Editor’s Note: Siri Hustvedt is the author of a book of poetry, four collections of essays, a work of non-fiction, and six novels, including the international bestsellers “What I Loved” and “The Summer Without Men.” Her most recent novel, “The Blazing World,” was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and won The Los Angeles Book Prize for fiction. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Twenty-nine years ago, a group of anonymous feminist artists known as the Guerrilla Girls unveiled a poster that read, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.”
This week, Sotheby’s is auctioning 89 works under the title “Erotic: Passion & Desire.” Fifty-five of the artists are men. Three are women: Marlene Dumas, Tracey Emin and Lisa Yuskavage. As I scrolled through the hodgepodge of offerings, however, I noticed one female nude after the other in traditionally passive, receptive poses, many of which are no different from countless nudes that hang on the walls of museums all over the world but are not identified as erotic art.
The venerable auction house explains: “Whether it is to compel, to shock or seduce, these artworks remain one of the central subjects of art history while intimately charting the socio-political developments of our many cultures – both old and new.”
I am fascinated by this reference to “socio-political developments.” At this particular socio-political moment, a moment of both #MeToo and the exposure of flagrant misogyny, Sotheby’s auctions erotic art mostly made by white men. Although this certainly tells us about the socio-political realities of the art world and its ongoing marginalization of female artists and artists of color, what “developments” are being intimately charted?
Arguably, lot 74, a copy of the first issue of Playboy, offers us a peek into 1950s white America, just as lot 56, the seated Colima figure with a huge penis, tells us something about fertility ceremonies in pre-Columbian West Mexico.
“Pre-Columbian sculpture will be paired with Picasso works on paper; masters of photography from Man Ray to Mapplethorpe will be set off against 19th-century marbles and antique reliefs; in turn creating juxtapositions that will enliven and deepen collectors’ understanding of the subject matter,” Sotheby’s writes. Notice the evasive language. The word “sex” is not mentioned.
In an age when every 12-year-old has access to pornography online, when every possible sexual taste is there to be ogled, Sotheby’s wants to stress that it is not selling pictures as aids to masturbation. This is erotic art. The difference is crucial. Porn is a low, crude, cheap, bodily business, not about to “deepen collectors’ understanding.” Art, on the other hand, even when it depicts unbridled orgiastic activities, is high, intellectual, cultured, and expensive. As such, it can be related to refined mental activity or “understanding.”
Whether buying a French 18th-century canvas by Hugues Taraval with the title, “Young Lady Laying on a Bed”; a Mel Ramos naked babe mounting a cigar; or a wild George Grosz drawing of two excited women and a man with a penis proportionally as big as the Colima figure’s, potential collectors can feel reassured that however titillating the “subject matter,” the work comes stamped with Sotheby’s seal of approval as high art.
The boundary between erotic art and pornography has always been troubled, but ever since the Greeks, the mind, culture, and thinking itself have been identified as masculine in the West, while the body, nature, and emotion have been identified as feminine. This hierarchy is still in place. As Lynda Nead points out in her book “The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality”: “The representation of the female body within the forms and frames of high art is a metaphor for the value and significance of art generally. It symbolizes the transformation of the base matter of nature into the elevated forms of culture and the spirit.”
This creative transformation is the business of the male artist. As a culture, we are still struggling with what it means to be artist and woman. After all, we masculinize and feminize human activities all the time. The hard sciences are masculine and cerebral; the arts are soft and feminine. And because the arts are broadly coded as feminine, and erotic art in particular evokes the lower sensations and emotions, it becomes all the more important to give it a high, mental, masculine stamp. Although they are homoerotic, Robert Mapplethorpe’s static, classical photographs of cropped male, often black, bodies fit nicely into the idea that art is the metamorphosis of brute nature into ideal, perfect forms. The naked becomes the nude.
It is no secret that buying art is a matter of prestige. The act of acquiring a canvas or sculpture or photograph and paying good money for it means that you admire what you have purchased, that having the name Picasso in your house is a form of self-enhancement. Ownership signifies that the owner looks up to the talent, the brilliance, the authority of the artist.
Most heterosexual men, either consciously or unconsciously, are still deeply uncomfortable with the idea of looking up to a work that has a woman’s name on it. To be succinct: the male collector who buys works by women risks feeling emasculated. This is true, despite the fact that distinguishing a woman’s artwork from a man’s (including the offerings by women in this auction) is often impossible.
The Sotheby’s sale is taking place at the same time as a Carolee Schneemann retrospective at New York’s MoMA PS1. Schneemann, who is 78, has been making confrontational, sexual, feminist art since the 1960s. She often used her own body as the vehicle of representation in performance and film.
“The female nude is part of a revered tradition, although she is not to take authority over depictions of her nudity,” she told the Guardian in 2014. “She is just to be available.”
Schneemann, along with many others, has taken that authority. This act is most definitely “a socio-political development.”
“Erotic: Passion & Desire” is on view at Sotheby’s London until Feb. 15, 2018, and goes to auction on Feb. 15, 2018.