Anonymous: Where have all the massive cocks gone?

In mid-2013 Stuart Shave, the director of Modern Art exhibited a series of preparatory drawings by Tom of Finland. The show consisted of thirty figurative works that were studies for the artists’ highly finished depictions of gay sex.

These delicious campy pencil marks depicted cocks; engorged, straining, swollen, blood and cum filled, throbbing helmeted, bursting, pendulous pricks! A militant sexual fuck-fest of same sex desire in bars, dungeons, on motor-bikes, cruising grounds…a world of sodomising strangers clad in leather chaps and denim jeans. Have you got the idea yet?

These defiant images, though sophisticated in their execution, contain a vulgarity and crudeness that is aggressive and assertive, an urgency in their desire that is blunt and unapologetic. Revisiting these images made me wonder: where are the defiant gender politics in contemporary art?

Homophobia, sexism and misogyny seem to have been banished from contemporary art circles. For example, the media and cultural theorists seem to have made a good job of making feminism seem like an historical moment rather than an on-going, crucial and urgent debate. Take for example the work of the Guerrilla Girls: the all female artist collective active in the 1990’s, who through a series of very public campaigns and interventions made the focus of their work around the economic inequality and lack of representation of women artists (both white and non-white) in major museums and galleries. To the eyes and ears of the third wave and post-feminist artists of today their work seems almost pedestrian. Yet, in a contemporary art world and art school system that fosters competitive individualism, they refuse to proclaim their identities by choosing to wear gorilla masks and referring to themselves by historical, female artists names (thus challenging the sexism of the art historical canon). This seems both relevant and current as a critique of the modes through which both female and male artists make work today.

Fast-forward to a performance made by Eddie Peak for Cell Project Space in 2012. A selection of muscular men in red football shorts writhe about the gallery in a work that fuses contemporary dance, homoeroticism, ritual and classical representations of the male body. The frisson that this performance generated seemed in part to come from the fact that this artist (who identifies himself as straight) often uses the naked male body in his works; indeed, if you follow his web-link it leads you to an animation of a massive swinging cock.  This cock is not the dangerous and joyful cock of Finland’s world, but the style-over-content, empty pose of Po-Mo coolness that politely titillates the contemporary London art world.

To look at many of the galleries exhibiting work in London today, you could be mistaken in thinking that gender politics are off the agenda, a done deal, nothing more to say. Yet this could also be a symptom of the general neutralising of radical forms of gender politics that is happening within wider culture. An example of this is the debate surrounding gay marriage. Rather than this being seen as a pernicious attempt to tether alternative gender relations and ways of being to a conservative notion of coupledom endorsed by the state, the Left allowed themselves to be hoodwinked into thinking this was a debate purely about equality, participation and the ‘right’ for gay people to get married. This is just one example of the urgent and dangerous climate of neo-liberalism that we are living in, but where is the contemporary art that is responding to and critiquing this? Homophobia, rape, sexual inequality: these things have not gone away but the ‘art scene’ seems to be content to allow these issues to be debated in the popular media or Twitter rather than seizing them back as subjects for artists to be actively involved in. If art is to become invested, urgent and more than just a genteel pastime for the ‘cool’ and the middle classes, it must wrestle back its position and opt into these cultural debates in strident and unapologetic ways.

Gender politics, rather than being seen as a passé and exhausted terrain should be re-asserting its importance in the art-world and within art institutions, because these are the very kinds of politics that can address issues that reach beyond style and spectacle to a real investigation of difference and representation. Artists involved in this area of cultural production need to return to an assertive, politically aware and questioning position. It may mean causing offence, it may mean abandoning the polite style politics of London’s contemporary art scene and actually making work that looks beyond the market for its validation. This work may be rough around the edges, even maybe critically crude, but it may see work that once more has content and political investment.

This article was originally part of Pamphlets, a publication by Artquest in 2014, where artists and art world professionals were invited to write anonymously about what’s wrong with the art world.


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