Normality is not a virtue
Sex is Mother Nature’s best invention.
As a way of ensuring the continual mix of genetic material and the unending synthesis of new forms it is at the very heart of the living world – drawing us out of the primordial soup and into a future beyond our imagining. The clever part was the way she made it so compelling. Not just in that wonderful, enveloping and strangely difficult to describe sensation of orgasm, but in the profound urge to sex that is buried deep in our psyche.
However, if Mother Nature created the basic threads of sensation and urge, it was Human Nature that wove them into the imaginative tapestry of carnality. With the arrival of Homo Sapiens, the slow random progress of survival of the fittest became accelerated in the co-evolutionary slipstream of cognition. The expansion of the Now into the memory of the Past and the anticipation of the Future – the knowledge that we are born to die – is at the heart of the Human Condition. Nonetheless, while mortality is the lot of the individual, unceasing evolution is the endowment of the species.
For the people of pre-history sex was the impulse behind ritual and magic, as the cycle of procreation found its mirror in the turn of the seasons and the, at times terrifying, environment of which they were becoming increasingly aware. The Ancient Greeks sought a balance between the world of abstract ideas and that of sensual pleasure – casting those notions in the characters of Apollo and Dionysus. What mattered was not the domination of one by the other, but the harmonising of the two aspects.
Such harmony in the balance of Human Nature is lost in the notion of Utopia. Utopias are against Nature and, most especially against Human Nature. They are founded on an image of perfectible stasis that crushes individual expression. Plato’s Republic, Augustine’s City of God and Marx’s Communist Commonwealth were all founded on a deep mistrust of sex and the erotic urge. Plato wanted to ban Art, to dissolve the ties of parent and child, and to cool the emotional warmth of sex. Augustine spent inordinate amounts of time advising young women, in the most explicit anatomical detail, about the maintenance of virginity – considering this as a supreme virtue. Marx sought to unhitch the act of procreation from the ties of love and the intimacy of the family. He wanted the primary allegiance to be to the State, just as Plato did for his Republic or Augustine for the Church.
In contrast, what we, as Human Beings, feel most is our relationship to other Human Beings. And sex can be not only a powerful and protean means of exploring those relationships but also pursuing desire creatively and to the hilt. Be it the propagation of future generations or the imaginative theatre of playful perversity; be it the intimacy of life-long companionship or the comfort of strangers, the value of sex is in the way it attracts drives expands and synthesizes – it is not simply the lottery of genetic evolution, it is an instrument of co-evolution – of the imaginative understanding our sensual being, the discovery of fresh identities and ways to relate to others.
Little surprise then that sex has played such an important role in the history of art and culture from the Venus of Willendorf to Pamela Anderson; from the Shunga prints of Japan to the photomontages of Gilbert and George; from the frescoes of Pompeii to the Bakery of Perth.*
However, while many artists are radical experimenters, the art establishment can all-too-often be stuffy and orthodox; perhaps, paradoxically, most especially when is clinging to its avant-garde credentials. Perhaps here we are haunted by the spectre of Kant, who believed true artistic appreciation must be divorced from sensual pleasure. If so, it is a manifestation spirited up by the bourgeois fear of the unpredictable.
So, next time you hear someone sneer at the celebration of the erotic in art or snort disapprovingly about unorthodoxy in sexual practice – look them straight in the eye and know that they are lost. Lost to the utopian fundamentalism that is the antithesis of the Human. Remember that normality is a statistical distribution and not a virtue. Indeed, it will always be the abnormal, the mutant, the rogue that leads to the next step in our evolutionary journey, just as it is the radical thinker and the sensual adventurer who turns the page of the co-evolutionary story.
It is a scientific fact that there is no evolution without deviance.
‘Adam and Eve’ (c1520) by the Dutch artist Jan Gossart
The Venus of Willendorf (carved limestone figure c23,000 BCE); Pamela Anderson (Canadian actress born 1967); Raphael’s portrait of his mistress, Margherita Luti, painted c1518–20 and titled ‘La Fornarina’ (the baker)