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Reverse Anthropomorphism: The Sex-Image and Ethics in Contemporary Art
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The Mindful Body

The aboutness that I want to grasp in these pages is elusive. I am interested in contemporary artworks that seem to be about the sex act. This would certainly appear to involve a preoccupation with the body. But to attempt to represent the sex act is not exactly to devise an artifact that could be adequately described as about the body, as if one could so easily distinguish body from mind. Certainly in the act of sexual intercourse the body is the axis about which the mind moves in the efforts of desire. But in the act, we are quickly disabused of the notion that any causal principle governs. Neither can we assume that anything like a systematic relationality obtains between body and mind, as, for example, in the orbit of a moon around a planet, a common enough conceit for erotic love. Philosophers like Sartre have articulated the dilemma in terms of a simple paradox. I desire the sexual other as an individual, that is, a subject, but can possess him or her only as an object (Sartre, 98). The subject seems to court its own objectification in the attempt to fulfill subjective desires.

In this essay I want to consider the fact that a significant number of contemporary visual artists engage the paradoxical seductions of subject–object relations inherent to the sex act in ways that I think elude simple paradox. In the course of these engagements they supplant the sometimes crippling subject–object, mind–body dualisms, which we have fetishized in our way of thinking about self and other, with a more limber notion of first-person experience. For artists like Jennifer Saville, Eric Fischl, Lisa Yuskavage, Richard Phillips, Philip Pearlstein, John Currin, and others, painting sex has become a shared speculative enterprise: probing at the meaning of the human in its animal lair. Despite much laborious hand-wringing in the pages of art journals and in the popular press about the currency of pornographic images as source material for contemporary artists, this speculative enterprise is not unique to the present moment. It reaches far into antiquity, even beyond the well-known practices of first-century Roman wall painters. It reappears conspicuously after the advent of photography in the works of painters like Courbet, Gauguin, and the Vienna secessionists. And yet I want to argue that it charges the present moment with expectations for discovering new métiers of self-explanation that may turn out to be critical to the persistence of our being as self-reflective agents. I will argue that images of sexual activity must now be engaged without the intellectual prophylaxis of moral themes or principles, if we are to understand them as a speculative threshold for grasping exigencies of human self-reflection. This presupposes that we have a stake in perceptual experience that does not succumb to conventional mind–body dualisms. It is currently argued by students of perception like Alva Noë (178) that our representations of the world are adequate to our experience of the world not because there is a determinative causal link between one and the other, but because the states of mind occasioned by the form of the world and the states of mind occasioned by our representational faculties are the same.

Representing the sex act is, of course, epistemically a different proposition than engaging in the sex act. The philosophical dilemma of desiring another is, however, not entirely distinct from the image of desire that the kind of artist I wish to discuss here takes as a point of departure. Such an artist is deeply mindful of the way in which the body, as a locus of desire, is a goad to the mindedness with which physical being is encumbered and which, in the instance of physical desire, it seeks to displace. I want to suggest that the conceit of anthropomorphism is an epitome of the stakes of representing physical desire while arousing it, if we can speak of arousal without the conceptual baggage of representation. I think that the practice of anthropomorphism suggests the impossibility of dropping the conceptual baggage. But we might examine this burdensome baggage more carefully. The anthropomorphic word or image...

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