Skip to main content /transcript


The Arousing Side Of Art

Aired May 2, 2001 - 17:00:00   ET


JONATHAN MANN, INSIGHT (voice-over): Dirty pictures. Picasso made hundreds of erotic paintings and drawings, and many stayed hidden until now. A glimpse at the largely unseen, arousing side of art.

(on camera): Hello, and welcome.

Men and women, romance and desire - they are the stuff of all art. But most art leaves out at least part of the process. Some art includes it, even exults in it. And as it turns out, Pablo Picasso did a lot of that kind, erotic art in works that spanned his many styles, interests and appetites.

Much of it is on display in Paris right now, along with a surprising number of other independent exhibits that are also focusing on the erotic. It's all art. It's just not the kind of art we're accustomed to seeing in public.

On our program today - Ooh, la, la.

Peter Humi begins our coverage in Paris.


PETER HUMI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): From paintings to sculptures to photographs - virtually all forms of art dealing with sex, the nude and eroticism are on show in Paris. Sex in the capital city is nothing new.

The Lido (ph), the Moulin Rouge, the Crazy Horse - all long established Parisian traditions titillating tourists with naked or semi- naked acts. In fact, the less salubrious aspects of life inspired many artists. Pablo Picasso's depictions of prostitutes in their boudoirs were from firsthand experience.

JEAN-JACQUES LEBEL, JEU DE PAUME MUSEUM: Picasso from the time he was an adolescent in Barcelona learning about eroticism and love and humanity in the brothels of Barcelona, the famous brothels of Barcelona, up to the last two months of his life, has been constantly, constantly, deeply, profoundly and movingly inspired by the idea of Eros.

HUMI: These were works dating from the early 1900s before Picasso achieved international fame. More than 300 of the Spanish artist's works are on display at the Jeu de Paume Museum, the undoubted highlight of what seems to be an accidental trend - a sexy spring in Paris.

CAROLINE MESSENSEE, MAILLOL MUSEUM: We are (inaudible) which is a museum which is completely dedicated to the nudes, to women, to the beauty and to sexuality in some kind of way.

HUMI: Just across the River Seine from Picasso's show, the Maillol Museum is displaying erotic works by Egon Sheeler (ph), the Austrian artist and a contemporary of Picasso. There is little glamour in Sheeler's work.

MESSENSEE: Here we have reality and we have women like they are without all this kind of artificial beauty as you can see them.

HUMI: The arts reflect Sheeler's own tortured state of mind. Failure to reap the rewards of what he considered his great talent led to increasingly expressionistic and exhibitionist art. But look again at his work. It may appear familiar.

MESSENSEE: When you see the positions of his models on those paperworks, it's exactly the same as in the positions in the magazines now. It's very, very contemporary. And this is very funny because we are not really shocked.

HUMI: And indeed, most are not outraged by overtly sexual advertising, whether it's in fashion magazines or roadside billboards. But art - some Parisian art curators say yes and reject what they call a certain prudery alive today.

LEBEL: After all, we're not in the times of the inquisition anymore, at least in France.

HUMI: While the Picasso exhibit will move on from Paris to Montreal in Canada and Barcelona, it is not going to the United States where, due to its subject matter, the French organizers decided it would never get approval.

LEBEL: I have nothing against pornography, but erotically inspired art is an entirely different cup of tea.

HUMI: Another museum in Paris, this one expressly dedicated to all forms of erotica, from the mild to the hard-core.

(on camera): In fact, there's much we can't show you in this report. Television news brings you scenes of death and destruction but draws the line at explicit interpretations of the human body, however well-known the artist

(voice-over): Which takes us back to Picasso. In a career spanning three generations, sex was a constant theme of his art and life. But until now, this aspect of his art has rarely been publicly displayed. His work often depicts sometimes violent male domination, but it also shows the artist's wide range of styles.

Compare these two nudes.

LEBEL: You have to become one with the work of art, especially if it deals with your own desires and projections and dreams. There is nothing to be explained about Picasso's erotically inspired works. Just enjoy them.

HUMI: Peter Humi, CNN, Paris.


MANN: We have to take a break. When we come back, a conversation with a man who looks at pictures of naked people all the time. Stay with us.


MANN: Welcome back.

Picasso's pictures were hidden away for decades. They have been found, but how much art of the same kind is still secret? Just a short time ago, we got in touch with Tim Hobart, publisher of Erotic Review, a literary monthly dedicated to erotic art and literature. He says no one really knows how much erotic art is out there, but it's probably a lot.


TIM HOBART, PUBLISHER, EROTIC REVIEW: I think there's a vast amount. It sometimes - it comes in fits and starts. Sometimes you get offered a lot of stuff. Whether it's from the 17th century or the 15th century or the 20th century very much depends on who dies and whether the widow still likes their stuff or the widower, in some cases.

And then it comes up into the marketplace. Usually it's offered to us before it goes anywhere else, and we then get a chance to judge it on its merits. I think there is.

MANN: Do the images tend to be images about sex, or are they sexy images?

HOBART: Well, I don't think an image of sex in itself is necessarily erotic, and we wouldn't be interested in it, apart from its merits as art as a whole. For instance, there is an erotic - sorry, not an erotic, a cross-section of a couple copulating by Leonardo in the royal collection here, which I don't think anyone would class as erotic art as such because it was really an anatomical sketch.

So I think there has to be some sort of spin on the sex. It has to be either joyous or anxiety-ridden. It has to have, in other words, some sort of emotion in it for it really to qualify as erotic.

MANN: Art is supposed to intrigue us and surprise us and astound us. Art has many uses. Does it cease to be art if it's destined for the private cabinet, if it's supposed to arouse us?

HOBART: I don't think so at all. I think that art about sex, which is specifically about the emotions that it arouses in people, is certainly -- I think we would regard now -- a legitimate art form, just as legitimate as the art of painting still life or the art of painting sea battles or anything else which is considered high art.

I mean, erotic art has never been considered high really until the 20th century. Now since the `60s, when the concept of making love, not war became part of the general - not exactly generally accepted, but accepted by quite a few people, there has been a much wider acceptance, and erotic art has become a legitimate subject to the extent that someone like Jeff Koons (ph) or Robert Mapplethorpe (ph) have predicated their entire careers on doing stuff that's mainly erotic.

MANN: Let me ask you one last question. You have been terribly serious. This is a serious subject, and yet there is part of me - and I'm wondering if there is part of you that at the end of the day - that says after all these are still pictures of people doing naughty things? I mean, is there something inherently funny, amusing, entertaining, human at a very light-hearted level even about the most serious erotic art?

HOBART: Oh, very much so. I mean, there is a point at which an excess of humor is going to be a turnoff to people. But I think on the whole, I think sex and erotica, too, without fun is really a very dry and arid topic.

MANN: On that note, Tim Hobart of the Erotic Review, thank you so much for talking with us.


We have to take a break. When we come back, we'll talk about the art of sensation. Stay with us.


MANN (voice-over): Art on the edge. When a painting titled "The Holy Virgin Mary," showing Mary coated in elephant dung, went on display in New York last year, it caused a sensation. But then it and other works in the show intended to do just that.

The exhibit, which began in London before moving on to the Brooklyn Museum of Art, was even called "Sensation." New York mayor Rudy Giuliani called the Virgin Mary piece "sick, fit only for a psychiatric hospital." He also threatened to cut off city funding to the museum, saying the work was simply too offensive.


RUDOLPH GIULIANI, NEW YORK CITY MAYOR: To Catholics and throw dung at it and have pictures of private parts of women splayed all over it. And of course, it's Catholic-bashing.


MANN (on camera): Welcome back.

Court cases ensued, but eventually all proceedings were dropped in the Brooklyn museum case. But the incident is unlikely to be the last of its kind, and there have been plenty which have come before.


(voice-over): The artist who painted this nude woman was fired from the art academy in which he worked. The artisans who fashioned this figure were heavily suppressed. When these art works went on display at a show in New York, a scandal broke out. And when these photographs were shown in middle America, the gallery director was put on trial.

All examples of so-called objectionable art through the centuries. So when 21st century critics raise an eyebrow at a graphic Picasso or a distorted Virgin Mary, they're the latest in a long line of objectors.

Looking again at this 19th century Kucheti (ph) figure made by Native Americans in New Mexico, it was censored by Spanish missionaries who thought it made fun of white men. When parents of art students in 1908 discovered nude models were being used, they had the artist of this work dismissed. Back in 1913, there was a scandal at a show in New York because some people felt that the distortion of the human form was degrading.

And then, a decade ago, a landmark case against a gallery and its director. Dennis Barrie and the Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center were prosecuted on obscenity charges for some of the photographs featured in the late Robert Mapplethorpe's "The Perfect Moment." The pictures in question depicted men in sado-masochistic poses. Illegal use of minors charges were also leveled over two photos showing children exposing themselves.

The exhibit had already caused a stir in Washington, where the first gallery to show it bowed to public pressure, and the pictures had to move to another location. They went on to Chicago and Hartford, Connecticut, without incident before hitting conservative Cincinnati. There is no sin in Cincinnati, so the saying goes, and the law moved in.

The case became a battle over the Bill of Rights. The defense argued that the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech protected them. The prosecution said the First Amendment was not the issue. After the case was heard, the jury took just two hours to reach its verdict.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We the jury in this case, being duly impaneled and sworn, do find the defendant not guilty of pandering obscenity.

DENNIS BARRIE, CINCINNATI ARTS CENTER DIRECTOR: We did something very important in this city. We stood up for the First Amendment. Those eight jurors knew what it was all about. They knew what freedom is all about, and they exercised their rights as individuals, as Americans and stood up for that freedom.

MANN: When Barrie was first charged, he said the case opened the door for every museum to face similar legal action. After his acquittal, he said those doors had been closed.


(on camera): We caught up with Dennis Barrie in New York this week and asked him what was changed by his case and what was at stake.


DENNIS BARRIE, GALLERY DIRECTOR: Well, for me personally, I could have gone to jail for two years. And for the center, it probably meant the end of it as an institution because of the bad publicity and the legal bills, the financial debt that we had gotten into in fighting this case.

MANN: When you first saw the pictures, did that occur to you?

BARRIE: No, it never occurred that we would be in this kind of situation. You know, Robert Mapplethorpe was an artist who had been shown in the major museums of the world, and when we took the exhibition from the University of Pennsylvania, it was just another exhibition for us. We never thought it would have that kind of effect on the community or the nation at large.

MANN: Let me ask you, with the benefit of that experience, do you think that the people who run galleries or museums should be thinking politically, if you will, about the reaction of people outside their walls to whatever they're showing inside?

BARRIE: Well, this is often asked that, you know, should you be aware of what you're doing because it might have political or economic consequences for your museum or your gallery. But in truth, you have to be true to your mission. And if the mission of your museum is to show contemporary work, and contemporary work is often very provocative, socially conscious, politically conscious, then you have to be true to that mission.

There is now way you can guard against the potential controversy of any exhibition. You know, controversy comes from all sorts of directions. It doesn't come from where you necessarily expect it.

MANN: Are there some places where provocative goes too far, where you would draw the line or where you think it's incumbent on people like you to do so?

BARRIE: Well, I think you have to look at the merit of the work, and most institutions really do do that. They look at what the artist is doing, what he or she really serious about what they're saying, or are they just out there to create sparks, to create controversy? And most of us do do that. We look very seriously at the intent of the artist.

And so, even if the work is sort of dangerous or provocative, we make that decision based on the quality of the work.

MANN: How often are you called on to do that? And the reason I ask is because there seems to be some art out there that people hear about it - oh, they're just trying to get publicity. They're trying to make sparks, as you say. Are there a lot of artists trying to get famous that way? Are there a lot of galleries or museums trying to become known that way?

BARRIE: Well, I think that's a good question. I do think there are artists out there who are looking for a way to create a name, to get in the headlines, to be seen on television or whatever and be the center of a controversy. And at the same time, I think in recent years, there have been some institutions who have probably sought out controversy, you know, because it's good box office, to tell you the truth.

It draws people. If you get on the news, if you become the center of attention in your community or worldwide, you're going to get a lot of people in the lines for your institution. I think that's not the way to go. I think really if you're looking for that, ultimately, you do a disservice to art and to your museum.

MANN: How much of that is happening? Every aspect of our lives is commercialized. Every commercial aspect of our lives is seeking to make a bigger punch, to make a bigger splash. Is the art world going that way, too, in a way that's ultimately injurious to the simple appreciation of art - contemporary art?

BARRIE: Well, it was interesting. When the Mapplethorpe controversy occurred in 1989, '90, to tell you the truth, the effect of our case on the art world was the opposite. I think people who intended to do controversial exhibitions or exhibitions that might be - that caused political actions really kind of went underground, really kind of decided this was not the direction to go in because it was costly, both financially and emotionally and in all other ways.

But I do see in the last few years, a tendency among some organizations, institutions, individuals to look for controversy because it's a way of getting headlines. You know, they're in competition with everything from cable television to theme parks for the attention of audiences. So they've got to think about how they get people through their doors.

MANN: Any exhibits, any artists come to mind?

BARRIE: Well, you know, I think the most recent one - and I don't know the motives of the people at Brooklyn, but certainly "Sensations," which occurred at the Brooklyn museum and in London, caused a lot of sensation. And I know the people at Brooklyn. I know they're good people.

But, you know, clearly probably in the marketing of that show, there was the ability to create headlines, and I think that occurred in that show and probably some subsequent exhibitions.

MANN: It's funny because it would seem that the very kinds of things that might have ended you up in jail will now put someone else in the headlines or bring them to the bank.

BARRIE: Yes, I think that's true. The climate is such that, you know, art - it's interesting. But politicians do enter into these controversies. Certainly that happened in New York with Mayor Giuliani. But it's not quite the same as was 10 years ago. I think, you know, politicians walk into that, see that they can make a little political hay on these issues, but eventually walk away from them. And that was not the case 10 years ago.

Ten years ago, they looked at it as an opportunity for advancement, for power, for building a constituency. These days, we seem to have come a little bit further, and it's only headlines for a few days and then move on.

MANN: Do you think the issue that maybe have been the basic issue in all of this has been resolved, and that is this - whether taxpayers, whether voters who in a sense support institutions that they don't necessarily frequent, whether they should have some role in deciding what those institutions exhibit. Do you think that this country, do you think other countries have resolved that question?

BARRIE: I don't think they've resolved the question, but I do think it's one that the logic of that is a very strange logic. I would be asked that all the time, you know, because there were some National Endowment for the Arts monies given to the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition.

But in truth, you know, taxpayers have little control over how their money is spent in almost every aspect of government spending, whether it's defense spending, whether it's HUD spending, whether it's health spending and certainly in the arts as well. I think you have to look at and I think there has to be a level of trust that your spending is going to be done responsibly.

So, for example, in the arts, everybody needs to attack the National Endowment for the Arts for perhaps making some controversial grants. In truth, the people who decide upon those grants are very conscientious. I mean, they look very seriously at a potential - at an exhibition that they might potentially fund for its content.

So it's not an easy question, but the truth is, yes, I think you have to let people who are experts and responsible to decide.

MANN: Just one last question for you. Could this whole thing happen again?

BARRIE: It could happen again. It depends on - you know, it depends on the shifting political climate of any country. In the United States, I think there is a swing, at least right now, back toward the right, and clearly these issues tend to be issues of the political and religious right at least in the United States. And with the recent election and some of the laws that are now I think probably on the books and who will take over the National Endowment for the Arts and who is the attorney general, I could see those things happening again.

It's really gauging the political climate of a particular time. It didn't work in the permissive `90s. It did work in the `80s when there was a lot of conflict in our society. Who knows what's going to happen a year from now here in the States?

MANN: Dennis Barrie, thanks so much for being with us.

BARRIE: Happy to be here.


MANN: One final word about how Dennis Barrie's experience and Robert Mapplethorpe's exhibit continue to resonate. The U.S. cable television network Showtime has just produced a movie about the Cincinnati trial, starring James Woods as Barrie. But Showtime ran into some trouble of its own because - and you guessed it - those same Mapplethorpe photographs.

The original cut of the film showed all of the pictures at the center of the Cincinnati case, prompting the Motion Picture Association of America to slap an NC-17 rating on it. An NC rating, we should note, used to be called the rating X. That would have forced Showtime to air the movie much later in the evening than it intended.

Instead, the channel reached a compromise. It kept all the photos in the film but cut down the length of time that they appeared on screen. That was enough to secure a lower rating and a better time slot.

That's INSIGHT for this day. I'm Jonathan Mann. The news continues.




4:30pm ET, 4/16

Back to the top