Abstract sunset. A blurry photo depicting a yellow lozenge nestled between a gradient of orange and a fuzzy darkness. Own work, 2023.

Sex in art needs no excuses

Sexuality itself is a legitimate subject for artistic exploration

by AK Krajewska

The very phrase "gratuitous sex" implies the idea that depictions of sex must somehow be earned. Your film or book or whatever work of art may only have sex in it if it's in service of something else, like plot, or character development, or important philosophical questions--and even then it must have an appropriate amount of sex. Otherwise the work is cheapened by it, or, worse, gets booted from the category of "art" and get relegated to "pornography."

Usually arguments in favor of works of art with sex that's been deemed excessive or unearned focus on proving that it was in fact appropriate and necessary. But I reject the frame.

I reject completely the notion that sex in art must be in service of some other artistic goal. Sexuality itself is a legitimate subject for artistic exploration. Any aspect of human experience is a legitimate subject for art. Sex, which is a major part of human experience, certainly qualifies. It needs no further excuses.

The artistic merit trap

I further posit that whether or not the art is any good or not has no bearing to its standing as art. In fact, when a work of art focuses primarily or entirely on sexuality, it might be difficult to evaluate based on standards we've developed for other topics or genres. If you've ever read reviews of science fiction movies by someone who is completely unfamiliar with the genre you might have a taste of that kind of confused aesthetic misapprehensions. It could be even worse, though. Imagine asking what's the plot of the haiku or complaining that a symphony lacks any catchy lyrics. That's what it would be like to complain that, say, Liberté (2019) doesn't a plot.

Moral judgement about sex can interfere with aesthetic judgment. So if you set up the premise that art about sex must attain a certain quality to count as art, and you come from a culture or background that has negative moral judgments about certain kinds of sex or even the idea of showing sex, your moral judgement might kick in and consider the work in poor taste, leading you to conflate the moral poor taste with aesthetic poor taste. And thus you can create a situation where no work of art about sex is of high enough quality to merit being called a work of art.

For those two reasons at least--lack of frame of reference and moral judgment interfering with aesthetic judgement--I hold that artistic merit of works of art about sex can't be used to determine their standing as works of art. (I believe this about all art, but I think it's particularly salient in art that is about sex.) What I mean is, that the very idea of marking (and thus often banning) something as mere pornography because it lacks artistic merit is tautological. If you have a moral hangup about depictions of sex in art and a culturally impoverished lack of reference points for judging art about sex, you're going to automatically judge any art with a lot of sex as lacking artistic merit just because of its contents.

More sex, please

I think sex is not only a legitimate subject for art, it deserves more serious attention as a subject of art. Yeah, I know there's tons of commercial pornography but in my (admittedly limited) experience, it's not very good. (Still art, just not good!) If art about sex is relegated to pornography, few dedicated artists will make an effort to make it, and that, I think, is a loss.

I happened to watch three films in February that spend a major portion of their running time exploring sex and sexuality, and each of them was excellent in its own way: Yorgos Lanthimos' Poor Things (2023), Russell's The Devils (1971), and Albert Serra's Liberté (2019). Sex plays a crucial part in Poor Things, is so central to The Devils that it couldn't exists without it, and is the entire subject of Liberté.

I have more thoughts (as always) but I do not have more time. I'm sure I'll come back to this topic, because I can't stop thinking about it. I particularly want to come back to Liberté, because it's so challenging and strange. It had so much weird sex but also so much just being in the forest at night. And so with that thought and that image, I conclude for today.

Marc Susini in Liberte by director Albert Serra

Marc Susini in Liberté (2019) by director Albert Serra. Image courtesy of Cinema Guild.