When I was in fifth grade, we did an assignment where we wrote biographies of our future lives and I don’t remember too much about mine other than I eventually bought, or maybe just lived in, The Louvre. Trust me, it’s not as precious or precocious as it sounds; I think I just liked the sound of it. Those mooing long vowels were fun to say. As I grew older, became a writer, and absorbed as much art as humanly possible I’ve found myself really digging having the opposite of the officially sanctioned reactions to “high” and “low” art. I love chuckling at the filthy jokes in Shakespeare and Joyce or marveling at the delicate sensitivity to be occasionally found in a Chandler and Bukowski.
Last summer my fiancée and I finally got the chance to explore continental Europe. Through the semi-random zigzags of travel, we managed to visit both the Louvre and the Sex Museum on alternate days. It felt like I crossed a few items off of a bucket list that I didn’t even know I had. According to some local friends, the two cities are a study in contrasts. Of course, Paris has that well-known tres chic mentality, where everything from food to clothing to architecture is meant to be done just so. It’s not necessarily that Parisians are all snobs, though I was good-humoredly informed that this was indeed true in some ways. But that surprisingly small, exquisite, and ancient city has been through enough trauma in its time that the people there deserve to have things done the way they want.
Amsterdam, on the other hand, has plenty of history and charm of its own, but being Dutch it’s perhaps slightly less concerned with how to properly present itself. Generations of rowdy, drunk, and obnoxious American cannabis tourists can take the edge off of anything. But one thing both cities have in common is a well-established libertarian streak; it’s been said in all kinds of ways that you can let it all hang out if you want to. Both places have well-established reputations as bohemian hotspots, which of course makes them more attractive to tourists like myself. Gentrification be damned — the best way to revitalize any culture is to let your poor but artistic folks be able to afford to live there. It’s not just good for a city’s international reputation, it’s good for the soul. It’s more fun that way. Besides, who needs the Venus De Milo when you’ve got Bettie Page?
Of course, the Louvre offers a much more august, Parisian version of very clearly defined High Culture. There’s quite an astounding amount of priceless art and cultural artifacts of all kinds to bask in and not enough hours in a lifetime to roam through the gleaming corridors of that ancient castle after entering through the ultramodern translucent pyramid. In contrast, Amsterdam’s Sex Museum is by design relatively trashier and less self-consciously grand, and the fact that it’s trying to place the fig leaf of anthropology over all the kink and kitsch on display makes it that much more accessible, and more recognizably human in its dimensions. The Louvre knows perfectly well what it is and why it is and remains fairly dignified about itself. In contrast, the Sex Museum is reaching for a seriousness that it categorically just isn’t quite able to reach, which is kind of charming, albeit in a slightly pervy way.
As you pay your ticket and walk in through the nondescript door there’s a display of “sexuality through the ages” featuring, among other things, a large stone phallus carved by some impressively monomaniacal Roman, racy Asian tapestries, ashtrays from Parisian brothels carved to look like reclining women, and so on. But what the Sex Museum loses in sober historiography it gains in irreverence, which is probably a better way to go in the end, all things considered. There were a few museum staffers milling about in waiter-like uniforms of black vests over white shirts and I really wanted to buttonhole one of them and ask about what crazy stories he could tell. But he looked painfully bored, anyway, which probably isn’t out of character with a job like that, given that he has to stand around and play hall monitor to tittering teenagers all the time. Plus, his workday soundtrack is an over-amplified and seemingly infinite loop of monotonous, porn-like gasps and moans, like something out of an ’80s era workout video. Which makes his boredom kind of hilarious in context, and provides a sort of a metaphor for the museum as a whole. It begs the question: is too much of a good thing still a good thing?
As you start to stroll around, the oddities begin to accumulate. Giant dildos! Vagina toilets! A life-size mannequin of Marilyn Monroe posing above that mischievous subway grate! If you’ve ever seen those big animatronic figures in different museums, of Paul Bunyan or something, well, let’s just say the Sex Museum flips that particular script right from the start. Not long after you enter the museum you stand face to face (as it were) with a life-size, mustachioed, vaguely British looking fellow in a stained trench coat whose mechanical voice mumbles salaciously to himself for a minute or so before he suddenly mechanically jolts forward and cranks open the coat to reveal a giant rubber penis, wobbling confusedly in midair. It wasn’t particularly upsetting, arousing, or disturbing. It wasn’t really anything. The reaction I had was a little more like the moment in Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet when the titular old man is abruptly flashed on the street in 70’s NYC: “ok, fine, but what does it prove . . . ?”
Naturally, a lot of what’s displayed is pretty detailed in terms of the different fetishes that are represented. In places like this, standing on ceremony is for wimps: you really ought to just go for the gusto. Some of it is actually pretty funny, too. A 50’s-era comic strip portrays Batman and Robin consummating their lifelong partnership in increasingly vivid and sloppy ways. Most of the 40’s era cartoons and comic strip excerpts are pretty raunchy yet in a winking, high-spirited kind of way. The busty, sassy Betty Boop-like women with those big faux-innocent eyes and zany physical proportions always tend to get the better of their doofus-looking men who blush and sweat at their boyishly awestruck chance to make some serious whoopie. Contrary to what you might expect, and the typical (shall we say) narrative thrust of today’s porn, the cartoons meant to titillate The Greatest Generation tend to have pretty assertive women. Those spunky, faux-naïve dames always get the better of the hapless schmucks who go helplessly gaga for tatas. Some feminists might disagree, but others might salute those plucky bombshells who, as James Brown once put it, use what they’ve got to get just what they want. As you descend the well-trodden spiral staircase to delve deeper into the museum’s funkier items, things get a little more disturbing.
There’s a not-exactly-subtle question of consent involved in a few photo spreads as you descend to the lower levels. For example, there’s a series of photographs from 70’s-era Italy, if memory serves, where a poor naked girl is tied down and whipped by a bunch of snarling dudes in black turtlenecks. The terrified look on her face as the whip hangs in midair doesn’t inspire much confidence that everything was exactly hunky-dory on set. Neither do the angry looks on the now-bottomless men in the second panel, crowding around her with all kinds of veins pumping. There are some other displays that proudly emphasize the more S & M varieties of Eros, which is to be expected and perfectly fine with me, but occasionally there’s a certain spooked look in someone’s naked eyes that suggests that the situation in question may have veered a little beyond just a harmlessly exotic adventure. It makes you wonder just where exactly the museum acquired some of this stuff and who was collecting it in the first place.
There’s a fair amount of gender-bending and homoerotic material tellingly located as you spiral farther down. The lighting around you gets redder and that weird omnipresent porn soundtrack gets even louder and more stertorous. The garishly lurid atmospherics all but scream out to you. HERE WE GO, WE’RE REALLY GETTING FREAKY NOW! But the more you look around the more it becomes clear that the majority of overtly salacious stuff is predominantly geared towards appealing to the straight white male gaze. Being one myself, I do feel a bit disingenuous about criticizing this, yet at the same time it does seem to unexpectedly show the limits, and indeed the implicit conservativism, of just how freaky this museum really is. Despite the sense of history and the whimsicality of presentation, maybe the museum’s aesthetics are ultimately limited by whatever will keep bringing in those sweet, sweet tourist dollars. After all, “know your audience” is the old and time-tested mantra of both the artist and the pornographer. And given the looks of most of the people around me as I browsed, who looked more or less like me, it seems that the Sex Museum knows perfectly well who their real daddy is.
And here’s where you bump up against (so to speak) the sticky issue (sorry!) that rears its ugly head (not sorry!) the more time you spend strolling through the exhibits, gazing at the cornucopia of ultra-glossy hard and softcore pornography framed by the hazy outline of your own reflection in the glass. The feeling one gets as time passes and salacious images keep floating by isn’t really titillation, or vicarious embarrassment, or the cheap thrill of indulging in surreptitious voyeurism. Not quite. Those reactions do appear in different degrees and at different moments, to be sure, and one’s responses can vary from room to room and picture to picture. But the cumulative feeling that begins to settle in the more you look around the place is something a little different. It’s more like ennui, the voluptuous kind of existential boredom with modern life that opium-wreathed, gloomy old Baudelaire, a true connoisseur of the finer points of decadence, used to write banned poems about.
You might even call it the democratic failure of pornography. Sure, you dig checking out the stuff that YOU like, that caters to your own private fantasies and curiosities, but the more you are exposed to the vast panoply of what OTHER people are into, their multivalent kinks and quirks, the less turned on you get. Being exposed to other people’s sexual fantasies is kind of like sitting through a series of strangers vaguely explaining their more abstract dreams. And seeing a tableau of moist naughty bits spread out on a wall before you is a lot less titillating when they’re shot with the aesthetics reminiscent of a supermarket circular.
Believe me, I don’t mean to sound puritanical — I fancy myself a sex-positive, to-each-his-own type of guy — but passively consuming a fairly large amount of erotic material in public and in a relatively short period of time turns out to be kind of fun, but a lot less sexy than you’d assume it would be. The blatant, brazen, in-your-face attitude of it all ends up killing the buzz. When notoriously unruly desire gets captured, sanitized, and then neatly sealed off only to be safely admired behind glass, maybe that’s exactly the point at which otherwise sensual, warm, inviting flesh freezes up and fossilizes. And I use that word deliberately; the Sex Museum unexpectedly demonstrates how Eros, ever-flowing within the deeply hidden rivers of the psyche, can so easily become an anachronism when it is frozen and hammered into a commercially pleasing shape.
This is, incidentally, why The Louvre’s vaunted Mona Lisa is the overrated artwork of all time. There are signs all over the place reminding the patrons where they can find it. It’s got a special room all its own. Sure, it’s a lovely piece of portraiture by one of the greatest artistic geniuses in history, with lovely sfumato and a mysteriously exotic background, but who cares about any of that when you can’t even get close enough to see the damn thing? Whenever you enter the room there are about 50 people standing directly in front of you and so whatever glimpse you might catch of it will always mostly consist of the backs of people’s heads. People gather around to get that “authentic experience” by seeing the small portrait up close and personal, which is what creates a crowd in the first place, which is what pushes people farther and farther away. Everybody pays their money and thinks they’re coming to see something special and ends up seeing nothing much at all.
After we left the Sex Museum, there arose the possibility of visiting Amsterdam’s infamous red-light district. But after an afternoon spent perusing the polymorphic perverse the idea seemed, well, pretty anticlimactic. Neither one of us were really up for it. When returned to our friends’ apartment, they assured us we’d made the right choice and that the whole scene was, indeed, quite an experience but was actually pretty depressing. Especially considering the hellholes where most of the working girls tend to come from and how they fall into it and how dead-eyed they become after years of doing other people’s kinky bidding all day. Sex work is real work, no doubt about it, and should come with all the benefits of exhausting and often dangerous labor. Considering the disturbing implications about the overt transaction of cash for concupiscence even for a few minutes pretty much douses you in the cold shower of reality unless you really happen to be a creep.
Maybe the Sex Museum still has something valuable to teach. All that tawdriness implicitly suggests that the true joy of sex, or better to say the capital-E Erotic, may wind up being less about immediate gratification than a delicious byproduct of its passionate pursuit — the tease, the flirtation, the aching brevity of glance and touch, all the different movements of the slow tango of seduction. Maybe those fussy Frenchies have it right after all: what they refer to as “sex in the head” can be infinitely more tantalizing than a brusque transaction. Forget all that Late Capitalist, consumerism-saturated monoculture we’re all drowning in nowadays, where everything is about Your Way Right Away and how we all take for granted that Sex Sells everything from perfume to chewing gum to presidents. The implicit crassness of the market is inexorably tied in with the subliminal and not-so-subliminal promise of immediate gratification, which sure is fun while it lasts. But as anyone who has eaten a whole bag of Doritos in one sitting knows, instant gratification mostly leaves you feeling empty, probably self-disgusted, and even hungrier in the end. Some things are better done slowly and surely and with a masterful, attentive touch.
Which is where the Louvre comes in. There are plenty of naked and nude bodies (to use Jon Berger’s critical distinction) floating aloft amid the grand walls of High Art, and many of them are in their own special ways just as sexualized as anything you can see over in Amsterdam. Naked, according to some art critics, means the subject is aware that they are being looked at, while nudes are blissfully unheeding of the outside gaze. The great comic Hannah Gadsby, an art history buff, made the point in her special Nanette that the old masters of the past, whether they copped to it or not, were all about painting “flesh vases for their dick flowers.” It’s a little harsh to say that, for sure.
Yet anyone who has taken an art history class or even strolled through a museum on a Saturday afternoon can instantly catch her meaning — it isn’t that hard to notice. Lots of extremely talented men spent lots of time creating images of beautiful female bodies, for themselves and their patrons to enjoy. Looking at it a certain way, one thing that unites the Sex Museum and the Louvre is that there is no shortage of ways, both classy and decidedly less so, to demonstrate what stone cold foxes some people are and how much fun it is to look at them. A video installation showed old footage of the lissome Josephine Baker shaking her moneymaker a hundred years ago, looking like she’s having a great time setting fire to the Paris stage. And what bloodless scold could possibly blame her?
A painting as ineffably graceful as Ingres’ naked “Odalisque” which hovers awkwardly above the steel lunch tables and grinding coffee machine on one floor of the Louvre, isn’t really “saying” much more than “hey there, check me out, have I got it going on or what?” And I’m sure that Ingres’ famed attention to the elongated sensual line was intended to elicit just that response in the viewer. And the languorous expression on the odalisque’s face as she lounges alone in her private antechamber within the sultan’s harem — glancing over her shoulder at a seductively coquettish, sort of Lauren Bacall-esque angle back at you gazing at her — appears to be just fine with encouraging your attention to her smooth and seductive naked body. Writing in a Walter Pater-esque rapture about her poise and grace and proportions or murmuring a quick “damn, she fine” before wandering off to get lunch might employ different vocabulary and might be a little more irredeemably poetic but ultimately amounts to the same response when you get right down to it.
Maybe it’s all a matter of who’s doing the commenting. Picasso was more interested in what he could do with the angles of Dora Maar’s face than in portraying what she really looked like for posterity. But he was right when he said that his portrait of Gertrude Stein would look like her eventually. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, always, but there are limits to how relativistic we have to be. If it’s a critic using his refined skills paying careful attention to perspective, depth, color, line quality, and the silken detail of a single brush stroke to depict a lovely human form then surely that’s different from some dude on the street wolf-whistling at a random woman walking by. Or is all art criticism, at least the stuff written by straight white men like me, just an excuse to play voyeur?
Maybe it’s more about the person who makes the art versus the art itself. D.H. Lawrence once insisted that you should “trust the tale and not the teller” but The Rolling Stones also sang that “it’s the singer, not the song.” Even though I tend to do it myself, I totally understand that it’s invasive and reductive to write off any work of art as merely a manifestation of the artist’s private psychodrama. There’s always more going on under the surface than who they happened to be sleeping with or obsessing over at the time, especially if the art is of any value on its own terms. In some small but crucial way, a work of art stands apart from the one who made it and if it’s done well enough it can easily take on a life of its own.
I think a similar approach can be used to talk about sex and sexuality in art, which can be two different things, but as closely related as sense and sensibility. Sure, beholding a beautiful body always carries some level of erotic charge and there’s always a little poetry sprinkled into desire. We lust after that which beckons or eludes us; it’s the human condition to want what we can’t have. And so much of our highest and our lowest creations are the products of that unquenchable longing, that endless pursuit of the ideal. Oscar Wilde was surely right, and not just being his customarily witty self, when he opined that the two greatest tragedies in life are not getting what one wants and the other is getting it.
But why not be optimistic? I don’t think this all-too-human futility must necessarily be the end-all-be-all. There isn’t a soul alive who doesn’t know the sweet and sour pang of an unrequited, impossible desire of one kind or another. But sometimes there are ways to know the marrow-deep thrill of actually achieving satisfaction, if only for a fleeting moment. Maybe the Sex Museum and The Louvre each celebrate both of these mental states in their own distinct ways, even if the former will inevitably lose out to the latter in the end in the aesthetic olympics. It’s one thing to advertise the endless varieties of ways to want and wanting something beautiful is a crucial part of knowing that you’re alive.
What if instead of chasing after the thrill that will eventually wear off, we can hang on to the moments of creative inspiration, either your own or someone else’s, where you don’t merely want but have. That’s what art does. When we are able to let ourselves see it in all its multifaceted glory, we can savor endlessly those precious few epiphanies when the loose ends meet, where soul meets the body, and when the raw pulpy stuff of paint and brush and paper, the raw materials of life, reaches out to touch the living thing and hold it out forever for anyone who is willing to see. Maybe that’s the biggest climax of them all. •