Art

An Exhibition About Erotic Desire Suffers from Being Overly Sexy

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Installation view of ‘Hardcore: A Century & a Half of Obscene Imagery’ at the Museum of Sex, New York (all images courtesy the Museum of Sex)

How should a sex museum excite visitors while staying true to a sex-positive mission?

This question haunts Hardcore: A Century & a Half of Obscene Imagery, the Museum of Sex’s recently opened permanent exhibition that assembles erotic films, photographs, booklets, and drawings from the past 150 years to prove that our ancestors — yes, even those seemingly prim Victorians — had erotic desires as expansive and imaginative as yours or mine.

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“Untitled Photograph of Woman Inserting Candle” (c. 1890–1900), from the Collection of Mark Rotenberg (click to enlarge)

Long before 1972’s Deep Throat, Victorian-era photographers captured all kinds of sex acts, from ejaculation (that sought-after “money shot”), to same-sex and fetish scenes. Several photographs in Hardcore combine multiple tropes, for example, images of women penetrating each other with candlesticks, an experiment in early, homespun dildos.

Also on view are “stag films,” which were silent erotic films screened in secret for men in clubhouses, private homes, or brothels. The most memorable example is “Eveready Harton,” a punnily-titled, late-1920’s cartoon porno allegedly made for famous comic strip artist Winsor McCay. The title character is not human, but genital: a gargantuan, oblong member that coaxes Eveready toward every girl and creature in his path. (And some inanimate objects, too.)

Sexual artifacts like these make clear that generations past were far from prudish or asexual, as popular conception might have us believe, and as was reflected in official historical record until challenged by Foucauldian and feminist historians throughout the past few decades. What remains unclear from the artifacts’ staging, though, is whether Hardcore curators intend us to draw this conclusion with a straight face or a smirk.

The confusion lies in the exhibition’s sexy design choices, which undercut its scholarly heft and make a walk through the galleries feel like a game of adult peek-a-boo. Just watch this promo video, full of simmering jazz and red strobe lights, to see the speakeasy-cum-museum atmosphere Hardcore promises.

A far cry from the white cube, here, gallery walls are painted black; the left lighting comically dim, recalling, at best, a shabby porn palace, at worst, the inside of a basement. Some texts are so difficult to read they are de facto censored.

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“Untitled Photograph of Couple with Whip,” artist unknown (c. 1905–1910), collection of Mark Rotenberg (click to enlarge)

Evoking a basement might be intentional. Many of the objects in Hardcore come from private collections, hidden away during their owners’ lifetimes for fear of ostracism or indecency arrest — a particular risk to those whose materials showed queer sex. But if the Museum of Sex’s mission is to “advocate open discourse surrounding sex and sexuality,” it seems an odd, misguided curatorial choice to cast an illicit light (or lack thereof) on the objects on view.

Hardcore’s kitschy exhibition design does little to dispel the notion that the films and photographs on view are dirty, or even shameful, begging the question: how would Hardcore make its bygone porn collectors feel — liberated, or just plain embarrassed?

As the first room of Hardcore reminds us, there’s no need for such coyness. Humans have always made and circulated smut, evidenced in the X-rated mosaics of Pompeii, that ancient Vegas, and the charged erotic novels and illustrations of the Renaissance. And while porn still doesn’t make for polite dinner conversation, it’s an acknowledged part of today’s internet landscape. Statistically speaking, a large portion of us watches it (most technically XXX), and this habit is far more normalized than it was during the lives of the men and women represented in Hardcore, people to whom the museum has a stated responsibility given their historically progressive mission.

Seriousness does not need to imply complete sobriety, and the latter isn’t a quality the Museum of Sex promises its audience, consisting mostly adventurous fourth-daters. That said, Hardcore could have easily shed a few of its boudoir accouterments and remained engaging. Sex, it turns out, is a very hard topic to make dull, as proven in The Sex Lives of Animals, the best show on view that takes a look at animal sexuality from insects to primates. (Spoiler: blowholes, not just for respiration.) The lights are bright; the texts, scientific, matter-of-fact, and free from gimmicks.

With comparable treatment, Hardcore could have been intellectually stimulating, too. After all, the brain is our most important sexual organ.

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“Untitled Erotic Lithograph” (c. mid-19th century), Museum of Sex Collection

Hardcore: A Century & a Half of Obscene Imagery is an ongoing exhibition at the Museum of Sex (233 Fifth Ave, Flatiron District, Manhattan).

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