Subjectivity Surrounding Sex

Think about sex like art

Issue #48

By Vivienne Arkell

If we wish to account for our mysteriously personal sexual tastes, we might by first trying to understand our no-less-subjective tastes in art. – Alain de Botton

From his book How to Think More About Sex, Alain de Botton continues: The task of understanding our own preferences in this regard should be recognized as an integral part of any project of self-knowledge or biography. What Freud said of dreams can like-wise be said of sexual fetishes: they are a royal road into the unconscious.”

De Botton says “Art historians have long been at a loss to explain why people should have such strong preferences for one particular artist over another, even when both are acknowledged masters who have created works of great beauty. Why does one person love Mark Rothko, for instance, but have an instinctive fear of Caravaggio? Why does another recoil from Chagall but admire Dalí?”  Why might a sensible loafer on a woman be as erotic to some as a stiletto sandal or boot? Probing deeper, de Button correlates art and sex to explain this conundrum.

“[German art historian Wilhelm] Worringer argued that we all grow up with something missing inside us. Our parents and our environment fail us in distinctive ways, and our characters hence take shape with certain areas of vulnerability and imbalance in them. And crucially, these deficits and flaws determine what is going to appeal to us and repel us in art.”

Approaching sexuality as a philosopher, de Botton’s critique explores both the pleasures and problems of sex. Once we awkwardly embrace the quirky aspects of preferences, we can attempt to interpret our actual experiences. As with art, sex is totally up for interpretation. Each artist, designer, or performer in us is free to express our own personal way of looking at the world – art and sex included. It’s all there for us to subjectively tear apart the elements and piece them back together, deepening our connections.

Delving next into the problems with sex, de Botton questions importance, value, and how we might manage to re-desire our spouse. “We are prone to long unfairly for novelty, kitschy romanticism, drama and glamour,” he laments. But might one look at their S.O. in a new light?

“It lies in the power of certain great works of art, however, to induce us to revisit what we think we already understand and to reveal new, neglected or submerged enchantments beneath a familiar exterior. Before such works, we feel our appreciation of supposedly banal elements being reignited. The evening sky, a tree being blown by the wind on a summer day…”

And here is where de Button honors things of value. “We hunger for artworks that contain elements that will compensate for our inner fragilities and help return us to a healthy mean.” He suggests that “To rescue a long-term relationship from complacency and boredom, we might learn to effect on our spouse much the same imaginative transformation that Manet performed on his vegetables.”

Preferences, the actual experience, plus its importance and value are all thought provoking facets, up for interpretation in all forms of art. 

The ongoing process of curiosity and inquiry is what makes great art and great sex. So much that de Botton leaves us pondering, allowing each of us to arrive at our own definitions and outcome. Unique and confusing, amazing or uninspiring, your relationship with sex and art is what you make it. With wisdom to grow,  appreciate and indulge in the sensual arts your way.               

Image is blown plaster 6’ x 4’ framed: artist unknown


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