We’ve had an article on transgressive art and one on pornography (subscription required) in the last few issues of First Things . So what should I find when I open up this week’s New Yorker but an article by Calvin Tomkins about an artist who has combined the two, sort of (at this time, the article is not available online). Actually, John Currin has more combined pornography with classical Renaissance art, as in his most recent picture of two women pleasuring a third in various ways, all set on a backdrop worthy of Michelangelo, with the prominent use of perspective to boot. Tomkins quotes Currin commenting on his own technique at work in the piece: “I’ve always liked that thing of a figure coming in from the side who doesn’t quite obey the spatial rules of the rest of the painting . . . . The thing with angels and Annunciations.” So, modern culture has reused the form of classical art to express its own vision.

Three things struck me upon reading the article. First, it seemed like Currin would bring up the old question of what separates pornography from art. I would have expected the artist or the author of the article to claim that, no, this art was not pornography. However, this doesn’t happen. Tomkins frequently calls Currin’s work pornographic, but pornographic no longer seems like a dirty word the way he uses it.

Second, I was struck by what Currin’s wife said of when he first met her: “For a while, being with John was hard for me, because he sees women as different beings, some kind of embodiment of creativity, of life and beauty, all these strange emotions. The male-female issue is a constant battle for John and me.” Notably absent from the list of what women are was “a human being possessing dignity.”

Third, was the why behind Currin’s unabashed pornography: Currin is fighting against the rise of violent Islamic fundamentalism. In short, Currin is fighting a culture war. He cites the riots over the Danish cartoons of Muhammad and the murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, and says, “That’s when it occurred to me that we might lose this thing—not the Iraq war but the larger struggle.” Tomkins continues:

When I asked how this tied into his making pornographic paintings, Currin talked about low birth rates in Europe, and people having sex without having babies, and pornography as a kind of elegy to liberal culture, at which point I lost the thread. “I know how right wing this sounds,” I recall him saying, “but I was thinking how pornography could be a superstitious offering to the gods of a dying race.”

Pornography as the artistic first fruits—as a pinnacle of humanity—of modern culture. There is nothing more to say.

Articles by Nathaniel Peters

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