by Daniel Nanavati
Let’s talk sex in the art world. Not the male predilection for the female body, from painting to having sex with models, but as a bona fide trade that defies our society’s efforts to create a meritocracy. I thought of this piece when reading Mary Fletcher’s Speakeasy, which appears in this issue, realising that she had not even scratched the surface of how sex can determine material success. Let me be clear at the outset I am championing talent, so any person of any sexual orientation in a position of power over another who wants sex to advance that person’s career in the art world, is in my sights.
The first draft of this article was discussed by the editors and Al Jirikowic wrote:
“You know sex is a way of life. It is many things to many people. It is a language that is an ‘imperative’, masked, and urgent. There is a vast unknown to sex which keeps out of a direct reference but always hovers around us all the time. So it beguiles us with powers we almost know not of … but when these powers have a ‘traded’ or ‘shared’ dimension, there is a definite next step involved that extracts its meaning in the world of favors and ego. Hence its power and mystery and pleasure and imperative which makes it outside our rational/philosophical management.”
I think as far as this goes this is fair comment but it is not strictly what I am discussing. Yes, I am looking at favours given as a trade for advancement in the art world, but this is not a mystery. The mystery is why those who demand favours, once they get the sex, keep their word. And there is no real mystery as to why they ask for sex, they have power and they use it to enjoy an orgasm or two.
Along with shared social standing (often called class), or shared schooling, having had sex with a person inclines those in power to promote that someone in every field of social mobility. Why?
Female Bonobos (called pygmy chimpanzees) often use genital rubbing to defuse tension between two rival groups, avoiding the kinds of violence seen in chimp wars. Though they can be violent. Is this trade deeply embedded in our psyches? If this were true would not every person in a position of power in the art world be asking for sex from artists all the time? And granted Duchamp knew well our attentiveness to sex as all his works revolve around it in one way or another, but that is another form of trade. Thats the cheap seduction of the public gaze often lodged in marketing. The use of sex to gain favour and not to care whether one is talented or not, should be criminal.
The great Claudette Colbert once said that the only actor she knew who had not slept with someone to get a part in a movie was Bette Davis. And it isn’t the sex that matters, it is the fact that talented people are deprived of their place by the sexually extrovert or manipulative. And this game is played by everyone.
Now artists will tell you to be successful you must mix with successful people, plan ahead, be proactive. The sculptor Mathieu Briand advises not be to scared of being commercial and never to stop working. But few start off by saying ‘be a brilliant artist’. What they are saying is you don’t have to be poor to be an artist and here are some ways to be self-sufficient. But actually, the only thing that should be said is ‘be a brilliant artist’. Let your talent show itself. Yet in society we all know that great talent can get nowhere in terms of career but sleeping with the right people can get you everywhere.
Powerful people in the art world need to be finessed. Everyone has their vanity. But come on, I hear you say, we are healthy adults and we all need and want to have sex with someone. Just because you have relations with someone in your career stream doesn’t mean you are a second-rate artist, you may have fallen in love. And of course, this is true. It is also true that you don’t have to use your social and university contacts in order to rule your country, but it helps. And we should face the sad fact that in European society across say, the last 500 years to take a completely arbitrary number, women were seen solely for their bodies and all the people in positions of power in the art world were men, so sexual exploitation was rife. Today women are far more in control of their own bodies so the exploitation goes both ways. And yet, with that, better talent still loses out.
You have every right to argue that I do not know every artist and who am I to say that the artists who become well known because they sleep with the right people for their career path, are not the best?
My answer to that is ‘look at the art we celebrate as the best.’ If that is the summit of 10,000 years of human activity – to go back to a pile of stones, a rubbish heap, and anything you pick up off the ground or to paint without skill or imagination – then we are intellectually up a dead-end creek and culturally bankrupt.
And equally I know this because my mother is Shänne Sands. A poet. She wouldn’t sleep with anyone to get published, unlike Sylvia Plath who married her success, and she was outraged when men suggested it. Consequently you won’t have heard of her or read her. But a poetry professor in North Carolina says she is the ‘link between the Romantics and the Moderns’ and before she died he cited her as one of the finest poets of her age.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter who seduces who, or who uses who, what matters is the cultural debasement and the reduction of imagination to animal desire. It is completely amiss that accolades come after death for so many artists and still will, and one of the reasons is that talent isn’t what you need. Jeffery Archer once said if you have talent and energy you can be a king. If you have no talent but lots of energy you can still be a prince.
There is too much bedroom energy still in the arts for us to be wholly convinced we are any more civilised than Bonobos.
Volume 35 no 1 September / October 2020