“There is no essence of art,” Vito Acconci noted in an interview with Cindy Nemser in 1971. Rather, he argues, “art is just a family of uses.” Acconci, who came to prominence in the ’70s, is known primarily for his erotically infused performance pieces and installations. Acconci’s statement suggests that the spectator should look not for the essence or spirit within the artwork, but instead for the possibilities that art and the artwork can create.
Sexuality, a new anthology edited by McGill University professor and art historian Amelia Jones, focuses precisely on art as a dynamic force that can transform and be transformed by sexuality. Taken up in this way, art becomes a means through which to explore questions of desire, radicalize erotic norms, establish political space for underrepresented sexual identities and orientations, and address the limits of sexual acceptability.
Sexuality is the latest offering in a series of texts that, co-published by the Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press, document major themes and ideas in contemporary art. Other works in the Documents of Contemporary Art series include Beauty (Ed. Dave Beech), Memory (Ed. Ian Farr) and Failure (Ed. Lisa Le Feuvre). Focusing on art and theoretical work produced in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Jones’s collection, brings together texts and excerpts by artists, philosophers, and art critics to consider the nexus of art and sexuality.
Taken together, these carefully curated writings emphasize how sexuality radicalized modern and contemporary art by politicizing and challenging the limits of aesthetics. Sexuality, this collection makes clear, is foundational to contemporary art, and thus must be taken into account in and by art history. As Jones herself writes, “the writings assembled here make abundantly clear how crucial an acknowledgement of sexuality is… to any discussion of modern and contemporary art.” Sexuality asks us to engage with how contemporary art has interfaced with different aspects of sexual identity and expression in the positioning of art as a social referent.
The artists included in this collection include long- and well-established figures such as ORLAN, Tracey Emin, and Ron Athey. It also includes interviews with newer artists like Sarah Maple and writing about the activism of Pussy Riot. The thinkers featured include selections from Trinh T. Minh-ha on difference, Douglas Crimp on art in AIDS activism, and Eve Sedgwick on queer performativity. Jones also includes seminal texts by Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, and Laura Mulvey, whose respective ideas about homosexuality, the abject, and the visual representation of women have been integral to thinking about and making art. Jones presents the extracts that best speak to the interaction between contemporary art and sexuality.
In Sexuality, Jones takes us through the ways in which sexuality has shifted the discourse about and practice of art. First, eros, taken up here as the Freudian conceptualization of desire, is positioned as a force that contains the potential to subvert conventional norms. As it was taken up by artists such as ORLAN, Carolee Schneemann, and Marcel Duchamp, eros transformed artistic production to pose, as Jones herself puts it, “powerful alternatives to normative artistic practices.”
Second, feminist art and theory in the ’70s and ’80s is featured to show how women went from being the objects of the artwork to the creators of art. Jones selects works that emphasize the ways in which women artists such as Judy Chicago and Barbara Smith not only made space for themselves in the art world, but also upended not only what “art” was but how it is was created and where it was shown.
Jones then presents writings on countercultural art and interviews with countercultural artists (Sarah Maple; VALIE EXPORT). Here, the relationship between art and the politics of sexuality is made central, with emphasis on how, for example, radical lesbian feminism, pro-sex feminism, and public activism intersect with art history.
Jones also collects texts that consider how artistic explorations of sexuality have tested the “limits” of art. These writings, by artists such as Catherine Opie and Ron Athey, work through the core ideas around BDSM, prostitution, and sexually explicit artwork to challenge, as Jones writes, “what can be performed publicly via the sexualized body.”
The final section, which features writing by Del LaGrace Volcano and Guillermo Gómez-Peña, shows how, for example, gay and trans* artists destabilized essentialist notions of gender through art that took up the performative aspects of gender.
The greatest strength of Sexuality, and of Jones’s curatorial and editorial work within it, is that it is a collection that is unabashedly queer and feminist. Sexuality starts from the position that art informed by the politics of feminism, queer sexuality, and/or race is in fact art and is integral to the discourse on art and its history. In other words, the collection does not argue for the inclusion of, for example, feminist artists as artists. Sexuality also makes clear is that it is the art of Others that firmly establishes sexuality as integral to art. Still, the collection does include writing that acknowledges the public challenges faced by artists whose work is or was not reflective of what was traditionally acceptable and accepted as art.
Sexuality demonstrates how artists informed by feminism, queerness, and/or race radically challenged and changed what constitutes contemporary art. The writings selected by Jones demonstrate how feminist artists and artists of colour shifted portrayals of eroticism by using the body as the desiring subject rather than the fetishized object of art. In addition, Jones selects texts from gay male artists that demonstrate how activists in the ’90s used art to challenge the social perception of people with AIDS. Sexuality is highly attentive to difference in the art world, and the impact of difference on how art is created, perceived, received, and critiqued.
Sexuality is, then, an undoubtedly a strong collection of writings that establish sexuality as integral to the discourse and practice of art in the 20th and 21st centuries. However, the collection focuses almost exclusively on well-known artists to its detriment. The focus on so-called household names means limited attention to work that might be equally as transformative, and so reinforces notions of “important” and “influential” artists of the 20th century. As a consequence, the collection is a primarily American one that underrepresents the theoretical and art work of trans* people, and neglects to represent the art work of Indigenous artists and artists with disabilities.
The collection would have been enhanced with the inclusion of artists such as Loree Erickson, whose video works explore the intersection of sexuality and disability. Less attention to the “who’s who” of contemporary art would allow for a more unique perspective on the relationship between art and sexuality.
Further, more direct reference to art itself, that is, reproductions of the work of the artists surveyed, would give a much-needed “life” to the ideas presented within, and render the ideas more concretely meaningful in the context of the topic of this anthology. As it is, Sexuality leaves it to the reader to locate the artworks and artists surveyed, and to make the connections between the ideas and the artworks. Most readers will be able to find the better part of the works in question, and well-versed readers will be able to recall them; still, the text as a reference of contemporary art would have more of an impact if it contained, where possible, images of the art that it discussed.
Overall, readers interested in the history of modern and contemporary art will appreciate how well Jones brings together works that demonstrate how established contemporary artists have taken up human sexuality, particularly where sexuality intersects with, interrupts, and shifts the balance of social, cultural and economic power.