The Soma of Art & Sex Ed

Children were lifting their tunics for each other before pants ever existed. You show me yours, and I’ll show you mine. It is an ancient dare, a forbidden game, played behind bushes, in stairwells, or in rumpus rooms with the door shut. In secret.

But when a grown woman plays it by herself in the Musée d’Orsay, under lights, and in full view of other grownups, we know we are not in a playroom anymore. Not even one in Sin City. We are somewhere close to the Central London Hatching and Conditioning Center. (The d’Orsay is in what we still call Paris but one part of Huxley’s World State is just like another.)

Deborah de Robertis at the Musee d'OrsayOn Ascension Thursday last May, Luxembourgian performance artist Deborah de Robertis went to the Musee d’Orsay in a gold sequined mini-dress. Barefoot. No panties. She sat down in front of Gustave Courbet’s famed Origin of the World (1866)—that peerless beaver shot—spread her legs, her labia, and showed the world her own smiling orifice. She titled her performance Mirror of the Origin. Her cameraman videoed the stunt for broadcast later on Vimeo.

Ms. de Robertis abjured any hint of exhibitionism. She told Le Monde:

I behave in a very natural manner, which is why even when there are guards around, sometimes they don’t say anything. They see something in my demeanor that isn’t shocking. I always try to convey something very pure, with my feminine sensibility.

Out of delicacy, she exposed not herself, you see, but rather a wanton gap in art history. Missing until then had been the “point of view of the object of the [male] gaze.”

In his realist painting, Courbet shows the open legs, but the vagina remains closed. He does not reveal the hole, that is to say, the eye. I am not showing my vagina, but I am revealing what we do not see in the painting, the eye of the vagina, the black hole, this concealed eye, this chasm, which, beyond the flesh, refers to infinity, to the origin of the origin.

You have to suffer higher education to learn to talk—to think—like this. Set aside the pathetic fallacy that grants to body parts the consciousness required to have a point of view. Disallow even the prank itself. What matters most is the ruined intellect behind it.

Thomas Couture. Romans of the Decadance (1847). Detail. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
Thomas Couture. Romans of the Decadance (1847). Detail. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

We can only mourn the spoiled intelligence that devises an apologia for a blue movie caper, and enshrines it on video—Ave Maria playing on sound track—in mockery of high seriousness. Yet, in a crooked sort of way, the artist’s faux-solemnity is comical. The true barbarism of Mirror of Origin lies less in its vulgarity—there is always room for one more custard pie—than in the timid, almost deferential, response of authorities.

Add the applause of onlookers rooting for shamelessness raised to a principle. (Which principle? Try female empowerment. Or gender expression.) You listen to the clapping and understand how it came to be that our politicians and newscasters feel free to lie to us: We admire their cheek, and envy them for getting away with it. It is the temper of well-behaved grownups who wish they had spilled their porridge when they had the chance.

If you feel up to it, you can watch the age-restricted video here.

Most startling was the reaction of the guards. Too intimidated to respond assertively, they tried—unsuccessfully—to shoo cheering gallery-goers out of the room. Not one of them risked lifting the prankster to her feet and pulling down her skirt. Or simply throwing a jacket over her knees. Instead, a female guard stationed herself in front of Ms. de Robertis in a feeble effort to block the view.

Eventually, police arrived to escort the artist away. The museum and two guards filed a complaint against her for sexual exhibitionism. But the prerogatives of art carried the day. Charges were dropped.

Imagine if a male onlooker, in the spirit of participation, had unzipped and given the artist’s “eye” something to look at. Quite likely, guards would have acted more energetically. The man would have been carted off to 36, quai des Orfèvres while women’s groups demanded his comeuppance for a priapic insult. But Ms. de Robertis is a woman. Women cannot be flashers. And, of course, Mirror of Origin is an artwork. Who would challenge that? Inarguably, it is an act of self-expression to which we are each—artists above all—entitled.

Bettina Heldenstein, art historian at the Casino Forum of Contemporary Art, Luxembourg, strode forward to declare Ms. de Robertis’ performance one of those catalysts “which change the perspective on the relationship between men and women, artists and gallery owners, or even artists and models.” Mirror of Origin entered cyberspace as a ground-breaking art historical intervention.

•     •     •     •

That was last year. What brings it to mind ten months later? Here in hand are recent articles in the Canadian press detailing Ontario’s brave new world of sex education. Beginning September, 2015,  pre-pubescent children will begin immersion in explicit information about sex. By the time they are Ms. de Robertis’ age, they will have marinated in Ms. Heldenstein’s changed perspectives. And they will be well groomed for what sexual liberationists call the orgasmic imperative.

First graders will learn to “identify body parts, including genitalia (e.g., penis, testicles, vagina, vulva), using correct terminology.” By third grade pupils study such topics as sexual identity and orientation. In grades 6 and 7 they will be introduced to terms like “anal intercourse” and “vaginal lubrication.”

Wally Wood. Disneyland Memorial Orgy (1967).
Wally Wood. Disneyland Memorial Orgy (1967).

Pete Baklinski, at LifeSite News, expands on the sixth grade curriculum:

When asked about what is “normal” development, teachers are to respond: “Exploring one’s body by touching or masturbating is something that many people do and find pleasurable. It is common and is not harmful and is one way of learning about your body.”

Children are taught to dismantle “what is ‘normal’ or expected for males and females” since such “assumptions .  .  . are usually untrue, and they can be harmful.”

Children will hear nothing of courtship or tenderness. Instead, there will be much about prophylactic measures to avoid pregnancy and HIV. Brian Evoy, president of the Ontario Association of Parents in Catholic Education, tells The National Post that “our organization is very much in favour of the curriculum and all of the changes that will be made.”

By the time Ontario’s little scholars reach puberty all reticence will have been vanquished. Steeped in government run sex-ed, they will understand sex as a value-free, mechanical activity, a recreational choice like any other. They will know all about the social construction of “gender” but nothing of morals, self-control, or commitment. Any lingering sexual shyness will have been coaxed out of them. Sexual shame will be the only sin left. Children will enter adulthood as the free, consenting, rutting species that Huxley anticipated.

And performance pieces like Ms. de Robertis’ will be obsolete. No taboos will be left to violate. The culture will be on a soma holiday of another kind.