...the number of perverts involved in the field of art is probably much greater than the average for the population in general.... It can be supposed ... that the pervert inclines in some particular manner to the world of art.
Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, Creativity and Perversion, 1985
It is usual for most normal people to linger to some extent over the intermediate aim of looking that has a sexual tinge to it; indeed, this offers them a possibility of directing some proportion of their libido on to higher artistic aims. On the other hand, this pleasure in looking [scopophilia] becomes a perversion (a) if it is restricted exclusively to the genitals, or (b) if it is connected with the overriding of disgust (as in the case of voyeurs or people who look at excretory functions), or (c) if, instead of being preparatory to the normal sexual aim, it supplants it.
Sigmund Freud, "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality," 1905
The most common and the most significant of all the perversions -- the desire to inflict pain upon the sexual object, and its reverse -- received from Kraft-Ebbing the names of "Sadism" and "Masochism" for its active and passive forms respectively.
Sigmund Freud, "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality," 1905
First, perversion is the result of an essential interplay between hostility and sexual desire.... Second, people with perversions feel (are made to feel) an unending sense of being dirty, sinful, secretive, abnormal and a threat to those finer, unperverse citizens who are supposed to make up the majority of society. Third, the word itself reflects the need of individuals in society to keep from recognizing their own perverse tendencies by providing scapegoats who liberate the rest of us in that they serve as the objects of our own unacceptable and projected perverse tendencies.
Robert Stoller, Perversion: The Erotic Form of Hatred, 1975
We also find many versions of anal defiance, the urge to exhibit excrement and to flaunt it before the eyes of the world. In some exhibitions in London there was a great show of "dirty knickers," underpants with faeces, piles of excrement on the floor made to look very life-like. We can take this to be a defiant gesture of the self which has been made to feel dirty and bad by parents and by the "clean and ordered" world at large.
The narcissistic self that wants to be admired and loved but encountered rejection or disgust is hitting back at its tormentors, gaining revenge by outraging them with obscenities and by breaking their rules.... Indeed, what is the meaning of old bits of iron, broken chimney pots, old bicycles, fragments of machinery, unwanted sewing-machines and such like exhibited as sculptures? They obviously serve to disturb and outrage the onlooker by claiming artistic significance for what most people regard as discards. We see here a declaration of war against the cultural Superego, a demand for a right to express any impulse previously considered taboo. Sublimation itself, the very foundation of culture, is declared a barrier to freedom, an instrument of repression.
This new kind of libertarianism is not at all what the founders of modern art had intended.
George Frankl, Civilisation: Utopia and Tragedy, 1990
[Kitsch] is perhaps most clearly visible where love poetry changes into pornography ... perverting the infinite goal of love ... into a series of finite sex acts..... Whoever produces kitsch ... is not to be evaluated by esthetic measures but is ethically depraved; he is a criminal who wills radical evil.
Hermann Broch, Evil in the Value System of Art, 1933
Who has no kitsch in his unconscious, can throw the first stone.
Wilhelm Worringer, "Thoughts On Kitsch," 1951
Perversion was implicit in modern art from the beginning, and remains a vital factor in it today. In fact, one can regard modern art as by and large the history of the representation of perversion. What makes it innovative -- "modern" -- is its perverseness, both in attitude and form. Curiosity about perversion, supposedly the most novel, adventurous sexuality, motivates many modern artists. Certainly some of the most famous, innovative works deal with perversion, more or less openly. They also tend to be structurally perverse, at least by traditional standards. And perverse in method, if automatism is any indication.
Beginning with Manet's Olympia, 1863 (for many the seminal modern picture) and jumping to Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907 (another "breakthough"), and then to the dolls that Hans Bellmer made in the 1930s and the somewhat different looking but equally perverse dolls that appear in Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills, 1979 -- her later grotesquely dismembered dolls are explicitly Bellmeresque, especially when they are composites of fragments that don't add up to a complete body -- and throwing in Egon Schiele's nudes, Balthus's adolescent girls, Piero Manzoni's canned shit, and Gilbert and George's shit cookies (many other works can be mentioned), one realizes that many of the masterpieces of modern art depend on perversion to make their dramatic point.
Women are the subject matter of most of these works, and women, again perversely on display for the voyeuristic eye, are the centerpieces of such recent outbreaks of perverse imagery as Su-En Wong's cute little nudes, with their little cell phones, and Vanessa Beecroft's more imperious, cold-blooded nudes, sometimes rather Aryan-looking, as their straight blonde hair suggests, sometimes exotically black-skinned, with bushy black hair. When not reclining like the nudes in an Ingres harem scene, they line up like Amazons in an army, their impersonality making them seem invincible. (Do the white women symbolize wholesome cleanliness, the black women unwholesome dirtiness, thus evoking the traumatic childhood dialectic of cleanliness next to godliness -- Beecroft's figures have a hollow goddess look -- and self-damning dirtiness, or is she just toying with racial as well as sexual politics, and also the politics of taste?)
Wong's puerile females wear red shoes, masochistic in import (a few also wear red stockings) -- think of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, made into a film, in which a ballerina could not remove her red shoes, which danced on their own, and also of the red shoes that carried the heroine down the dangerous yellow brick road to the Wizard of Oz -- and Beecroft's grown-up females wear thigh-high black boots, sadistic in import. "Fetishism is the model for all perversions," Robert Bak suggests, and the fetishistic footwear confirms the seductiveness of their naked bodies -- the seductiveness that gives women power over men, sometimes the power to humiliate them with their own desire. It is important that the women are young and fresh-looking, which makes them all the more emotionally destructive, that is, provocative femme fatales, however vacuous.
Wong and Beecroft seem to cater to male fantasies -- the stereotype of the prostitute, with her fetishistic footwear, thus turning her into the phallic woman ("the ubiquitous fantasy in perversions," as Bak writes) -- but their works are addressed to the female narcissistic eye rather than the lascivious male gaze, for their women have a quirky resemblance to those in the advertising imagery in women's magazines, no doubt more upscale ones in Beecroft's case. The shoes and boots are probably for sale, not the bodies that set them off, although they too are consumable goods, if more expensive than most men can afford.
It's good to see women artists getting into the exhibitionistic act -- it leaves men off the feminist hook. But the fact of the matter is that the most celebrated voyeuristic work of the 20th century was made by a man. Looking through the peepholes in the decaying door of Marcel Duchamp's Étants Donnés, 1946-66 -- the work is more of a symptom than a masterpiece (he set a trend with this, and in fact Beecroft uses readymade bodies, woman's body being, as we all know, a work of art, or at least readily convertible into one, as the cosmeticizing white paint that sometimes covers the body of her nudes indicates) -- one sees, splayed out in all her naked grandeur, a young female with a somewhat exaggerated vaginal slit, its blood red suggesting that she was raped. (Or maybe Duchamp liked looking at menstrual blood, the way other men, according to the Marquis de Sade -- a Surrealist hero, as Man Ray's adulatory image of him suggests -- like looking at women squatting and urinating or defecating, sometimes into the mouths of the men. Odd Nerdrum shows them defecating in what looks like homage to the sun. But the long stool looks like a penis, suggesting that Nerdrum also worships the phallic woman.)
Let's go back to Manet's Olympia, the painting with which it all began, and still the most subtly perverse -- which also means anti-bourgeois, for bourgeois sex is presumably normal sex, that is, never ventures beyond the missionary position -- to grasp what's at stake in perversion, and that perverse deviation from traditional art called modern art. Why was the work so offensive -- so shocking to the bourgeois, or, as I would rather say, emotionally terrorizing? Manet himself was bourgeois, and knew the bourgeois had a perverse underside -- knew that the bourgeois male could only satisfy his sexual curiosity, that is, the full range of his sexual impulses, with a prostitute. (Apparently Manet himself was a customer, and caught the syphilis from which he died from a prostitute.) Olympia is a prostitute, and Manet's paintings of her suggest the two sides of perversion -- perversion as an attitude and perversion as a practice.
One could sexually behave with a bad prostitute as one could not with one's good wife. Indeed, if one had one's perverse way with one's wife she wouldn't be good, especially if she let one do so. One could pay -- thus soothing one's superego -- a prostitute to perform, in a kind of ritualistic daze, all kinds of perverse acts that one could never pay one's wife enough to perform -- acts that she would regard as lewd, abnormal, obscene, bad, disgusting, unsavory, filthy, etc. -- acts that would profane the sacred marriage bed. (Intercourse was dirty and bad enough, but it had to be performed to carry on the family name.) Such pseudo-intimate physical acts -- fellatio, cunnilingus, anal intercourse, sadomasochistic use and abuse (of genitals and breasts), to name those that most interested the Marquis de Sade (he also liked the smell of excrement -- nothing perverse was alien to him) -- involve what Freud called regression to the polymorphous perversity of childhood, presumably more pleasurable than straightforward, socially approved genital intercourse because more "primitive," unrestrained, and above all narcissistic, that is, its inconsiderateness of the other, even indifference to the other's independent existence and individuality. The other becomes simply an extension of oneself, more particularly, of one's body.
There is always a temptation to perverse, forbidden sexual acts. As Freud writes in Civilization and Its Discontents (1929), "the irresistibility of perverse instincts, and perhaps the attraction in general of forbidden things," can be explained by the fact that "the feeling of happiness derived from the satisfaction of a wild instinctual impulse untamed by the ego is incomparably more intense than that derived from sating an instinct that has been tamed." Perverse impulses, by their very nature, and by the fact that they have been seriously inhibited by socialization -- from weaning and toilet-training on -- thus depriving one of deep pleasure, all the more so because it is instantaneous, can never be completely satisfied.
However held in abeyance -- as they are by the self-righteous bourgeois males who fancy themselves the pre-ordained rulers of society -- perverse impulses are addictive, which is why many high class bourgeois men are addicted to low class prostitutes, with whom they can satisfy their perverse impulses, at a price (undoubtedly emotional as well as economic). Manet's Masked Ball at the Opera (1873) shows upper class bourgeois males, their power and authority confirmed by their top hats, surrounded by young prostitutes, clearly soliciting them. The women are mostly masked -- their identity and individuality is meaningless -- while the men need no mask to disguise their desire, and boldly pick and choose among the prostitutes, many of whom are young enough to be their daughters.
The emotionally unsettling point of Manet's Olympia is that she's available to turn whatever perverse trick her male customer is willing to pay for -- all the "sensational" perverse tricks, as the big bouquet of different flowers he sent her suggests. She's an instrument of pleasure -- any kind of pleasure -- and her famous stare is less confrontational than matter of fact (one only has to compare her blank face with Mona Lisa's subtle smile to get the point), like her body, passively available for any and every kind sexual activity. That's one aspect of her perversity. The other has to do with her profound indifference, an indication of her emotional banality, not to say emptiness. One can't imagine what her inner life might be, or even if she has any. She's turned off completely. She's not even trying to attune to her customer. She's there only to satisfy his sexual needs, whatever they may be.
He's all too familiar and boring, and what she's going to do for him is all too familiar and boring. She's given up counting how many times she's done it before. She's the embodiment of ennui -- a very vulgar incarnation of a very vulgar kind of ennui, in an explicitly vulgar picture. It is a picture that, in both its subject matter and style, is a prime example of what Frankl calls "regressive desublimation" -- of the female body and, more generally, sexuality.
As is well-known, many of the bored women in Manet's café scenes are prostitutes, and Olympia is one of them with her clothes off. She's not particularly attractive, but beauty is irrelevant to perversion. Her inertness, signaling that she is an unfeeling thing that one can use as one wants, matters more than her looks, as do her fetishistic slippers, bracelet, the ribbon around her neck and the flower in her hair, to describe her from bottom to top, which is the way she will probably be mounted.
Sex for her is not love, not even lust -- it is a daily routine, like any other, and often as tedious. It is a job, implicitly sanctioned by society, indeed, socially necessary, and often high-paying however looked down on. "The pervert in general, and Sade in particular," Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel writes, "sets out, consciously or unconsciously, to make a mockery of the law by turning it 'upside down'. . . . Erosion of the double difference between the sexes and the generations is the pervert's objective." Olympia's male customer is older than her, as Masked Ball at the Opera makes clear, and for him any one of her orifices will sexually do -- in particular he prefers her closed mouth and hidden anus, which will open at his command. The more "upside down" the sex the more perversely satisfying. His indifference to her vagina, or his random use of it -- or any of her orifices -- as a toilet for discharge of his sperm, which he treats as so much excrement or waste pressing to be released from his body and flushed away, suggests, however unconsciously, his indifference to her sexual "difference." Thus she is a piece of shit in what Chasseguet-Smirgel calls "the anal universe" which the pervert creates -- a universe in which things are as undifferentiated and meaningless as excrement, the worthless end-product of digestion.
Olympia creates this universe by her indifference and ennui -- her sleepwalking through perversion. The passive aggressivity of her indifference, which is her way of defying her customer's perverse dictates -- her masochistic failure and refusal to emotionally relate, indeed, to feel anything during the perverse physical act, which is an emotional aggression against herself as well as her male customer -- turns him into a piece of excrement. He dedifferentiates into just another John, as it were.
But she also becomes just another whore, confirming the John's unconscious fantasy of her body as a piece of shit he can play with like a perverse boy, animating at will what otherwise looks inanimate and will-less, as Olympia does, for all her supposed animality. Her emotional lethargy -- even deadness, certainly lack of vitality -- is more than equal to his perverse instincts, and just as perverse in its indifference to the other. One might say that the no-positions-barred physical closeness of Olympia and her customer is the measure of their unbridgeable emotional distance from each other, and from themselves.
I want to suggest that the attention to the body as such -- the treatment of it as the be-all and end-all of existence, and the only thing at stake in a relationship -- is the source of modern art's perversion. It extends to a preoccupation with the body of the work of art itself, which also becomes the object of perverse formal acts. The modernist awareness of the material medium, and the Greenbergian elevation of the artist's response to it as the only thing of consequence in his or her production of the work, turns it into a matter of fact body that can only be brought to life by perverse esthetics. Not love and empathic intimacy or mutuality and interdependence -- rarely represented in modern art (a striking exception is Schiele's naked Family, justifiably wary of the wasteland that surrounds it) -- but perverse impulses and perverse representations of the body are the substance of much modern art.
Picasso's perverse transformations of the female body, so that it looks somewhat less than ideal, and his perverse transformation of traditional representation in Cubism, which involves the fetishization of abstract forms as ends in themselves, and also his perverse transformations of such masterpieces as Velazquez's Las Meninas, making them look less perfect and masterful than art history declares them to be -- his transformations of Las Meninas also devalue the family as well as a fellow Spanish master to whom history has awarded the crown of art that Picasso wants exclusively for himself -- are perhaps the most consummate examples of devaluating perversion in action in modern art.
This is why so much modern art is kitsch -- innovative, avant-garde kitsch, no doubt, but kitsch nonetheless. All regressively desublimated art tends toward kitsch, especially anally oriented art, excrement being the ultimate kitsch. Kitsch is the most perverse, depraved, evil kind of art, as Broch suggests. Its perversity involves a kind of emotional decadence -- entropic regression, one might say. It turns the spectator into a voyeur -- Manet's Olympia certainly does this -- which is to devalue looking. It is this devaluation which makes all kitsch art evil.
In voyeurism looking is unreflective, shallow, passive -- mindless observation of a hypnotic object -- which means that it has no cognitive value, that is, it no longer triggers a cognitive, evaluative process. Voyeurism is not analytic contemplation but blind fascination -- infatuation with an ingratiating fantasy. This is inseparable from the voyeur's subtle devaluation of the body (its parts and functions), which he turns into a seductive sex object, so that it is no longer the site of a person. Every work of kitsch art -- whether kitsch in avant-garde disguise or populist kitsch -- devalues and degrades its subject matter and its spectator by perversely selling short their potential.
The representation of love -- as distinct from sexuality -- is rare in modern art, as I want to emphasize, and for good reason. "Love perceives the value potentialities in the loved person," as Victor Frankl writes, and perversion hates and devalues its object -- to hate is to devalue and deny human potentiality, thus reducing the object to a hollow actuality. The pervert destructively fragments and dehumanizes the object, as Stoller writes, which is to reduce it to kitsch -- an object that is all matter with no trace of mind to give it depth, more particularly, a body without emotional resonance. A good Cartesian, the pervert separates body and soul, and doesn't look back. It is this lack of emotional resonance -- of emotional seriousness, one might say, that is, respect for the reality of emotions -- that is the most striking feature of the female artists who have what Jerry Saltz wittily calls a "pudenda agenda," referring to the rash of shaved vaginas that have appeared in various galleries and museums.
A bald vagina is a vagina with no emotional edge, indeed, no emotional appeal, which is why prostitutes and female porno stars shave their vaginas. It is not so much to reveal all, confirming men's worst castration fears, but rather to deny emotional entry and create a certain emotional distance, which is also why prostitutes don't kiss their customers on the mouth. Kissing is an intimate act in what is otherwise an impersonal business. It is an emotional merger in what is otherwise a strictly physical event. Without the veil of pubic hair the vagina loses its mystery. As Otto Kernberg writes, "a naked body may be sexually stimulating, but a partially hidden body becomes much more so." Veiled, the body becomes "sexually teasing," which is related to "exhibitionistic teasing," a "central aspect of erotic desire . . . frequently interwoven with the character style of women."
A naked vagina is too matter of fact to be as sexually stimulating let alone teasing and enticing as a vagina hidden by pubic hair. It affords an emotional hold on what would otherwise be a slippery slope. Removing it makes the female body less seductive, for a stark slit is rather unappetizing -- hardly conducive to foreplay -- however much it invites quick and easy entry, as though telling the man to get it over with. If Carolee Schneeman's vagina was shaved when she ecstatically pulled her declaration of female libertine independence from it in Interior Scroll, the effect would be hardly as exciting. What counted was the sense of disclosure of the forbidden from behind its veil of pubic hair. It was this that made the performance exciting, not the revelation that she has a vagina. Indeed, if she had perversely shaved it, it would no longer signal the forbidden -- there would be nothing to hide. With shaved vagina, her performance would have looked like a naive act by a girl who had just realized that masturbation was the solution to all her problems.
Shaving off pubic hair suggests woman's rebellion against her seductiveness to men, for the raw display of the vagina is hardly seductive -- but shaving legs seems to be a standard part of woman¹s seductive style -- but it also suggests that she continues to think of herself, however unconsciously, as a sex object, indeed, the ultimate sex object -- the prostitute. Nonetheless, in demystifying the vagina by perversely shaving it, which in effect devalues it -- it no longer looks like such a great prize to win (no longer having to go through the jungle of pubic hair the sexual adventure is more perfunctory than thrilling, more mechanical than perverse -- woman also devalues male looking, for there is no longer much to look at, at least in that part of the female body.
Or rather what one looks at looks rather grim. "Be blinded by the real thing, the stark reality, the ugly actuality," the vagina seems to be ironically saying to its admirers. But to devalue the vagina and male looking is to devalue the womb and sexual intercourse, and the motherhood that may result from it.
Without the poetic teasing texture of pubic hair, the vagina becomes just another hole to be plugged with a dildo. The dildo is a kitsch penis -- a regressively desublimated penis, as it were. I want to suggest that the t(r)ail of shit that emerges from a Kiki Smith female figure -- she's down on all fours, her body confirming its desublimation by the anal universe it has produced -- is in effect a dildo, more particularly, what has been called an anal phallus, suggesting anal eroticism, the last recourse of perversion. Smith¹s figure is a superb example of anal art pornography made for women, which is why it is one of the best works of perverse art around.
Perhaps the very best is Robert Mapplethorpe's photograph of himself with a fetishistic whip with its handle inserted up his anus. He is masochist, sadist and voyeur in one, as his narcissistic gaze into the camera's eye suggests. It's also implicitly the spectator's, suggesting that Mapplethorpe is not only showing off but willing to let any voyeuristic glance -- any eye with an erection -- penetrate him. And, implicitly, any penis-like object, so long as its wielder remains anonymous. As though to confirm this impersonal promiscuity, Mapplethorpe also gives himself an enema, suggesting that for all his leathery toughness he is just a child -- an "imperial infant," to use Freud's phrase -- at bottom.
Describing the performance of Kembra Pfahler and her group, the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, all of whose members had their vaginas shaved, Saltz uses such feverish words as "notorious" and "outrageous," suggesting that he thinks that such performances -- naked female bodies going through a simulated sex act (one can see the same thing, without the pseudo-esthetic bullshit of black wigs and body paint, on Eighth Avenue, and without the jaded art crowds, with their blind faith in every re-cooked passing Dadaistic fancy) -- are still shocking, avant-garde breakthroughs and revelations, full of conceptual daring, physical novelty, and emotional roller-coasting. He's wrong, and he shows how much perversion is the crutch on which an insecure art world leans, even as the performances Saltz raves about -- I can't help feeling that there's something artificial and forced, not to say strained, about his excitement, however genuine his curiosity about the latest thing -- are the stale dead-end of a century and a half of perverse modern art.
The point was made clearly when Gilbert and George's shit cookies were exhibited in the Stedlijk in Amsterdam. The public was bored, not to say completely indifferent -- hardly an epater le bourgeois success. Clearly the bourgeoisie has become accustomed to perversion, and shit -- the world is full of it -- which suggests that Gilbert and George, gay artists, have become bourgeois despite themselves (their neat suits suggest they always thought they were, however ironically), just as gayness has become bourgeois (unironically), at least in the art world, and certainly in many places.
The conspicuously perverse David Wojnarowicz symbolizes the old-style angry, tortured gay, Gilbert and George the new style gay who was never in the closet, and whose acts of anal aggression no longer cause any avant-garde excitement and difference, suggesting that perversion, like the avant-garde, has been socially assimilated, and may even be the norm, and thus quite proper.
In an untitled undated sketch Eugène Delacroix depicted his aging father as a rather vital, virile looking man, labeling the image "le Père vert," a play on "pervert," suggesting, as Jack Spector writes, that he regarded his father as "an old man who retains his vigor despite his age (remains vert)" because he was a pervert. Perversion is supposedly revitalizing -- a sign of enduring sexual appetite -- when life in general has become boring, meaningless and tedious, but it is no longer clear that perversion can revitalize art from the avant-garde doldrums it is in.
As the pudenda agenda performers indicate, art is now in thralldom to a delapidated avant-garde perversity -- the pudenda agenda is after all a tired, last ditch defense of an avant-garde perversity which no longer makes one bit of social and artistic difference (no longer raises eyebrows or disturbs the peace) -- the way it was once in thralldom to delapidated Old Master norms, which also lost their relevance to social and personal life as well as art, and had to be replaced. What will replace avant-garde perversity? Unadulterated kitsch clearly seems to be socially and artistically dominant, and even to have usurped avant-garde aesthetics, suggesting that perversity has gone mainstream.
Crotch shots and sexual farces are a dime a dozen in our society, for the crotch has been devalued, along with sexuality, which has become the most marketable and cheapest commodity around. It's the preferred opium of the masses -- Oriani Fallaci spoke of the sexual gum with which they numb their senses and dull their minds -- the consoling religion that promises salvation from the everyday world, with its mediocre suffering, and, these days, anxiety about annihilation by real terrorists, not would-be art terrorists, such as the pudenda ladies.
Perhaps, in the last analysis, there was only one genuine terrorist in modern art, Marcel Duchamp, whose readymades perversely undermined the difference between non-art and art, thus giving license to all kinds of intellectual perversity, indeed, turning art into a kind of perverse theory, that is, conceptual kitsch, the most pretentious kitsch of all.
For with that difference obliterated, art becomes a perversion masquerading as a philosophical puzzle -- not to say ironical gamble against the odds of non-art -- which is why a good deal of contemporary art is of no interest to anyone except its narcissistic practitioners and aficionados, both persistently perverse and thus retardataire. Everyone else goes to the movies, where looking is openly voyeuristic and fetishizing, to satisfy their perverse impulses.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.