists, however, sex is a potent symbol: one that inspires their work, is a target for their visceral challenges and a means to deliver strong messages.

In Asia, Ma Liuming -- one of a new wave of Chinese avant-garde artists that have emerged following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacres -- explores his androgynous sexuality as a metaphor for the tremendous political and social upheaval in his country.

Meanwhile, Turner prize-winning potter Grayson Perry, as well as using his striking transvestite alter-ego "Claire" to raise his profile, employs graphic imagery in his ceramics.

Explicit or fascistic symbols appear widely in his work (including a plate depicting a crucifixion, titled "Kinky Sex") as a comment on cultural and moral values in society -- and an attempt to subvert the traditionally dull image of pottery.
Gilbert and George use sex to challenge religious ideology.

Anglo-Italian art pairing Gilbert and George have also used explicit sexual images in their performances and photomontages that attack religious attitudes to fornication, particularly within the Roman Catholic Church.

"Sex and religion are still the great taboos in modern art," Gilbert Proesch, the Italian half of the partnership said in a recent Guardian interview.

Not everyone agrees. Confusingly, Andy Warhol -- whose portfolio includes such explicit film productions as "Blow Job" and "Taylor Mead's Ass" -- once dismissed such physical intimacy as boring. "Sex is the biggest nothing of all time," he said.

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