Rated Art

Published December 4, 2009

Not so long ago, sex was still considered one of the key controversial lightning rods of contemporary art. In fact, it was ­arguably sex—explored by artists in almost every manner,
position, and mode of provocation possible—that created the biggest frisson between the radical politics of the art world and the more prohibitive ­dictates of society at large. But the days ­­­of hashing out the art-versus-­pornography debate in courtrooms and on museum staircases are largely extinct. This is because shock itself has been so ­effectively ­­co-opted by mass media—particularly by advertising. Stripped of its more subtle and ­complicated implications, shock has turned into a rather prosaic part of daily life (who is really shocked by shock anymore?). Today, audiences are more likely to be impressed by the cleverness of an artist than scandalized by their output. And in art land, most moral outrage and legal ­skirmishes are reserved for matters of trademark infringement due to the prevalence of appropriation art. But that doesn’t mean artists have ­stopped committing their lenses, ­canvases, and screens to the subject of sexuality altogether. Perhaps the very fact that imagery of the human body no longer provokes the same kind of cultural hysteria means that it can finally be explored in new and more intensive ways. Sexuality is still a wild frontier of ­possibility, with several highly uncharted zones—­specifically, the virtual, global, and genetic. And then there are still artists trying to crack the old aesthetic codes on carnality, lust, and what inexplicably turns us on. Overwhelmingly, art dealing with sex today is less about liberation and more about frustration—bodies bound, fractured by collage, or restricted to the voyeuristic confines of the computer screen. We’ve asked 11 artists to give us exclusively new or never-before-published works on the subject of human ­ sexuality. These artists range in age, medium, sex, sexuality, and stage of career, but what they’ve produced is an indication of art’s current preoccupation with sex—past shock, ­pyschologically potent, often purposely frustrating, and ­sometimes, still extreme.