Sex and the Empty Canvas

I’d like to think more about sex and abstraction, because there is something undiscovered there. But in the era of mass pornography and internet explicitness, a genuinely artistic approach to sex might be anerotic. The other day I was driving around Toronto and saw a billboard for a sex expo trade fair in the convention center. Vulgar and tedious, it bring to mind Dan Graham’s “Detumescence.” As an indirect approach to the topic, start with Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark.

Clearly the Snark is a love object, certainly female. The courtship rituals include the familiar eating out and offers of money:

“‘You may seek it with thimbles – and seek it with care;
You may hunt it with forks and hope;
You may threaten its life with a railway-share;
You may charm it with smiles and soap -‘”

Eventually the expected moment arrives:

Erect and sublime, for one moment of time,
In the next, that wild figure they saw
(As if stung by a spasm) plunge into a chasm,
While they waited and listened in awe.

But the “climax” of the poem is “The Vanishing,” after that plunge into the chasm, foretold by the baker’s uncle:

“‘But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
And never be met with again!’

The Baker himself goes on:

“I engage with the Snark – every dark after dark –
In a dreamy delirious fight:
I serve it with greens in those shadowy scenes,
And I use it for striking a light:

“But if ever I meet with a Boojum, that day,
In a moment (of this I am sure),
I shall softly and suddenly vanish away –
And the notion I cannot endure!”

Conventional art world criticism would go on about male fears of the “chasm,” and of losing the sense of self, which is equated with social power. I would rather ask whether that soft and sudden vanishment is not the less talked about part of sex, the aftermath as it were. The blank map in The Hunting of the Snark has long been recognized, by artists like Robert Smithson and Art/Language, as a model of the teleology of abstract painting. Could it be that the monochrome, the empty rectangle and the reduction to nothing is as erotic as anything in art? Desire keeps us going. Our identities depend on it. But some abstract art seems to be interested in what is after fulfillment—call it post-desire. Since desire always returns, that must be part of sex too, of its rhythm, which is also the rhythm of creation. The conclusion of the Snark is sublime, and gives the lie to the cliche that men are afraid of female sexuality. This is the Baker after he dives into the chasm:

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away –
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

The Snark‘s blank map is an icon of modern art of the same importance as the painting of Balzac’s Frenhofer, the famous “unknown masterpiece.”

snarkmapHe had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!

Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank”
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best –
A perfect and absolute blank!”

This entry was posted in Abstraction and Society, American Modernism, Conceptualism and Painting, Current Affairs, Early Abstraction and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sex and the Empty Canvas

  1. Goetz Kluge says:

    You may be getting close. The Snark is full of surprises: Henry Holiday’s art of deniability holds the beholders of his illustrations responsible for what they perceive. — Regards from Munich, Götz

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