Guest post: Never mind that Renoir said he painted with his prick

Originally a comment by Tim Harris on Properly Appreciated.

I think that this curious refusal to recognise what is actually there in these paintings has a great deal to do with the long tradition of pretending that in ‘high art’ (in particular the ‘high arts’ of painting and sculpture) there is no real eroticism because the erotic (and dangerous) is somehow rendered innocuous and un-erotic by the ‘aesthetic’ values of the work, and that it is the aesthetic values only that the properly high-minded lover of the arts, schooled by Kant, is cognisant of. Never mind that Renoir said he painted with his prick. Never mind all those nudes, from Rubens to Goya and Manet. Never mind the obvious homo-eroticism of some of Michelangelo’s works, or, say, of Bertel Thorvaldsen’s sculptures of shepherd boys and a variety of young men displaying their genitals. Certainly those I have mentioned are great artists, and their work, though deeply erotic, does not have the voyeuristic quality that Balthus’s work displays, but it is deeply erotic – and appeals to coldly aesthetic values really do not make it less erotic. The power of these works lies in their eroticism, as does Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Theresa. But nearly the whole of the post-kantian tradition in art criticism has consisted in a denial of, in particular, the erotic in art.

I am reminded by these paintings of Balthus of Iachimo’s great and greatly disturbing speech in Innogen’s bedroom in Cymbeline; soliloquies in Shakespeare’s time were intended to be spoken to the audience, as though to some trusted friend. Iachimo’s speech is horribly voyeuristic, but the disturbing thing about it is his unstated expectation that the audience will be on his side, allies in voyeurism, enjoying what is his abuse of the sleeping Innogen. But Iachimo’s speech takes place in a context, and by putting the audience in the uncomfortable position of being spoken to as though they were enjoying the voyeurism as much as he, the audience is made aware of dimensions and a standpoint beyond this vicious closeness, and the speech is judged. There is no such judgement in Balthus’s paintings, which assume that the viewer is as much a voyeur as he is.

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