Viewer as Voyeur: A Short History of Perfectly Dirty Art

dirty jeff on top 02 Viewer as Voyeur: A Short History of Perfectly Dirty ArtMark Twain described it as “the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses.” I discovered it by chance one rainy weekend in Florence on the perfunctory visit to the Galleria degli Uffizi. I had seen the Uffizi’s amazing works so many times in books that I almost didn’t feel the need to see the real thing, but standing in front of them, I had a whole different and wonderful experience.

That’s how I came to see the dirtiest painting of all time: Titian’s Venus of Urbino, painted in 1538. A voluptuous nude lies on a day bed, her inviting look leaving us wondering if she’s a bride waiting for her groom or the ultimate courtesan waiting for a client who will be getting much more than his money’s worth. Several symbols in the painting-like the sleeping dog and the open trunk-masterfully lead us to thoughts of both chastity and promiscuity.

Twain, with umbrage in his tone, explained its appeal in his A Tramp Abroad: “There are pictures of nude women which suggest no impure thought-I am well aware of that. … Titian’s Venus is very far from being one of that sort.” Indeed, some art historians believe the painting was commissioned by the Duke of Urbino as a gift to his youthful bride-something of a primer on what the duke liked. Whatever the case, the end result is a breathtaking masterpiece that hooks you and reels you right in. Titian implicates the viewer as voyeur. 

More than three centuries later, in 1866, Gustav Courbet painted Origin of the World. Another perfectly dirty painting, the work depicts a beautiful, close-up view of a shapely woman’s pubis, in the most exquisite, painterly and daring way. This masterpiece was edgy in the 19th century, edgy in the 20th and remains edgy today. The image sticks with you forever, and when one considers the title, Origin becomes a highly sophisticated conceptual work.

Origin undoubtedly influenced Marcel Duchamp’s final etant donne … .(which he worked on for 20 years, from 1946 to 1966). Viewed through a peephole, the masterpiece shows a nude woman against a landscape, sprawled on her back, her legs spread and face hidden.

It’s not enough to just shock our prudish bourgeois sensibilities; ‘dirty’ art is strongest when it leaves us wondering.

Duchamp took Courbet’s vagina and expanded it to a full figure displayed in nature, but leaves the viewer confused as to whether it’s a scene of lovemaking or rape or possibly murder. To see the work, the viewer must peep through holes in a wooden door, thus Duchamp engages the viewer and turns him or her into a voyeur, a peeping Tom, and this gives the work that “dirty” feeling.

But these works are a century or more old. What’s dirty in contemporary art? About half the art created in the 20th century referenced sex, so perhaps in some way it all is, and that’s why shocking sex in art today looks so tired and boring. It’s not enough to just shock our prudish bourgeois sensibilities; dirty art is strongest when it leaves us wondering.

One contemporary artist took the ultimate in dirty and turned it into something else entirely. Jeff Koons’ amazing “Made in Heaven” series was created when he married world-famous porn superstar Cicciolina, and then did full-scale paintings, photographs and sculptures based on real images of their sexual acts. Cicciolina was, in the ’80s, a new type of Marilyn Monroe, the hard-core version. (She later went into politics and was elected to the Italian Parliament.)

In her husband’s artwork, the artist becomes part of the picture, and not just a Warhol-style voyeur; Mr. Koons took the concept to a whole new level when he cast himself as the porn star. One of the paintings is even titled Dirty-Jeff On Top, a clever play on words and a wink to the prurient nature of the graphic sex in the image.

This series, which was done back in 1990-1991, still remains the edgiest and most provocative sexual work in contemporary art. When people talk about it, one so often hears empty words like “tough,” or the classic housewife’s query, “Where would you hang it?” But in the age of Paris Hilton porn tapes and Pamela Anderson oral-sex videos, why is the Koons work still shocking?

What he does is to de-sexualize sex. He really loved her, and the work is about love and acceptance. Jeff Koons wants us to discard our taboos and embrace the naïve and pure joy of the work. Think of Adam and Eve without the shame of eating the apple. The couple were married, and eventually had a child. Sadly for the artist, this relationship ended in a bitter divorce and custody battle, but for the history of art, a great chapter was written.

Art is a place where concepts are expanded, taboos are broken and history as written is put into question. There is a word for dirty art-it’s called porn. But great art is never porn-even when it’s really dirty.

editorial@observer.com