Art Attack, a framing shop and gallery in San Francisco is presenting "The Year of the Cock," a show of what is supposed to be erotic art through September 8th. It's a small store showing the work of 22 different artists, photographers, sculptors, computer programmers and assorted mixed media artists -- one or two pieces by each person. Most of the work ranges from boring to silly, and if this is work that someone finds erotic I'd like to know how or why.
Even so, there are a number of interesting photographs in the show: a lyric male nude by Crimson Rose, a powerfully demonic werewolf masturbation image by Will Roger, and two nudes by Michael Read that had some real emotional and erotic impact.
The place was packed (along with the sidewalk out front) for the opening, Friday night, July 30th. Most of the people I saw seemed to be struggling to make some erotic sense, or find some erotic juice, in the various works on display. Everyone wanted this to be an erotic show, but It looked like no one was finding what they were looking for. I was glad to know it wasn't just me.
The final straw for me was when I overheard the man who I took to be the owner of the gallery exulting to a friend that this was the most successful opening he'd ever had. I think he meant by that the largest turnout he'd ever had. Then he added: "Too bad you have to use sex to get this kind of response," and whatever supportive feelings I was trying to muster were out the window.
As a matter of principle I'll support anyone who is trying to present art of any form that takes sex seriously as its subject, even art that's not well-crafted, that's limited in its imagination, or that's just plain ordinary. But there's an important difference between art that's really interested in sex, and art that simply uses sex as a way of getting attention, that uses the power of our sexual feelings for some other purpose -- usually making money one way or another. To me the issue is whether there's any real interest in and respect for sex. I guess you could say that respect for sex in the midst of this sexfearing, sex-hating, sex-twisting little culture of ours is my bottomline crusade.
When I first met Richard Pacheco he told me about how he got into xrated films in part because he believed in the importance of dealing with sex openly and honestly -- not just at the personal level but on a societal level as well. He had and maybe still has, as I do, what you could call Reichian politics -- a political belief that psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich began propounding in the 1930's that most emotional problems (Reich would add most physical health problems as well) stem from the suppression and contortion of our natural, healthy, healthinducing sexual energies. Reich's book The Mass Psychology of Fascism is a powerful presentation of how suppressed sexual energy can be a major political influence as well.
Anyway, Richard went into adult films expecting to find a bunch of radical renegades who believed in transforming the world through liberated sexuality only to find instead a collection of rather cynical manipulators who cared a lot about making money but didn't give much of a damn about sex at all -- personal or political. To them sex was just a convenient way to make some money and perhaps thumb their noses at goody-two-shoes as well. Which makes them not all that different from the Madison Avenue connivers who get better every year at figuring out how to use our sexual desires and our bad feelings about those desires to get us to do what they want us to do, ranging from buying deodorant and sports cars to watching MTV to voting for Jesse Helms (or Bill Clinton).
Not to get too precious about it, but for me sex is still somewhat sacred territory, so something in me winces when I see it used in these (forgive me for saying) degrading sorts of ways. If there's anything at all I share with the anti-porn crazies (it's always a good exercise to look for a little of your enemies in yourself), it's that gut upset on seeing some porn that it's making something stupid and trivial out of what I know to be wonderful and important.
This is making a long story out of a very small show, and it's certainly unfair to upbraid Art Attack for all the sex-related manipulation that goes on in the world, but it brought home to me the contrast between deliberately using sex to bring out a crowd and, for example, what Mark Chester does with his shows of sexual art -- shows that derive real sexual power and soul from the fact that they are expressions of someone's real desire to use art to make statements of substance about sex.
Consider yourself segued. SEXART 3, Mark Chester's latest exhibition of "fine art explorations in photography, sculpture and paintings on sex, sexuality and eroticism," is on it way. The show will take place September 10th through October 3rd at Mark's Folsom Gallery (1229 Folsom Street, San Francisco), with works that "range from sensual to outrageous, from nudes to explicitly sexual, and from portraits to the radically sexual, including all genders and sexualities."
Mark's repeated offerings of sexual work by a wide variety of photographers and other artists are the foremost examples anywhere of shows that focus on sexual matters directly, honestly, and unapologetically -- and with real insight, imagination and skill. New York has the Neikrug Gallery and its annual "Rated X" photography show, but the work that Mark exhibits exceeds all other sexual art collections I have seen in the risks it takes, the real sexual focus of its content, and the complexity and diversity of its various sexual visions.
This time around, Mark has a particularly fascinating roster of contributors. There are a number of excellent local photographers, such as Michael Rosen (Sexual Magic: The S/M Photographs; Sexual Portraits: Photographs of Radical Sexuality; and the forthcoming Sexual Art: Photographs that Push the Limits), Rick Castro (Castro), Tee Corinne, and Will Roger. There are also some of the most interesting photographers doing sexual and sex-related work in New York, including Mariette Pathy Allen (Transformations), Eric Kroll, Vivienne Maricevic, and Efrain Gonzalez. These are all people whose work we get to see much to little of in these parts. All in all, you can be sure that this will definitely not be a show for the faint of heart.
There will be an opening party at the gallery Friday night, September 10th, from 7-11 pm ($5 suggested donation). If the previous Sexart openings are any indication, this is an event not be missed. There will likely be more going on than what's on the walls. After the opening, the exhibit can be seen Saturdays and Sundays through September 26th, and by appointment for an additional week, through October 3rd. For more information, call Mark at (415) 544-1136.
What is happening these days at Planned Parenthood? These courageous defenders of a woman's right to choose and (I have always thought) of sexuality itself, seem to have joined forces with the sexual right wing, taking on the dubious task of persuading teenagers to regard their budding sexual feelings first and foremost with suspicion and fear.
According to the Associated Press, the Teen Pregnancy Coalition of York County (Pennsylvania), including Planned Parenthood, organized the "Great Sex-Out Day," a day-long program to "impress on unmarried teenagers the joys of abstinence." Brochures were handed out suggesting that teens do anything other than be sexual, things like "baking cookies, taking moonlight walks, and 'holding one another close.'"
I remember when the work of Planned Parenthood was not to get people to do sex less, but rather to give them the information, the materials (birth control), and the services (including abortion) to do sex when and where they wanted, safely -- without unwanted pregnancy and disease. So what's this about the "joys of abstinence?"
Well, I told myself, that was York, Pennsylvania, a conservative area that's known for being strongly opposed to abortion, sex-information, and so on. Then I found out that in my own progressive California burg, Planned Parenthood was sponsoring a program in the junior high schools using materials from a book called Postponing Sexual Involvement: An Educational Series for Young Teens, put together by the Emory/Grady Teen Services Program of Atlanta, Georgia. These are not, dear readers, materials that anyone could possibly call sex-positive.
Just to be clear here, I would be happy to see a program in the schools designed to help young people make clear, unmanipulated choices about when they do and don't want to be sexual, about how sexual they want to be and with whom. I understand that there can be as much pressure on young people to be sexual when they don't want to be as there is to not be sexual when they do want to be, and that it's as important to be able to say no to a sexual offer as it is to feel good about saying yes.
But from the material being distributed in this program, it's clear that the goal is not to assist adolescents with their own sexual agendas, but rather to impose an outside sexual agenda on them. And guess what: the agenda being imposed is not one of thoughtful, responsible sexual exploration.
"PRESSURE 'LINES' AND ASSERTIVE RESPONSES" the handout is titled. It gives 18 reasons someone might propose to have sex (these are called "lines" because it's assumed that wanting to have sex is the same thing as being manipulative), together with 18 suggested replies. Here are some examples:
Line: I know you want to do it, you're just afraid of what people will say.
Reply: If I wanted to do it, I wouldn't be arguing with you about it.
Line: Don't you want to try it to see what it's like?
Reply: I think that's a pretty poor reason to have sex, pretending to care just so you can see what it's like. No thanks.
Line: You want it as much as I do.
Reply: No, I really don't. I've got a lot of plans for my life and I don't want to mess things up by getting pregnant.
The assumption throughout the handout is that girls never have sexual desire of their own, never want to act on the desire they have. Rather, they are constantly being manipulated into sex by boys who are slaves to their lust, boys who will do anything to spill some sperm.
The handout concludes by advising girls to "say no and keep repeating it. Don't offer reasons.... Refuse to discuss the matter further. Walk away from the situation." These are called "simple assertiveness techniques."
This is the kind of stuff that really makes my blood boil, and I don't mean with desire. Under the guise of helping to increase sexual awareness and communication, teens are told to address sex in the most negative and simple-minded ways and to actually close off communication with their partners rather than entertain the possibility of being sexual with them. Sex, like rum, is a demon to be stifled and constrained, rather than a powerful force that needs to be directed and guided.
I would have expected more from Planned Parenthood. Something more like this:
Comment: I know you want to do it, you're just afraid of what people will say.
Reply: I do want to do it, and I am afraid of what people will say. We have to be discreet about this, or we need to decide how we're going to talk to our friends about what we're doing so they don't get weird with us.
Comment: Don't you want to try it to see what it's like?
Reply: Yes I do, but I want the first time to be really special. Let's find a time and place so we can really get into it without having to rush or worry about getting caught, and so we can talk about it afterwards. I also want to be really sure we're being careful about pregnancy and disease.
Comment: You want it as much as I do.
Reply: Honey, I want it more than you could possibly imagine, it's just that I'm the one who gets a reputation for being a slut, and the one who gets pregnant. If we can figure out how to deal with that, I'll drain you dry.