Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Adventures in Hedonism – LACMA – Exploring the Forbidden

As a hedonist I love art. Art inspires and good art often challenges your way of thinking, or at least pushes against conventional boundaries. It can present different ways of perceiving and make us reexamine ourselves. That kind of self-reflection and curiosity in turn can challenge us to be better and live a more satisfying life.

This weekend I went to LACMA. I have to say I enjoy how this museum complex continues to evolve. It has become a place you want to lounge and entertain in, to meet friends or bump into passionate strangers ready to share what they have seen, and what moved them.

I came to see two shows and ended up seeing three. The main reason was to see the Caravaggio exhibit which ends this week. Caravaggio is a master of light and shadows his paintings draw you in with their mix of mystery and radiance. What struck me most was the sensuality of his work. Most were compositions that were already standards for religious work. But the buff luminous bodies of his saints and saviors glowed, as ever present drapery fell just enough to feign modesty.

You can sense how the church fathers must have been both awed by his abilities and made anxious by the eroticism of his work. There’s a fine line between the spiritual and the sensual. Caravaggio walked it. I’m sure there were many drawn to the priesthood just to be able to occupy their churches to make them their secret masterbatoriums sublimating their desires into religious ecstasy.

After viewing such displays of 16th Century torsos, it was an odd happenstance to stumble upon the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit. The gallery displayed his X, Y, and Z portfolios – X containing images of gay S&M, Y images of flowers, and Z male African-American nudes. I was surprised to see how the exhibit was hung (sorry). Instead of stashing the more explicit works behind a black curtain they were hung on one wall above eye level. I suppose that kept them out of the casual view of children, but still surprising to pass from images of flowers, to nudes, to anal fisting.

Five hundred years since Caravaggio, and the subtlety now turned explicit and yet as the shock of some of the harsher images passed you could see the beauty of line and composition. The pairing of flowers, the genitalia of plants, making sense of turning raw sexuality into an abstract, still sexual, still beautiful image.

The Kubrick exhibit is vast, covering his complete ouvre, but in this afternoon of forbidden sensuality two works stood out to me. The first was the set pieces from Clockwork Orange’s Korova Milk Bar. To go from nude black males, to porcelain white sculptures of nude women used as furniture and a circle was completed. Explicit, in your face, intended to be inflammatory what a perfect set piece to explore the morality of choice, pleasure, and violence.

But perhaps Kubrik got closest to exploring the forbidden in the making of Lolita. The exhibit includes several letters from local pastors imploring him not to make the film. Frankly with 13-year old Sue Lyons playing the title child-seductress role, it’s amazing this film got made at all. It’s uncomfortable to scroll through some of the production stills of “Lolita” eating an ice cream cone. The images unashamedly provocative you can’t help but appreciate the way Kubrick laid out the scenes with nods and implications but keeping within the film standards of the time. In an interview he regrets not being able to be more explicit in the film to demonstrate the extent Lolita had enslaved Humbert Humbert’s desires, but I have to wonder if those same restrictions didn’t help to make the piece more a work of art.

I come away from my day at the museum contemplating the dance one does with social conventions. We like to keep our private lives out of public scrutiny fearing the potential rejection, judgment or condemnation of those around us. Yet it is all the unique and unconventional things about us that make us who we are.

This is the work of the rational hedonist, to explore and discover the things that please and satisfy us, find allies in their pursuit, and navigate around those people and institutions that react with fear and resentment to our choices.

Cheers to the artists who challenge the conventional, they are the allies to we hedonists.

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