Kissing for Art’s Sake

by Kimberly Seto on August 6, 2014


An image from Jedediah Johnson’s The Makeout Project (all images courtesy the artist)

A kiss. Two mouths. Sometimes a tongue. A universal act that can both unite and isolate. Politically, religiously and culturally, a kiss can take many forms. It can express everything from lust to hatred. From mundane to spontaneous, it continuously shocks and surprises people. Specifically, artists are captivated by the kiss.

What is it about kissing that artists are trying to capture? A sensual — private and public —event that is engaged in worldwide. Yet, it seems there is still something magical that artists continue to document.

In Jedediah Johnson’s photo series The Makeout Project (blog), he deconstructs the kiss into the essentials of the act itself — adding, of course, red lipstick, willing participants, and a camera. Johnson’s makeout partners are marked with lipstick and their reactions documented. Describing the inspiration of his project, Johnson told Hyperallergic:

My interest was sparked by an evening I spent in the driveway of a girl named Emily Zeiss back in 1997. That was the time/place/chosen collaborator of my first kiss. I think when I came up with the idea to kiss people for art I was hoping that my make out sessions with subjects would be as exhilarating as that first kiss and, in fact, every other kiss I’d experienced.


The emotion on the participants’ faces move from joy to discomfort as they stare into Johnson’s lens. His series feels human, funny, and a bit odd. What is most striking about Johnson’s series is his blunt, yet ingenious approach to capture the kiss. Straying from Tino Seghal’s invisible kissing act, Johnson brands his companions, leaving evidence of the act, and inviting the viewer to piece the story together.

Johnson’s project has had mixed reviews with comments ranging from delightful to exploitative. In response to his critics Johnson admits: “Nobody is wrong. Photography is inherently exploitive as is human intimacy.”

There appears to be something less exhibitionist about Johnson’s work in comparison to Seghal’s “Kiss” or British fashion photographer Rankin’s Snog series. Unlike Seghal and Rankin, whose work dances in between private and public, Johnson’s red lipstick beckons the viewer to acknowledge the presence of his kiss. His work relies on the evidence of the kiss, rather than a performance of the visceral act of kissing. His series is slightly more demure, yet still visually arousing.


Simply showing people kiss is not enough for contemporary artists. Fluctuating from paintings to sculptures to performances to tubes of red lipstick, it seems that contemporary art is bent on embodying the kiss. Johnson comments on contemporary art’s kiss:

That common experience of kissing and its nearly unbreakable connection to an emotional response is probably why several artists are using kissing in their work … When people are kissed or they see other people kissing there is a moment when their frontal lobes shut down, the limbic system kicks in, and they just feel their emotions. They get embarrassed. The get aroused. Sometimes they even get angry. The important thing is that they feel. That’s art. 

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  • Meghan

    i’m not sure that these images do anything other than illustrate male dominance and corollary submission of the subject (female or male). The claim that this artist, “deconstructs the kiss into the essentials of the act itself,” is false: this artist limits the viewer experience of kissing to the male gaze, the male experience of action ON an object rather than it being a multiperspectival act (which would in fact be the essential components of a kiss, it’s not a one person experience). Adding red lipstick as a literal drawing on the subject, painting dominance on the face is not a deconstruction but a construction, a layering of this man’s power to kiss you (not a mutual experience, nothing equal in these images at all), marking the face of another. I’m not sure that kissing on strangers constitutes art, frankly, (illustration, sure; art? I’m not convinced) as it is neither expressive nor does it question or subvert existing norms, which has been traditionally part of the equation of art making (if not simply for beauty or expression or truth-seeking). Rather, these images completely reinscribe the male gaze, reiterate the centrality, the omnipotency of male experience (already the standard to which everything is held and judged, not to mention whiteness), and reinforce male dominance in kissing — something that has historically been the norm in the language and acts of love/romance (men/lovers win their subject over, subjects are supposed to submit to overwhelming male feelings of love towards the love object, since middle ages, minimum; see chivalry). The artist and author act as if the images are doing something new and, given my understanding of history and patriarchy, I’m pretty sure they’re doing the exact opposite. These images are challenging not for the reasons claimed, but because they very unabashedly capture patriarchal culture, the underpinnings of rape culture. They are “arousing” for men to look at, indicates the author. No kidding. Through portraying a man’s hand on the object, owning it, dominating it, they show a man acting a kiss out ON something, not a mutual experience of people expressing feelings on/towards each other. These photo aren’t expression in the true sense of the word (see Collingwood), nor are they particularly creative either, IMO. They wholly participate in the approved formula of “public engagement” that conceals the artist’s ego in the whole thing, which limits their ability to be a pure expression and they’re a pretty slick high-five to status quo — c’est a dire, questionable as “art” at best, IMO.

    I appreciate that they prompt reflection on the gap between what they claim to be and what they actually ARE. While I don’t think that’s grounds enough to call it art, it’s worth critical consideration of what we include in the art header at least and worth thinking about the place that shaking up normative views and truly creative, unique POVs belong in this whole art endeavor thing. There’s not much that’s personal or vulnerable in these, other than the look of slightly vulnerable violation in each subjects eyes. I would ask for vulnerability on the part of my fellow artists (not her/his models), as that is what has traditionally lead to personal work that resonates on a universal level rather than generating projects that smack of a generic, culturally normative POV.

    Thanks to everyone for your consideration of my dissent, my disagreement. These are my opinions and I respect the author and the artist and our right to have unique points of view on these images. Peace and continued art-making.

    • Thank you for properly forming and communicating your opinion. Most people that comment just say I’m disgusting and call it a day. I’m a little bummed that you find so much male domination in these. This is one of the many times I wish I were a woman so that my gestures weren’t read as violent. Also I would like to try one of those wave orgasms I’ve read so much about.

      One thing I will fight you on is the idea that anything is questionable as “art”. Art is bigger than any of us and I don’t feel that anyone has a right to declare what is and is not art. We can hate everything about it but it’s still art.

    • Seph

      I disagree. I think you’ve put the cart before the horse. What drives the image, if it has any affective power at all is the evidence of aftermath, of having been there. There are traces of the other mouth (presumably) that are left on one mouth, in smeared lipstick. The experience of action on an object (in this case I suppose that is the face we see), I do not see as particularly male. This is human. You assert that a depiction of an action from a variety of perspectives would be particularly female. This sounds like some essentializing falsity.

      Also, I don’t see how you read dominance in these faces, when what seems more likely and reasonable is friction, contact and a kind of search in which the surface of the face becomes disheveled. And again, you read the lipstick being smeared as evidence of the man’s power to kiss, but then there is the male portrait and you don’t seem to countenance that. I don’t see how the power to kiss is rendered as particularly male when the index of the (past tense) kiss is a particularly female symbol of femininity and power: the power (typically) of a woman to mark and to leave evidence of having had a man (or woman), though it really is meant to be a kind of beauty trope. And plus why is it power? Is it the hand on the face? You could make a case for that, but don’t.

      Just because a thing or image doesn’t demonstrate mutuality does not mean it must perforce represent dominance. The problem with your understanding of patriarchy and cultural norms is that it is so lacking in nuance that they become for you the demiurge of the entire social and artistic worlds. They are the totalizing discourse that delimits art experience in such as way that it seems unless obvious gestures are made in the direction of mutuality or multiperspectival the resulting work or action must be read as patriarchal.

      In addition, I don’t see how you can accuse the artist of acting like he’s done something new. Of what would that acting consist? That he has shown the photographs?

      Honestly, it’s like you been armed with a (blinkered) understanding of patriarchy and with that hammer in hand, now most everything you encounter looks like a nail.

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