PRINT February 1987


LAST SUMMER, THE 1986 Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography decided where it stood and published a report saying so. This article began as a response to that report. More and more, the idea of the forbidden image, and of how it relates to art history, to social history, and, inevitably, to social problems, came to the fore.

The word “pornography” is ancient Greek in origin, meaning, literally, the depiction of the activities of prostitutes. These would mostly have been sexual acts, but more generalized scenes of revelry might also have been included, and since in the ancient world houses of prostitution were regularly attached to temples—were, in fact, a part of the temple—all the activities in question, of whatever nature, would have involved a feeling quite different from the current connotations of “pornography.” In the Greco-Roman world the word simply described a type of subject matter among others, and one that was right out in the open among others. Makers of frescoes and panel paintings such as Aristides, Pausias, and Nicophanes were called “pornographers.”1 No less an artist than Parrhasius depicted explicit sexual engagements between mythological heroes and heroines.

In our day the word “pornography” has acquired a moralistic meaning, and has come to be associated with the word “obscene.” Both terms are relative. They have come to represent a lot, ranging not only collective taboos but also the realms of individual moral and ethical codes. Attempts to distinguish pornography from erotica by definition, subject matter, or even feeling tone are likely to slip through one crack after another. Only one thing is certain: the grasp that what lies behind these slippery issues has on our lives, deeply imbricating our most complex mechanisms of being. What lies behind the grasp involves labyrinthine complexities: questions about which images we cannot bear to look at, and why, or cannot live without, and why; questions about the longterm effects of the repression of images; about where the urge to ban images arises from in societies, about whether freedom of speech includes freedom of images, about whether we create our images or they create us.

Many, perhaps all cultures have had their bodies of forbidden images, and they have used them in various ways. Some ancient temples contained icons, sometimes sexual and sometimes not, that none but certain priests were allowed to see. These presumably functioned—on one level, anyway—as supports for the local power structure, but on another they probably inspired moods of worship or holy awe. Australian shamans still make objects with images on them, sometimes sexual and sometimes not, that they hide in caves or bury; no one else is ever supposed to see them. They are regarded as living forces at the shaman’s command. One supposes that there may be such a thing as a constructive use of forbidden images, that a generous and well-intentioned priest or shaman may use these forces for the common good. However, the forbidden image, historically, has been used to repressive ends that almost always, by their very nature, have had negative consequences. Plato advocated the wholesale repression of representational imagery so as to help to maintain an existing power structure—that is, to retard social change. Consciously or unconsciously, Byzantine and Muslim iconoclasts of the Middle Ages may have had similar goals; like Plato, they spoke of their motive as the idea that reality transcends representation, but the point here is that a reality declared to be beyond representation is implicitly declared to be beyond human reach. A social order that cannot be portrayed cannot be tinkered with.

Often, in fact, the forbidding of images—that is, of certain selected images—has to do with a denial of change and process, a denial that values may change or be relative, a belief that it will never be right to do certain things. Yet cross-cultural comparison shows little agreement on what those things might be. In the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., before the age of Greco-Roman erotic frescoes and panel paintings, Greek sculptors and painters regularly portrayed men naked and women clothed. This taboo is the opposite of ours; our culture seems to consider male frontal nudity much harder to look at than female. Each such taboo system, as it enters the stream of history, brings out by contrast the strangeness of the others.

The most historically persistent and influential tradition of forbidden images has been the repression, in Judeo-Christian and Islamic cultures, of most kinds of sexual imagery. Since we grew up under this prohibition it may seem normal to us, even necessary, just a given condition based on an unquestioned law of right and wrong. Yet explicit depictions of a variety of sexual acts are found openly in the artistic traditions of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, the Roman Empire, India, China, Africa, Oceania, pre-Columbian Central and South America, and elsewhere. Over the last millennium and a half the enormous expansion first of Islam, then of Christian colonial culture has virtually eliminated this kind of iconography, tending toward the creation of a fully dressed world in our own Judeo-Christian image. But the presence of sexual depictions in the art of past civilizations is sufficient to reveal the relativity of the Judeo-Christian stance.

Both Judaism and Islam, of course, went all the way, as Plato had recommended, in forbidding images. After divisive debate of the issue during its formative period, Christianity made a different decision. It developed an iconography that both incorporated and redefined visual elements borrowed from the Mediterranean and Near Eastern fertility religions among which it grew up, though in deep antagonism to them. From the Isis and Horus imagery of Egypt, for example, it adopted the motif of the mother with suckling babe, but it reversed the spiritual charge, the mother becoming a virgin, the son destined to remain celibate, and so on. From being icons of earthly fertility, these figures became icons of spiritual transcendence, of heaven. The general program of Christian art was to repress the sexual aspect of cultic imagery. Of course, over the centuries, the prohibition on sexual images hasn’t meant that artists don’t make them, but that they don’t exhibit them; nor does it mean that people don’t want to look at them, but that they hide their desire. Two image tracks have developed, one public, one hidden or taboo. This schizoid situation still has a strong hold today, and may be one of the reasons why a number of contemporary artists coming from a number of viewpoints—Louise Bourgeois, Carolee Schneemann, David Salle, and Robert Mapplethorpe are only a few of those who come to mind—have chosen to use sexual subject matter to express a probably more general will to creative freedom.

Nudity is extremely rare in the Christian art of medieval Europe, but it does appear, primarily in certain specialized applications almost always ethically negative. Adam and Eve are often portrayed hiding their nakedness, and the Good Samaritan may be shown covering a naked beggar; the point in both cases is the shame of nakedness. In paintings of the Last Judgment, the dead may rise naked from their graves, but those who are saved are clothed as soon as they enter heaven, if not before, while the damned often continue naked forever. In this art the true home of nudity is hell. Both the damned and devils may be portrayed nude; indeed, since the damned are by nature lewd, that is their appropriate condition.

In the Renaissance, with its explosion of interest in a knowledge of the Greco-Roman world, the rules were altered slightly. An early loosening of the stricture against nudity was the convention, from the 14th century onward, of portraying the infant god displaying his genitals. As Leo Sternberg has written, however, this was regarded as a theological demonstration not of his sexual nature, but of his mortality. (Sternberg has also demonstrated that in later centuries this ostentatio genitalium went more or less unremarked, so ingrained was the habit of not seeing genital iconography in respectable pictures.2) In the 15th and 16th centuries, more loosening of the rules occurred: the concept of the dignified or classical nude arose on Greco-Roman models. But here the loosening stopped. The taboo on the portrayal of sex acts remained in full force, locking in the dual image track. These two tracks, which have lasted on into the present, are exact inversions of each other: a high-art tradition, allowing some types of nude but practically no explicit sexual imagery, and a hidden or underground “pornographic” tradition containing nothing else, a genre founded on its own illicitness, unable to rise from the underworld into the light without the scent of the devil around it. The dual image track has remained remarkably stable over the last several centuries. It pervades our society in various forms: in publishing for example, one thinks of the pornography books and magazines kept below the counter, in the underworld, while the news, art, fashion, or trade magazines float above, as though in heaven.

The Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian aspects of our heritage are in a confrontational mood right now. Certain forces—market forces, religious forces, political forces—are trying to tie the knot of the dual image track even tighter, while opposing ones are trying to loosen it. To say that the freedom of the image is an underrecognized but crucial point in the social debate is to say a great deal; this mobility is the only road through which we may free ourselves from the pattern of our dual image track, and freedom from the patterns of our dual image track is in turn a necessary step toward freedom from the various social problems for which the image is so conveniently blamed in the “study” produced by the 1986 Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography. If we don’t confront—and dismantle—systems like the dual image track, we shall be locked into perpetuating these problems, seeing them as insoluble, locked into permanence by the continuing framework of repression, and by our resulting confusion about the roots of much social alienation, violence, and the lies that lead to illness.

The commission—it seems a living embodiment of the forces that would prevent any real comprehension of why there are images that we cannot bear to look at and at the same time cannot wait to look at—produced a lamentable example of so-called research. The almost-2,000-page-long “Final Report” is a tangle of inconsistencies, false logic, hypocrisy, and outright stupidity. More than half of the members came to their work with a preexisting bias; they had strong antipornography backgrounds, which seem, in fact, to have provided the basis for their selection. They tended uncritically to accept evidence from antipornography crusaders and from those who blamed problems from anorexia to drug addiction on exposure to pictures, as well as from sex offenders who blamed their crimes on images. Anticensorship witnesses, on the other hand, such as representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union, were cross-examined skeptically and critically. The report is full to bursting with self-contradictory attitudes on art, literature, psychology, and society.

Among the civil-liberty issues that the commissioners were implicitly charged to explore was the question of artistic self-expression. They seemed to know that they were over their heads here, becoming ludicrously entangled. In the end, their response is a virtual embodiment of the dual image track: on the one hand they advocate a repression of the sexual, of a kind represented socially by the familiar under-the-counter placement of sexual materials; on the other, still in awe of the aura of Greco-Roman civilization (from which, after all, came democracy), they feel a certain respect for art, which confuses them even as they feel it. As long as the duality of the image system is perfectly maintained—as long, that is, as sexuality is excluded totally from high art, and kept in the underworld—their distinctions are secure. But with any muddying of the distinctions—any leakage from one track to the other—they find their feet mired in the swamp of the history of representational dread.

In early Christian history, while Christian iconography reversed the significance of the fertility icons that it borrowed, the Church at the same time hunted down and destroyed pagan art that dealt with sexual subject matter, with the full conviction that this was the will of God. The defacement of Egyptian phallic icons at Luxor and Karnak stands as testimony to this period beside the burning of the poems of Sappho and Anacreon, and the destruction of the sexual paintings of Parrhasius and others. As mentioned before, the Renaissance, with its respect for the ancients, introduced the compromise of the nude (a compromise that despite their supposed acceptance of it one suspects from the tone of the report that the commissioners would like to rescind). The idea that the portrayal of nudity, without signs of sexual arousal or engagement, is exempt from charges of lewdness if it occurs in a high-art context stems from the Greco-Roman belief that art draws the mind toward higher things, a belief that has been extended to imply that the viewer whose mind has been elevated by the art effect is temporarily immune to lewd stimulations.

In the four centuries or so that this compromise has been in effect it has been variously perceived. In periods of especially intense sexual repressiveness, times when the cultural roundabout has offered next to nothing to satisfy the urge to see, then art, with its license to portray nudity, has come to seem a libertine zone, despite the extremely limited range of sexual material that is really permitted in it. One hears about times when in many American cities nudity could only be publicly displayed in the studio classrooms of art academies, and publicly represented only in oil paintings and marble or bronze sculpture. Lacking other representations of flesh and blood, some gazed at these works with a prurient eye, taking the potential complexity, insight, tenderness, or criticality of naked human self-representation as no more than a trigger of the same kind of response that they accorded the “dirty” or illicit. Though real sexual subject matter has been basically excluded from art, still, to some, it has often seemed that artists get away with murder, in the cliché of their bohemian milieu of models and pleasure. Similarly, porn flicks claimed the misnomer “art films,” seeking to shelter themselves under art’s marble colonnades. All this in combination with a generalized awe (the feminist exceptions to be discussed later) for art’s cultural auratic value makes art the problem child in the commission’s otherwise cut-and-dried world. The participants constantly contradict themselves on the subject: for example, while claiming to allow that artistic needs can justify erotic subject matter, they denounce what they call “lewd exhibition of the genitals,” in other words frontal nudity without the fig leaf—a prohibition that would exclude, among other works, the Christian ostentatio genitalium. And in the chapter entitled “History of Pornography” the commissioners include the Greco-Roman erotic frescoes of Pompeii and Herculaneum, for example, and tantric erotic art, simply assuming that these genres are pornographic, although they were not offensive to the societies in which they were made.

The perception of art as pornographic is not unique to the commission. In 1982, Newsweek magazine printed on its cover a reproduction of a painting by William Bailey showing a frontal view of a partially naked woman. The cover accompanied a story on the “revival of realism” in the arts, actually a related revival to the simultaneous emergence of “neo-Expressionism” and the “return to the figure”; these, of course, meant a return to the body, and to the whole realm of our culture’s problems with body imagery, after a long period of avoiding them through the favoring of abstract art. Bailey had broken none of the rules of the sheltered zone of art within the Renaissance convention of nudity. Yet a number of Newsweek’s readers were startled by the painting, and reacted to it, like early Christians who had never heard of the Renaissance change in the rules, as if it were plainly and simply pornographic. There were canceled subscriptions, irate letters and phone calls; some stores refused to carry the issue. (There may also have been, of course, those purchasers who bought it especially for the cover.) When a recent issue of Newsweek included a photography article on “The Return of the Nude,” the illustrations were conspicuously nonsexual. Artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe and John Coplans, who are known for setting explicit body imagery, including genitalia, before the public’s eye, were represented by tame offerings—an arm and a surreal back—situated somewhat off-center of their work as a whole. The two self-portraits that involved even partial frontal or crouching nudity were female. Regardless of the intentions of the female photographers, or of the male author of the article, the implicit hold of the dual image track over the piece rendered the photographs only more business as usual, more objectification of the female body for the titillation of the male gaze. One suspects that for some it was more art-porn, so to speak.

The issue of how women subjects become objects for the delectation of the male eye has created a strange rapprochement, lurking in the commission’s report but more visible elsewhere, between the religious right (conceivably the part of the population least sympathetic to women’s rights) and a segment of feminists—both groups that reject the sheltered zone of art. Law professor Catharine MacKinnon and author Andrea Dworkin, for example, who were both sympathetically interviewed by the commission, have proposed that pornography is a civil-rights violation of all women, and that this violation takes precedence over First Amendment rights. MacKinnon would prohibit the portrayal of nudity in painting if it reinforced “male supremacist sexuality”3 and thus perpetuated what Susanne Kappeler has elsewhere called “a paradigm of domination” or “archeplot of subjugation” that runs through our image system at all levels, from top to bottom, not just underneath the counter. The fact that the name of the creator may be famous does not necessarily change the nature of the product, Kappeler has argued, on the ground that attributions of quality in art arise from a system of misogynist circularity. The antipornography religious right has similarly suggested that, say “pornography” by Rembrandt is still pornography. Kappeler also refuses to exempt famous works of literature from the label of pornography.4 Here she differs from the commission, which, perhaps intimidated by strong Supreme Court decisions on behalf of literature, such as the one that allowed James Joyce’s Ulysses into America, suggested that literary cases not be prosecuted (while, by the way, advocating citizen vigilante action against the stuff in the adult book stores).

What is occurring in the impulse to reject representation of sexuality, to legislate lines that cannot be crossed, whether from a feminist or from a repressive point of view, is a sweeping attack on one of our principle means of self-knowledge. Attempts to legislate a correct-minded kind of representation can only result in a hypocritical masking of ourselves. For it is we ourselves who are objectified in our images, high and low; it is we who are represented. One of the functions that representation performs is to create a place where insights into our mental and cultural condition—our dreams, our fears, our unspoken assumptions and fantasies—are made obtainable, precisely by being objectified. Even a sexist system of representation, dedicated to the perpetuation of sexist values, can be a means whereby we can become aware of these values, can see them explicitly rather than tacitly expressed.

There is no one way to describe erotic imagery, since its form has been as various as the cultures that have produced it. The work of eroticists like Sappho, Petronius, Catullus, John Donne, George Gordon Lord Byron, Georges Bataille, Djuna Barnes, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Pablo Picasso, and others, though it may, in a highly repressed society, find itself so to speak under the counter, was not intended to land there, and functions differently from the types of work that were aimed at that venue. It tends, for example, to present sexuality in the context of a surrounding world of values within which one must confront relationships and the difficulties of coming to terms with them. The invention of photography provided a bridge between erotica and the mass-market hard-core pornography of today Nineteenth-century erotic photographs, for example, many of them still hidden today in specialized private collections, involved a variety of gestures toward high-cultural traditions along with the transgression of these traditions’ limits or taboos. The modern market’s hard-core porn photograph or film, on the other hand, has basically one stylistic code, which, from a number of standpoints, has nothing artful or beautiful about it. In this underworld genre, either a lone participant acts out a fantasy for the viewer (for example, in the centerfold image) or two or more participants are directed and photographed through formal modes—for example, through a decapitating camera style that emphasizes gender details and deemphasizes the face—in which personality and responsibility are denied. To a degree, this denial of relationship, which is in direct opposition to the ethics of art, is the essence of mass-market pornography. Relationship brings with it moral demands that the consumer of pornography seeks precisely to escape. Anonymous, the actors are free to do what the scene requires, and the observer may feel a similar anonymity and freedom.

The industry of pornography is not about fertility; not about sexual pleasure in the celebratory mode of Greco-Roman erotic frescoes; not about assimilating the human to nature, as inTaoist erotic painting. As Dworkin and others have said, it is about power—specifically, about a kind of secret power based on the possession of an object that is almost not object, almost part of the subject, since its complicity is a foregone conclusion. In the closed booth, in the private room, in the mind’s eye, in the secret dark, no one can intervene between the masterful ego and its gratification. Power also pervades the common pornographic plot of the “reluctant lover,” as folklorists call it—in plain words, one party to the sexual activity does not want to participate in it, and the narrative hinges around either the reversal or the transgression of that party’s will.

The jagged edge of this underworld genre, which leads feminists and others to describe it—rightly, of course—as particularly degrading to women and children, arises in part from its inability to contact the theme of fertility It is a kind of grotesque parody of the old fertility cults, a parody in which communal rites often become secretive power games among the isolated. Indeed, the genre defines itself negatively, relating not so much to stimuli as to systems of prohibitions. An anthropological researcher could deduce from the contents of a porn shop the whole system of taboos in the surrounding culture—practically the contents of the law books. Yet the cruel, aggressive mood of many examples of pornography seems to be a response to certain additional conditions—a feeling of personal powerlessness that finds relief in the solitary moment of felt or fantasized power, a feeling of entrapment that requires a compensating fantasy of absolute freedom or license, a loneliness and powerlessness, often associated with modern life (especially modern urban life), which result in feelings of alienation from society’s official values.

The still photograph is currently the primary mode of mass-market pornography, with film and video not far behind. These media, of course, are ontologically different from the media that arose before them. In a film or photograph of an action, as opposed to a painting or sculpture, people must necessarily have actually performed the action for the camera. For Dworkin and other members of the Women Against Pornography group, this means that women and children are being exploited and abused to make pornographic pictures. For the commissioners it means not only that an actual rather than a fantasized sex act has been committed (and not for purposes of procreation), but also that the viewer’s desire to imitate the image is increased by an awareness of its reality, feasibility, availability to others as a living option. The whole argument of the “Final Report,” of course, is that pornography might turn people into rapists and murderers.

What evidence exists does not encourage this view. Although the complex of iconographic qualities enshrined in the pulp industry’s hard-core pornography—anonymity, unwillingness to acknowledge a personality in the other party, absolute possession of the other regardless of the other’s will—does suggest parallels with a criminal mentality, the parallel between pornography’s psychology and violence should not be manipulated into a deceptively simple connection; just because they share the same mechanisms does not mean that one creates the other. This aspect of the report, dominated by the concept of the passive human motivated by the active image, ignores any studies suggesting either that there is no cause-and-effect chain leading from sexual imagery to violence, or that the chain is reversed—that is, that the proliferation of such imagery actually forestalls the acting out of impulses to violence. Nor does it discuss the record of countries where pornography, after being repressed, has been legalized. In Denmark, by 1969, for example, written and pictorial pornography was legalized for sale to anyone over age 15; in the next six years the rate of sexual assault on children dropped dramatically.

The crux of the “Final Report” is its abandonment of the moral relativism of the ’60s and ’70s, which had been locked in place not only culturally but legally. In 1973, in Miller v. California, the Supreme Court required that obscenity be judged by local standards, recognizing that standards change from place to place, and that within the same place they change with the passage of time. According to this ruling, in other words, nothing can be regarded as absolutely and inherently obscene; things can only be obscene in relation to their context. The commissioners are basically not relativists but absolutists. They pay lip service to the Miller decision, but many features of their report indicate that they don’t really accept it or the attitudes behind it.

What is at issue, and what the repressive urge too easily ignores, is the relationship between official and unofficial culture, between humanity and its images, and how these forces constantly reflect one another. Fundamentally, the issue is the nature of the social contract. The dual-track system and those, such as the commissioners, who end up paradoxically supporting it and its inevitable losses of freedom—who end up helping to push expressions of mind/body into an underworld of lies, distortions, and denials—breach a basic social contract that holds that humans have a right, or, better, an obligation, to see clearly their natural situation from life to death. The grotesquerie that this moralist masquerade promises to bring forth can hardly be exaggerated. The commission’s thinking is rigid where it should be relative, and its system of order is constricting rather than revelatory of a way to live with both nature and culture.

Humanity’s distinguishing mark as a species has often been regarded as its special self-consciousness about its situation, purposes, and achievements—humanity, in other words, is defined by its need to see itself not only in its changing expressions of selfhood but also in its foundation in sex and death. Narcissus leaning over the stream, rapt by his own image, is on one level an emblem of civilization’s beginnings in human self-awareness. The need to see ourselves clearly is the need that makes us what we call “human”—including all the connotative variations of that word, such as “humane” and “humanistic.” When images of our nature and culture are forbidden, the need to see them is not canceled; the images scuttle into the dark, and we are tempted to illicit glimpses offered as substitutes for them. When we relate to these as to the real thing, we become, to whatever degree, lies. One lie breeds another, breeds, as it were, the grotesque results of our fabrications: the peep shows, the violence, et cetera. This is a strange way to relate to ourselves. Yet it is what we are left with.

In our art, death, like sex, is a highly restricted content, appearing traditionally only in nationalistic/heroic contexts (that is, scenes of war), in contexts such as Christian doublespeak (as the Christ child’s genitals point not to fertility but to mortality, so the adult Christ’s death is held to point not to natural death but to eternal life), and recently in apocalyptic imagery that abstracts the subject from individual to universal meaning. The direct, personal appearance of death in works of art is rare. Death, like sex, is as it were relegated to the lower side of the dual image track, the part we prefer to censor in one way or another. With our inherited doctrine of divine retribution and immortality, death seems a special judgment as sex seems a special privilege. The casualness of death, its universal random application, is hidden like another dirty secret. When people age, we put them into homes, avoiding awareness of the decay of the body; keeping their image in virtual isolation from the world, we avoid awareness of their end—and our own. This strange repression system is tied up with the doctrine of the soul, which seems to suggest that we have really neither beginning nor end.

There is something deep and troubling to think about (but not in the way they want us to) in the commissioners’ insistence that sexual imagery in effect causes death. One often hears that movies and prime-time television contain little but sex and death. But neither of them comes close to their subjects. The sex is not natural and downy and animal; the death is usually either bound up with ideas of justice or heroically prevented, rather than the mere random scything of a little girl struck by a car, of a young man wasted by a faulty smoke detector, of a virus attacking huge numbers, or simply of the aged or sick. These distorted portrayals of our own reality and our own fate gush over us in an unending flood. This force helps to keep us far from what is real about ourselves and our lives. Alluding to both the high track and the low of our dual system, it helps hold them apart by its intrusion of new fakeries into the ground between them, adding as it were a third track which feeds itself on the emptiness of both the others. The commodification made out of our need to see sex and death, even if only in a grotesque version, perpetuates this third track. Meanwhile, in the hinterlands of the cable channels, the Christian programs and the porn programs fight it out. Actually, they are the newest coconspirators in a long history, and their comrades, the fake-violence shows, or the docudramas about rape, are their inevitable and proper offspring, the fruit of the hidden embrace of the prude and the pimp.

We are viewers of images from three different levels of an interlocking system. In the high-art track, images of human origins and ends are pushed away; they constitute the great gaping hole in the reality represented by that art. In the lower track, a sense of the fullness or complexity of the human personality is forbidden, another great absence. From the middle track—that of the popular media—all real imagery is excluded: neither sex, death, nor human personality is dealt with honestly there. Hemmed in by false or at least partial and censored images of ourselves, we cannot see our way out of the maze. We have to think our way out. Only by exploring how these different types of images come to be can we hope to construct the sense of wholeness that lies scattered among them. But to think about images one must have them available to be seen.

The fact that we live in the midst of pervasive fictions creates terrors. In each of our minds is a door that we prefer not to open, and hope never will be opened. Behind it lurk the images we find unbearable to look at or imagine. For some of us, including the commission members, many of the images behind the door are sexual, or, rather, they are some brand of that terrifying melange of sex and death. The question is whether it is preferable to open that door or to slam it shut and hold it down with all our might. To open it just out of curiosity or childish eagerness is to run the risk of trivializing its contents by desensitizing ourselves to their profundity This is useless. However, to open it with a desire to learn about ourselves and the way our images work is to confront the facts of our lives. It is to accept nature. To some, that acceptance renders civilization trivial because it emphasizes the vaster forces of life and death within which culture is perilously and perhaps briefly nurtured. But to refuse that acceptance, to slam shut that door, is actively to ensure that civilization will be trivial.

Thomas McEvilley is a venter who lives in New York. He is a contributing editor of Artforum and a professor at the Institute for the Arts Rice University Houston.



1. Athenaeus, Deipnosphistae, book XIII, sections 566–67.

2. Leo Steinberg, “The Sexuality of Christ Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion,” October 25, Summer 1983. Also published under the same title, as a book, New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.

3. Quoted in Philip Nobile and Eric Nadler, United States of America Vs. Sex, New York: Minotaur Press, 1986, p. 61.

4. Susanne Kappeler, The Pornography of Representation, Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1986, pp. 109 ff.