Sex and history

Each of the last four posts has reproduced one of Motherwell’s Elegies, so some readers might be getting tired of seeing them. It’s not because I think that they are all great, it’s because I want to make it clear that they are all pretty much as good as each other, and that this outcome is an aspect of the history of abstraction, inevitable, inescapable. That’s neither good nor bad, but something that every artist has to live with. It partially explains why so many of us rely on externals to motivate our works, and maybe why Motherwell accepted content. So it is valid to observe that the reason the Elegies don’t compel admiration today is that the male organ is not representative any more, it has little symbolic weight, at least not the way that Motherwell uses it. This summer I wrote an article about sexual imagery in art:

“….conception is the ruling trope in modern art, conception sexual, creative and intellectual. The vulva is a central image in modern art then because it is an origin both cosmic and base. Granted that all origins are fictions, for human beings it is the one that comes the closest to fact. It is body, not metaphysics; humanly universal, even generic, yet very deeply and intensely entangled with all our emotions. I may be guilty here of reducing sexuality to the female organ, but then at this moment in history that is a (contingently) valid move. The pussy is the icon of contemporary art, and that is no accident; such a development has been preparing for a long time. The complete and dramatic change in art world attitudes toward Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party” is only one symptom of the cultural shift we are living through today, a revaluation of women’s sexuality without idealization. In art, figures with explicitly “feminine” imagery, such as Fontana, Benglis, Burri, De Kooning, Hesse or Mitchell are newly influential. Thirty years ago Courbet’s “Origin of the World” was an art historical curiosity, today it’s a major work.”

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party 1979

Motherwell is on the wrong side of an important historical change, yet from a position internal to the work, that doesn’t matter, since nothing can be done about it anyway. Personally, I’d rather dwell on the arbitrariness of both form and meaning than move too quickly to an interpretation that places the work in history, but primal imagery can lend some of its strength to abstraction, and that is a good thing.

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