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About a week ago I started a series about nudity and sexuality in art. I published the first post which dealt primarily with nudity. Then, more recently, I tried to get to the second post, Sexuality in Art, but the WordPress editing software flaked on me and my text disappeared when I tried to save it. That was a real disappointment because, although I’d only written three paragraphs, it had taken quite a bit of time to organize my thoughts in a coherent and pleasantly readable manner. I was somewhat pleased with what I had written because it wasn’t one of the easier bits of writing that I’d done. I’d been hoping that I would remember pieces of it, but they simply have not come back to me. So, I’m just going to try to write what’s on my mind. Hopefully, it won’t be too incoherent.

Growing up, the aesthetic ideas of modernism still held sway in my little provincial world. Somewhere out there, the art world was already turning, or had already turned, to post modernism, but it hadn’t filtered down to my middle brow milieu. Art was mainly discussed in terms of formal or plastic properties, color, form, texture, line, composition and so on. It was received wisdom that only the unsophisticated thought much about the subject of a work of art. Nudes, consequently, were discussed in much the same way as a landscape or an abstraction. My own particular medium being painting, that is my main point of reference. A nude was considered more as a prompt for a formal composition than a subject itself. If nudes had any particular appeal, it was their very neutrality as a subject. No one ever expressed a particular interest in whether or not they painted or drew young models or old models, ugly models or pretty models. I always felt happy when a male model showed up, but that was only because most models in art classes are female and it was always nice to have a change.

In my last attempt to write this piece, I included a picture of a painting I had done thirty years ago. In my post on nudity, I described this painting.

One day, I happened to glance at myself in the bathroom mirror. The window was to one side and I found myself fascinated by the play of light across my torso, especially across my collar-bone. I painted it. It was an important moment for me because it was the beginning of the development of my own style. At the time, I was purely interested in formal aspects of painting, the color, the composition. The subject, my torso, was at the time beside the point. Eventually, however, the subject matter of my work would become more important.

At that time, I was still under the sway of the notion that what was important about a painting was its formal qualities. I left the head off of the torso for no reason other than it did not contain the elements that interested me. There was no particular message intended by that move. Eventually, though, I would rediscover an interest in subject matter.

Of course, throughout most of history, subject was far from irrelevant, although the artist might not always have much choice over what that subject might be.

Now, the subject of sexuality has always interested me. I’m almost tempted, with a wink and a jab to the rib, to ask who isn’t interested by it, but it seems to me that some of us have a broader and more general interest in it. Part of my interest, however, stems from the fact that most portrayals of female sexuality that I’ve seen have little to no resonance with me. Yet I don’t think I am inherently that odd. Sometimes, I suspect that it is due to a fortunate combination of circumstances. First of all, my parents were both atheists. My mother had been raised as a Catholic and she believe that the Catholic Church had taught her to be ashamed of her sexuality and her body. She consciously, because she has told us, did not want to pass those negative feelings onto me and my sister. At the same time, I came of age at the height of the sexual revolution. Somehow, all those received notions about how women were supposed to behave never filtered into my mind. I was never given an easy prescription about what was right or wrong. At the same time, I was a highly ethical person, even a bit of a prig, so I did spend a fair amount of time reflecting on what I believed to be right and wrong.

So, a great amount of what I see and read on the subject of female sexuality strikes me as simply wrong and I feel compelled to get my point of view out there. I know many people will think that I am wrong, which is why so often I write from a first person point of view.

Once it is accepted that the subject of art is important, then any aspect of human experience becomes a legitimate subject, and this includes sexuality.

One place where I can't show my work is right here on my own blog. WordPress does not allow images of genitalia. The left third of this painting has been cropped.

One place where I can’t show my work is right here on my own blog. WordPress does not allow images of genitalia. The left third of this painting has been cropped.

For me, if I have a coherent argument, I would rather write about something. I’m not personally fond of visual art which is too didactic. I tend to turn towards painting when words fail me. So, while I say that many of my paintings deal with sexuality, if you were to ask me specifically what a painting meant, I might not be able to tell you.

Sexuality has always been one of the many topics addressed by art. The beauty of the human body is another and that is not always sexual. There are many times that naked bodies appear in art. Sometimes they are sexual and sometimes they are not. It is not always easy to tell. However, historically, most artists have been men, as well as most art patrons, and a male perspective on sexuality has most certainly dominated. I think it is important to get my views out there. Yet, if my nudes in general are often barred from being displayed due to nudity alone, then my more sexual nudes are certainly unwelcome in many places. Quite of few of the exhibitions I have been in have been specifically exhibitions of erotic artwork.

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During my preteen and early teenage years I was constantly in search of art classes that had some rigor, ones that were more serious than simply “expressing one’s self.”  Starting from the age of eight, I took painting classes with a wonderful woman who had us painting one still life after another broken up by the occasional landscape in the good weather. I learned good basic habits. She allowed us a limited palette, so we would learn how to mix colors. Eventually, however, I felt that her influence in my style had to be balanced out by other instructors. One year, I signed up for drawing classes at an art center in a town about a half an hour away. Fortunately, I had an indulgent father who was willing to drive me there. One thing that was very exciting for me was the promise of several life drawing sessions with a real, live, nude model. I didn’t wonder if the model would be male or female, young or old, handsome or ugly. I just wanted to be able to draw a figure from life. There was a catch, however. We had to have signed permission from out parents. If any child’s parents objected, there would be no nude model. The parents of one child refused to give permission and, consequently, none of us could draw from a nude model. We drew portraits and still-lifes and clothed figures, but for me it was a great disappointment. Whatever I do, I tend to do in a very serious fashion. I had been painting in oils for several years because that was what I believed serious artists used. I was trying to get, in a piecemeal way, what I imagined a traditional art education might be. Life drawing was an essential item that I still had not had a chance to try.

Around this same time, I enrolled in a summer session at Parson’s School of Design in New York City. There we would have nude models. One of my suitemates  was slightly older, perhaps sixteen. While I was enrolled in their Foundation class, she was taking some photography classes. She asked me to pose for her. I did. That was the first, but far from the last time I posed nude. I would eventually go on to pose for several photographer friends as well as for art classes.

Eventually, I would get my life drawing classes. Not only that, but a great deal of my work has revolved around the human figure. Once day, I happened to glance at myself in the bathroom mirror. The window was to one side and I found myself fascinated by the play of light across my torso, especially across my collar-bone. I painted it. It was an important moment for me because it was the beginning of the development of my own style. At the time, I was purely interested in formal aspects of painting, the color, the composition. The subject, my torso, was at the time beside the point. Eventually, however, the subject matter of my work would become more important. Beyond simply rendering the human figure, I began to explore questions of human experience with a particular interest in sexuality.

A drawing of a woman's torso.

Self-portrait that I did for this post.

Over the years, I got used to the fact that there are many places where I can’t show my work. I often find myself warning people who ask to see it that my work contains graphic imagery, including genitalia. Many people brush off my warnings, seeming slightly offended, saying that they know that nudity isn’t always sexual. Of course, some of the nudity in my paintings is sexual, and then again some is not. Yet plenty of art shows have a straightforward no nudity rule. Needless to say, I think that’s ridiculous.

There was an even that prompted this post, but I’m getting tired and perhaps I’ll address it in the future.

I’ve been in something of a funny mood for the past few days, peaking with a strange uncomfortable feeling when I woke up this morning. Since I was diagnosed with depression, I’ve found myself engaging in a ritual that I think of as “emotional temperature taking.” Sleepy at an odd hour. Hmm, is this depression or are you just tired. Cranky? Are you just hungry or is this the sign of something worse? Most of the time, it is something more banal and not a sign of a greater problem. Still, it’s a necessary question to ask.

So, my behavior’s been odd for the past several days, irregular sleep, lack of concentration, and it culminated in feeling rather awful when I woke up this morning. There’s a few possible threads feeding into this, but I’ll stick to one for now. I’ve mentioned a few times something I’ve called my “beauty strike.” One day, I’ll have to write about this at length. Except for a couple of emotional outbursts, I’ve avoided discussing body image issues on my blog. It feels so frankly frivolous. Every once in a while, someone writes a post questioning why people would spend an effort worrying about problem B when problem A is so much more serious. Frequently, when I read this, especially as it applies to people other than myself or my own problems, I’m inclined to agree with a post Greta Christina put up, “Whatever Activism Gets them Excited.”

Are there issues in the world that are, by some objective measure if there is such a thing, more important than atheism? Yes. Absolutely. But atheism is what I’m excited about….  Atheism got me deeply involved in social change, in a way that no other issue ever did. I don’t know why that is: I don’t think it’s entirely rational, and I don’t think that decision is entirely rational for a lot of activists, atheist or otherwise. But I would rather have me — and others — getting deeply and passionately involved in atheist activism than getting half-assedly involved in something else… or not involved in anything.

So while I can get pretty excited about issues regarding sex and sexuality and feminism, both of those can intersect with issues of body image, yet that strikes me as frivolous. I know other people out there write about body image, and I would never dismiss their efforts, yet in discussing it I feel uncomfortable on so many different levels, not least of which is because it feels self-indulgent.

So, I’ve been browsing blogs which have listed things under the feminism tag quite a bit over the last few days, and I feel like I have lots of random bits in my mind which are refusing to coalesce into anything coherent, mainly around the subjects of sex, sexuality, women’s bodies and so on.

Maybe I need to paint a bit. Sometimes when I can’t figure something out logically, I turn to painting. In fact, that’s when I like painting best, when it reaches something logic can’t reach. One of the things I came across to today was a sketch that I really liked. It put me in mind of another post I’ve recently read, “Jack Vettriano – The Necessity of Misogyny” by suzimartin. As someone who has done a lot of art work with sexual imagery, which some people describe as erotica, I’m interested in people’s opinions of work which contains sexual content. I don’t know Vetttiano’s work well enough have an opinion on the post.

Anyway, that’s all the mucky stuff that’s been colliding in my head recently.

a nude woman wrapped in a snake floating through space

One of my own paintings.

The day was dragging. The opening of the exhibition at the Acwacca Gallery had been timed to coincide with an open studios tour in this former industrial area of Newark, New Jersey. Most of the buildings had been built for small industries, which still occupied about half of them. The other half had, during the past decade or so, been turned into artist studios and galleries. Our official opening, the one with the munchies and cheap wine, had occurred earlier in the week. Now we were just participating in the open studio weekend, which amounted to sitting along side our work and talking to the occasional person who wandered inside.

The gallery space was large and there were six of us in the show, which was the culmination of a workshop sponsored by the gallery that had run for several months. Many of the paintings that I had done during the workshop were ultimately unsatisfying failures. The woman who had been conducting the workshop finally pointed to a slide of one of my older paintings. She let it be known in no uncertain terms that that painting was the reason I had been accepted into the workshop and she was disappointed that I hadn’t done more like that. In my own defense I said that I was trying to push myself to go beyond what I had done in the past. She politely, or perhaps not so politely, pointed out that I was pushing in the wrong direction. With only a week or two left in the workshop there wasn’t much left to do but kick out a couple of paintings in the style of the one the facilitator had liked. Although I was unsatisfied with not having made more progress during the workshop itself, I was relieved to get a couple of paintings done in time so I could actually be in the show.

An artist who was taking a break from his own open studio wandered in. While we were hanging out chatting his daughter came looking for him. He invited me to go back with him to look at his work. It was only a block away in the basement of another former industrial building. The building seemed to have been turned into several live/work spaces for about four artists and their families who shared the edifice. While I was looking at his work, one of his building mates stopped by. I then went on to his space to view his work. I wish I could remember some of the details of their work so that I could describe it. All I can remember is that I was having a very good time and it was with a bit of regret that I had to excuse myself. I had entirely lost track of how much time had passed, but I knew that the director of the Acwacca Gallery would be irritated if I was gone too long.

The moment I reentered the Acwacca Gallery, my sister accosted me. “We’ve been looking all over for you.”

“I was just next door like I told everyone.”

“Well, I went over to get you and you weren’t there.”

“Oh. I’d gone upstairs to look at his neighbor’s work. I wasn’t gone that long. Why all the fuss?”

It turns out that someone had been waiting around to meet me. A tall, handsome man with an unusually toned physique visible beneath his dark blue knit polo shirt was standing near my paintings. The gallery director was visibly excited. “This is Cory Booker,” she exclaimed. “He’s going to be our first black president!” she predicted, incorrectly as it would turn out. I’m afraid Mr. Booker was born a decade too late. A football player at Stanford, a Rhodes Scholar, Yale Law, he seemed to be the sort of person of whom much has been expected since the day he was born.

Apparently, he had been taken by one of my paintings and was hoping to get a chance to speak to me. It was flattering that he had waited. Of course, he is a politician. A young woman who appeared to be some sort of supporter or assistant spoke up allowing Cory a modicum of modesty. “We’re more concerned about the upcoming election for mayor. I hope you’re all going to be voting for Cory!” Booker’s previous run for mayor became famously nasty. Three of the other six artists in the show were women and they soon joined the group surrounding Booker. With the assistant, the gallery director, my sister and the four artists, he was surrounded by a gaggle of gals. He turned the conversation back to the paintings.

As he and his companion exited the building, we all hung in the doorway like a bunch of starstruck teeny-boppers waving enthusiastically. “Sure, we’ll vote for you Cory!” one of us sang out.

After he was out of view we returned the main room of the gallery. “What party does he belong to?”

“I don’t know.”

“Does anyone know his positions on anything?”

“Gosh, no. I feel really silly now. He was just so charming.”

“Heck. I don’t even live in Newark.”

We had a pretty good laugh at ourselves.

(I remembered this episode after reading about how Cory Booker won the Democratic nomination for Senate.)

The other day, I started reading Aisthesis: Scenes from the aesthetic regime of art by Jacques Rancière while eating dinner at the local coffee shop. While walking home, my sister drove by, not as odd a coincidence as it sounds since I live between where she lives and where she works. She asked if I wanted to come back to her place for a bit, so I got in the car. She glanced at the cover of my book, a deep black rectangle with the title placed soberly near the top and, at the bottom, as if placed inside a shadow box, and a woman in white billowing garments emerging from the darkness. With no more than a momentary glance she said, “Loïe Fuller.”

This utterance brought me back to a party in Paris about ten years ago. It would wrong to say that the subject of the conversation turned to art, because, as the hostess was an artist, the principal subject of the conversation all evening had been art. The subject, however, turned to dance. One of the Parisians was trying to recollect the name of a particular dancer. She moved her arms in an undulating manner, imitating a woman with billowing drapery. My sister, who had been a dancer when she was young, guessed Loïe Fuller. In this instance, her guess was wide of the mark. There was a beat, then a disdainful glance. After quick, terse no, the conversation resumed. Over the years, that disdainful glance has taught me far more about what is regarded as good art and what is dismissed than all the lectures I have ever heard. However, my sister is not ignorant of dance and its history and that moment reveals a divergent evaluation of Loïe Fuller and her legacy, between the speaker, who was French and my sister, who is American. (Note to self: Do not mention Loïe Fuller in a conversation with Parisians unless you have ready arguments at hand and have already established oneself as a knowledgeable person in the given social situation.)

Over dinner, I only read the prelude and part of the first chapter. The flap of the book promises, “a history of artistic modernity far removed from the conventional understandings of modernism.” Happily, the book is not nearly as boring as that description sounds. The arrangement of the book is that each chapter details an episode that shows the development of modernism.

Their selection might give rise to some surprise; the reader will seek in vain for landmarks that have become unavoidable in the history of artistic modernity: no Olympia, no Suprematist Composition: White on White, no Fountain, or Igitur or The Painter of Modern Life.

I confess, despite having taken few art history classes, posessing a degree in literature and once having been enrolled in an MFA program at an Ivy League school, I had to do a search on the internet for “igitur.” Now, I hesitate to hold myself up as some sort of paragon of sophistication, but I would suggest that Igitur, which if Wikipedia can be trusted is an unfinished story by Mallarmé, is not a touchstone in the American telling of art history. On Wikipedia, it is mentioned more prominently in the French article on Mallarmé than in the English. If “Le peintre de la vie moderne” was something I could place, it has to do with some quirks of my own particular interests, not because it was presented to me as a landmark. In fact, I didn’t know it was one. The fact that a search for “igitur” on google.com and google.fr, yields very different results, leads me to believe that my lack of familiarity is not some unique gap in my own education. However, the French story and the American one, do have a large degree of overlap, as the mention of Olympia, Suprematist Composition: White on White and the Fountain attests.

Rancière has chosen a less well-trod set of episodes for his discussion.

The scenographic revolutions of the twentieth century are difficult to understand without mentioning the evenings spent at the Funambules or the Folies Bergère by poets that no one reads any more: Théophile Gautier and Théodore de Banville. One would be hard pressed to perceive the paradoxical ‘spirituality’ of functionalist architecture without referring to Ruskin’s ‘gothic’ reveries – or even write a somewhat precise history of the modernist paradigm while forgetting that Loïe Fuller and Charlie Chalplin contributed to it far more than Mondrian or Kandinsky, or that the legacy of Whitman is as influential as that of Mallarmé.

However, we most certainly covered Ruskin at length in one of the architecture history classes I took in school and read his work. How much did the fact that Ruskin wrote in English influence that choice? If Loïe Fuller is less well-known, it may be because dance is not as well covered as painting. She was most certainly mentioned in the dance history class I had in high school, but the fact that I took a high school class in dance history is highly unusual. Do the French teach, as we do here in the United States, that modern dance is an “American art form?” Probably not. Finally, ask an American who is more influential, Whitman or Mallarmé.

I am not castigating anyone, neither the French nor the Americans, for nationalistic bias. For example, I’ve noticed the French hold Edgar Allen Poe in far higher esteem than do Americans. I’m sure, if I were only more familiar with the received wisdom of the French, I could find a Frenchman or French woman held in higher esteem here. Ruskin, after all, was English, and if he is more widely studied here I am inclined to attribute that to the coincidence of a shared language rather than to cultural chest thumping. I am simply amused by differing perspectives.

Well here I am again, all my pretenses at intellectualism being blown away. I have about half a dozen, not quite related but yet not unrelated, subjects stirring around in my head. I have so much to say that I can’t decide where to begin and then I wind up not writing at all.

A few days ago, makagutu wrote a thought provoking post about nudity and art, or at least it provoked thoughts in me. The vast majority of my paintings are of nudes and, although I don’t have a problem with nudity, I’m aware that other people do. Once, I was asked to be in an exhibition. The people organizing the exhibition had no restrictions on what could, or couldn’t, be shown. However, the space they were using was located in a state park and the state park service did not permit depictions of nudity. Somehow, I’m always finding that I’m dancing around the fact that there are naked people in my paintings. On the one hand, I feel that I should paint what I want and that other people’s notions of propriety shouldn’t have any bearing. On the other hand, nothing I do is motivated by the desire to “frapper la bourgeosie.”

In the situation makagutu was discussing, it was a priest who was decrying nakedness in art.  The priest then goes on to say that “Nakedness is sinful in itself….” I’m tempted to suggest that this is absurd, but, as I was reading a comment below the post in which someone also mentioned sin, I became aware that I really do not understand the concept. It’s a word I’ve heard all my life, yet it is, if not entirely meaningless, strangely vague and hollow.

So, how much consideration should I give to the feelings of people with whom I most certainly do not agree? I dance around that question even on this blog, although I set this blog up as a space for myself.

How can nakedness be sinful “in itself”? As makagutu mentioned, we are all naked in the shower, and at other moments that are far from sinful. It is only within a social context that we can even start discussing it. The commenter who mentioned sin mentioned it in the context of temptation and lust. Narcissism aside, we generally don’t lust after ourselves. I don’t know about other people, but I’m quite capable of having sexual desires with or without exposure to depictions of nudity.

On the other hand, I hate defending nudity by saying, “Oh, well it’s not sexual,” because that would seem to concede that sexuality is a problem, when I do not believe that it is.

I actually put the tag line that I chose at the top of my blog, not because I talk about sex so much, but because if I do I want to be able to say whatever is on my mind with out anyone complaining that they’ve been “frappé.”