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On Prurience in ArtPart I
by Miles Mathis
This is another topic that I may speak about with some degree of intimacy, in the first person, as a primary source. Meaning that I have been accused of prurience myself, in regard to my subject matter. Therefore the discussion that follows will not be an objective analysis of someone else's creations; it will be the exposition of a subject that I am materially involved in. As I interrogate and defend other artists, I will also interrogate and defend myself. Some will say this must taint my evidence. I reply that you must remember that all evidence is tainted, but artistic evidence tainted by an artist is bound to be more interesting and informative than artistic evidence tainted by a critic. I may be biassed, that is, but at least I know what I am talking about.
One of the most revealing (and uncommented on) ironies of contemporary criticism is that writers on both sides of the central argument are attacking eachother in the same basic terms. That is to say that the avant garde is often seen dismissing realism for the same reason that realism dismisses the avant garde. Realists attack the avant garde for having prurient interests. You can all imagine the form of these attacks without my recapitulation. But the avant garde is attacking realism in precisely the same way. Of course the avant garde does not attack living realists by name—the avant garde prefers to maintain the fiction that realism is dead—naming living artist would only be giving them free press. Therefore all attacks on realism must be indirect. The avant garde attacks realism by continuing to strafe 19th century art, in the way they have been doing for a hundred years. And one of the main concentrations of fire continues to be the prurience of 19th century subject matter. Bouguereau's little peasant girls, Waterhouse's teenage nymphs, Gerome's naked slaves, and so on. It is most curious to see the same critic defend Lucian Freud one week for his honesty, and attack Waterhouse the next for his perversity.
But again, from the point of view of the artist, both sides are wrong. They each approach art with a philosophical or theoretical lens that cannot focus any work of art, classical or modern. They end up failing utterly to see why any work succeeds or fails. The sort of sexual squeamishness that allows a viewer to dismiss a painting simply due to a patch of pubic hair or an exposed breast need not be commented on here, in a paper claiming to be concerned with philosophy (although such squeamishness remains epidemic). No, the matter goes deeper than that, and ends only by looking at the whole relation of art and philosophy. The realists and moderns, despite different visual inspiration, have attacked eachother in the same terms because they have accepted the same preconditions of argumentation. That is, they disagree about art but agree about philosophy. They both believe in the primacy of analysis and the word, the centrality of science, and the superiority of reason. Not only that, but they also agree on the basic inferiority of the body. This agreement is not always based on a common Christian past, as you might think. The inferiority of the body is a univeral religious constant, promulgated by Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians alike. Nor are atheists likely to veer from it. A scientific rejection of any sort of deism has not returned science to a Greek appreciation of the physical. In the spinning out of Descartes' mind-body dualism, the moderns have chosen mind (even as they turn the mind into a machine).
What is not understood is that art and artists have always stood in opposition to this entire historical progression. None of us, from Praxiteles to Munch (and beyond), have accepted the primacy of analysis, of reason, of science, or of philosophy. Even those of us who were also scientists or philosophers (like Leonardo or Joseph Wright of Derby) would not have apologized for an obsession with the physical. Once upon a time, this is what "physics" meant. A sort of obsession with the physical that was not so very far from art. Leonardo did not have to walk many steps across his studio, or across his mind, to go from artist to scientist. But there is no creature in history less artistic than the modern physicist (despite the claims from him to the contrary). The physicist now seems to believe that creating paradoxes is creative, but the fact is that modern science is so far beyond an obsession with the physical that it isn't even believed to exist. Quantum Mechanics did away with "reality" many decades ago, and now even the moon is believed to be a probability (I am not kidding). It is very difficult to be in love with a probability, or to fall in love under a probability, or to paint by the light of a probability.
An artist, whether also physicist or not, is in love with the physical world. As such a lover, he is at odds with almost the entire spectrum of contemporary thinkers. Art splits the horns of all modern arguments. It does not respond to analysis from the right or the left, as I have said before. It also does not reveal itself to science or to religion or to philosophy. It reveals itself to desire and emotion. This is where prurience comes back into the argument. Both realists and the avant garde see prurience as a pejorative term, at least as regards the enemy's art. It is a term of abuse. The great artists have never seen it is this light. For them the term was only a twisting of a more positive adjective. What the writer saw as a perverted interest, the artist saw only as an interest. The word "prurience" therefore became strictly equivalent to the word "sexual" used by someone who was not sexual but desired to be. In this way, it became a red flag to artists, a signal of who they were dealing with. That is why the term dropped out of use in the early 20th century: critics realized it said more about them than about the artists, and they moved on to other less revealing topics. But by the late 20th century there were so few artists left, by the old definition, that the red flag was no longer a flag. There was nobody to tip off. All of art had become one writer talking to another writer. These writers all had the same neuroses, invisible to themselves, and so they were free to be as transparent as they wanted. This is how we have come to the absurd pass we are at, where critics weaned on unbelievable brutality and pathology in art turn around and accuse the Victorians of being perverts. Perversion is apparently allowed only if a living entity can profit from it. Once a work is beyond the open market it reverts to being a potential pattern for old ladies' knitting clubs or an illustration for vacation Bible school.
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