- Sex Objects: Art and the Dialectics of Desire
For a discipline largely rooted in the history and representation of naked bodies, art history is shockingly squeamish when it comes to sex. Art historians, even contemporary art critics, tend to talk around the subject-grounding it safely in a long-passed era, formally analyzing it dispassionately, explaining it away as the unseemly source of something more important-in ways that Jennifer Doyle courageously confronts in Sex Objects: Art and the Dialectics of Desire. While Doyle is a literary scholar (and associate professor of English at the University of California, Riverside), she has staked out a position as something of an "insider-outsider" in her willingness not only to address the field of art history on its own terms but also to ask questions about its subjects and methodologies that often reveal the elitism, formalism, timid politics, and fear of pleasure at its core. Utilizing a cross-section of case studies from the literary and art historical canons juxtaposed with those from pop culture and subcultures, in Sex Objects Doyle zeroes in on work that "asks us to take it personally" (109) and invites "the spectator to imagine a place for his or her body" to critique the still-dominant scholarly "assumption that the precondition for critical thought is emotional distance" (116). [End Page 619]
And she asks her readers to take her personally, beginning the volume as she does with a lengthy and candid autobiographical introduction to Doyle's pubescent discovery of the classed, raced, and gendered dimensions of visual culture-appropriately enough, a gay porn-magazine ad for the film Moby-Dick, which sets into motion her critical analysis of Herman Melville's novel as symbolic of "the character of the relationship between ourselves and our objects, our books, photographs, paintings, and films-to ask what it is that we get out of our love for art" (xxx). With case studies ranging from Melville to painter Thomas Eakins, Andy Warhol to Tracy Emin, and concluding with a particularly delicious juxtaposition of the contemporary artists Vanessa Beecroft and Vaginal Davis, Sex Objects satisfyingly follows through on the author's desire to "approach the subject of sex and art from diverse angles to create a picture of how sex happens in art, and why it matters" (xxxi).
In her comically entitled breakdown of "Moby-Dick's Boring Parts," Doyle draws attention to Melville's famously sensuous prose through the book's rarely discussed "cetology chapters," which depart from the main plot but whose eroticism Doyle seeks to recover and celebrate. She is particularly interested in how Melville's rambling descriptions of whaling minutiae in these "boring parts" of the novel reflect and generate a heightened sense of desire, wherein Melville's mad enthusiasm for the whale's body seems to act upon Melville's and the reader's own. Her efforts aren't always convincing-comparing one sailor's dressing in a whale's penis skin with Marlene Dietrich vamping in an ape costume in Blonde Venus is a bit of a stretch, however humorous-but they are inspired and beautifully set up the book's subsequent discussion of the nineteenth-century realist painter Thomas Eakins, whose similarly seductive, visceral work was caught up in scandal when his studio work collided with his teaching career.
From Leo Steinberg's influential approach to what he tellingly called Eakins's "manful" art to the enormous body of more recent, queer readings of Eakins's athletes, boxers, and male nudes as homoerotic, it might seem that sex is the one angle through which Eakins's work has been amply addressed. However, after launching a well-deserved critique of these tendencies to read Eakins's sexuality through a "gay-straight opposition" (21), Doyle rereads both Eakins's canonical works (The Gross Clinic and Swimming Hole) as well as his photographic studies by way of his relationships to female students (one of whom, Susan MacDowell, became his wife) and the sex scandals relating to women that dogged...