The hard sell

Artists have always depicted sex – frescos in Pompei and Herculaneum leave nothing to the imagination – but, varying with the permissiveness of the age, graphic sexual images have generally been kept hidden from public exposure.

Not any more. Exhibitions in institutions and commercial galleries with explicit content seem to be on the increase. At this moment in London Simon Lee Gallery is showing works by Larry Clark, an American photographer whose Paris show Kiss the Past Hello last year saw under-18-year-olds banned, because of its explicit sex-and-drug-taking content. The irony was that the show consisted of 200 shots of adolescents – the very subjects who were barred from seeing them.

Also in London, Alison Jacques has just closed a show of Robert Mapplethorpe and other artists curated by the Scissor Sisters: among the works were some of Mapplethorpe’s well-known homoerotic images, such as “Untitled (Milton Moore)” (1980), showing a giant manhood protruding from a suited man whose head has been cropped out. Last year Pilar Corrias showed works by the US photographer Leigh Ledare, with explicit videos and images of his mother posing as a porn star. The fact that the subject was the artist’s mother made the show extremely uncomfortable viewing.

In New York, the Luxembourg-Dayan gallery has exhibited 10 works from Jeff Koons’ Made in Heaven series, graphic photographs and sculptures of him engaging in sexual acrobatics with his then wife, the Italian porn star La Cicciolina. And still in New York, one of the most disturbing shows was at Foxy Productions in 2009, with Sterling Ruby’s The Masturbators, a room of videos of naked porn stars doing just what the title says.

Such explicit subject matter sometimes puts museums and galleries in a difficult position, having to steer a path between documenting and exhibiting artistic practice in all its forms, and incurring outrage at public, or indeed private, money being used for what some consider pornography, not art.

Tate’s 2009 Pop Life included a lot of sex: a whole room of the Koons bonkathon, a video by Andrea Fraser having sex with a stranger, and Cosey Fanni Tutti’s unambiguous photographs of herself for Knave, a top-shelf magazine.

“That period, the 80s and 90s, was marked by the Aids epidemic, anxiety; and the feminist art of the 70s was extremely scandalous in what it depicted,” says academic and sociologist András Szanto. Just one example: Karen Finley smeared herself with chocolate and performed various acts with a yam on which I will not elaborate. So “I don’t think the trend [to explicit art] is more pronounced today,” says Szanto.

So where is the line between pornography and art? Alison Jacques says: “When Mapplethorpe makes an image he is finding classical beauty in the everyday – this could be flowers, sculpture or something more graphic.”

“The intention is the difference,” says Simon Lee, arguing that the relation between the creator and the viewer makes all the difference.

“Every age has its ‘Olympia’,” continues Szanto, referring to Manet’s 1863 portrait of a naked courtesan being offered flowers by a black servant, which provoked uproar in 1865. “Today the threshold for making outrageous sexual statements is higher. Art is a mirror of society.” Catherine Wood concurs “The boundaries of acceptability in mainstream culture are continuously expanding,” she says.

Who buys this art? There are some collectors – such as the Californian couple Norah and Norman Stone – whose holdings include a considerable number of explicit works. According to dealers, however, “Inevitably the pool of possible buyers is smaller”, says Lee, particularly in a family context. Such art is generally kept in the private areas of the collector’s house, but when an artist becomes generally accepted, the work may move into public areas – whatever the content. “It depends on the consensus of what constitutes good taste,” says Daniella Luxembourg, noting that when she started selling Egon Schiele works – which can be extremely graphic – they were usually kept in the bedroom, but with the growth of his reputation were displayed more openly.

Is there any difference between male and female buyers, I ask Richard Nagy, whose Egon Schiele Women show (May 10-June 30) in London will include an “Eros” with a huge erection. “Curiously, women are more upfront in discussing a graphic work; men don’t like to be seen to be looking at an explicit work,” he says.

But Luxembourg says she sells more to men (and there are more male than female collectors). In her Koons show, all four available works have found buyers – at prices from $1.5m-$3m – including a couple, a married and an unmarried man. Berlin’s Caprice Horn says there are also national differences, with French, Dutch and German buyers being less squeamish than other nationalities.

Is sexually explicit art more difficult to sell than other subjects?

“Yes,” says Corrias unequivocally. “People want to have works that are easy to display.”

But despite “very mixed reactions” to the Ledare show, she sold half of the works (at prices between $2,000 and $20,000) and says she has institutional interest in the complete set. Simon Lee says he has two institutions thinking of acquiring Larry Clark’s large collage “I want a baby before u die” at $175,000. Michael Gillespie of Foxy Productions says that one edition of The Masturbators sold (around $60,000-$80,000) but two are still available: “It’s not easy material,” he admits.

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