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Does Fine Art Have a Penis Problem?

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L.A. by L.A. “Larry” Iversen

There are those who love art, but draw a line at nudes. There are those who appreciate nudes, but only when they’re “tasteful” — which is really just socially acceptable code for “sanitized” (that is, not explicitly showing genitalia). But even among those with an appreciation for the raw energy of the explicit nude, there is a line beyond which an overwhelming majority still will not cross…

Fine art has a penis problem, and it has more to do with you, than you think.

Before I go further, let me acknowledge two things: First, there are penises in classical and fine art. For anyone fortunate enough to make it to Angst Gallery’s Celebration of the Male Form show in January, as well as Kinkfest, Seattle Erotic Arts Fest, and the occasional show at one or another niche venue around town, we get to see from time to time some very pleasing and thoughtful artwork in this vein. And there are many fine, accomplished artists both in the area and around the world who tackle this subject matter… head on. Second, the world is actually awash with images of the penis — breaking through what’s considered “socially acceptable” (even by the most accepting standard), we encounter a vast, generally unexamined trove of subterranean vulgarity, of which porn and the phenomenon of the “dick pic” are at the forefront.

So where’s the disconnect? Why is it such an uphill battle for a serious artist to find acceptance for the exploration of this critical material? How can something so prevalent in society and important in current discourse receive such a visceral pushback from across the board, even from enlightened corners of all, but the most edgy liberal thought? How is it that the artistic impulse to explore this basic human feature gets lost in a tidal wave of female figure studies, while so obvious an appetite for this form of artistic expression goes unmet?

As a curator of erotic and sexual fine art for over a decade, I’ve had the chance to observe this dynamic first-hand, and made some obvious and some not-so-obvious observations.

Untitled Life Drawing” by Ferocious Blue Cycad

First an obvious one: Living in a straight-male-dominated society has the counterintuitive consequence that its most direct symbolic representation goes unacknowledged — by the dominant class as unnecessary and threatening, and by the subordinated as an unwanted reminder.

Stemming from this, I see additional unexpected consequences. To begin with, the overwhelming majority of artists exhibiting erotic art are photographers, and the overwhelming majority of them are straight and male. While a small number of them are willing to produce explicit male nudes, and a number of other non-male, non-straight, and/or non-photographic artists are able to put forward similar work, their numbers pale in comparison, and among the majority, I’ve directly perceived a tangible if unspoken aversion to considering an artistic approach to the penis. It’s a visceral rejection, not just a casual dismissal due to lack of interest or perceived audience.

Then there is the model community. Even male models eager to pose nude are often — not always, but often — reluctant to go so far as to model their primary sexual feature. While men’s willingness to photograph their own penises in a non-artistic manner these days seems to know no limits, all but the most professional are frequently, inexplicably, reduced to quivering bags of uncertainty when presented with the chance to be photographed in their glory. Second thoughts and no-shows — already an issue throughout the erotic modeling scene — skyrocket. And for better or worse, it’s the amateurs and semi-pros, not the seasoned professionals, that drive the grassroots erotic art scene. Acceptance and encouragement of them — by both themselves and the artistic community — is a problem.

Next there are the curators. I’m happy to say that I’m seeing a much more welcoming scene for explicit male nudes than existed even just a few years ago, between fine art shows like Angst’s and Kinkfest’s, the sex club community we feature in these pages, and bars like Crush and Local Lounge. It’s been a slow revolution though, and word is still getting out that there’s more to the scene than an establishment that just embraces the female nude, rolls its eyes at explicit genitalia, and draws a hard line when it come to depicting the male organ.

Finally there’s the audience — that’s you. My feeling from talking to audience members over the years is that there’s a lot of pent up interest in freeing the artistic expression of the penis… and at the same time, a vocal minority quick to talk it down as glorified pornography. It is that voice, and the sway it holds over us, that needs to be examined and questioned.

My feeling (and it’s just that, a feeling) is that there are a large number of you who are reading this right now — men, women and all other possibilities of the gender rainbow — saying to yourself, “Yes, I want to create/model/appreciate that!” So I want to issue you this challenge: Models, find the artists who want you! Artists, find the spaces to show your work! And people, dear people… go and experience the artistry of this under-appreciated aspect of the human form.

With that I leave you with a final question we owe it to ourselves to consider, if we’re really going to level this playing field: Is there any chance at all, that the female form actually is more artistic than the male?

To that end, consider a parable I just made up:

A famous professor of art informs his class one day that he has purchased a wonderful new one-of-a-kind photographic fine art print, the subject of which is a compositional study of a vulva. After a brief wave of surprised gasps passes through the assembly, the professor asks if anyone would like to offer any commentary.

The first to speak expresses the concern that such a piece of art may be at risk of being objectifying. Murmurs ripple through the class, prompting another young person to respond that as a woman and an artist, they consider such a representation to be empowering and inspiring. Then another speaks about it’s symbolism as a gateway to life. Another chimes in to praise the aesthetic value of its lines, curves and forms. Recovering from a slow start, a spirited discussion comes through, and the class leaves feeling invigorated for their time.

A week later, the class convenes again, and the professor makes a new announcement: He has acquired another piece from the same artist, this time depicting the male sex organ, and again, he asks for comments.

A cautious murmur bubbles through the class. A student begins to question whether it’s demeaning, then hesitates. Another starts to talk about the visual forms, but trails off. Several classmates try to tackle its symbolism, then sputter to a halt. After a time, a small voice pipes up from the back of the hall.

“Um, Professor…,” says the student, “We can’t actually tell you anything about what it means, ‘til you tell us if it’s hard or soft.”

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