What is a dirty picture? George Carlin became famous for maybe one of the most infamously funny comedy routines ever, The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television. His basic premise was that words aren’t dirty, actions are. Everyday, on every corner in every town and city on this planet people engage in the most abhorrent of acts. Husbands beat their wives, Fathers rape their children, leaders make war on other mother’s children. People engage in the most vile of activities for no better reason than they feel like it. It was Carlin’s assertion that it is these things that are dirty, not words. The word Fuck, all by itself, never hurt anyone the way people hurt each other everyday. However, if it is true that a picture can be worth a thousand words, than how can one assess the true value of imagery within the framework obscenity? Furthermore, in an age of technology that allows an image to captured in a instant and disseminated across the world without any sort of provenance can we be as flippant with an image as we can with a word. When a photograph co notates documentation of something that actually occurred how does this change the potency of the image. Do the times we live in result in a need to rethink the power we project upon the imagery that surrounds us.
These are not by any means new questions, mind you. Renoir was a smut peddler as were Manet and Courbet before him. Now they are masters and rotary clubs and grandmothers line up around the block to pay money to see their work in the most staid and ivory white of museums. How has our understanding of these artists and their works changed, or has it. Can the work of an artist like Gustave Courbet still shock us? Take The Origin of the World, (Pictured Above). A graphic painting of the lower portion of a woman’s torso, legs akimbo; it gives an impression that it depicts events recently post coitus. The painting dehumanizes its subject by reducing her to an orifice. She is a hole, her purpose is to bring to men the same lurid gratification that viewing the painting brings us. It is the very definition of objectification and overt obscene simplification. However, smut peddling male chauvinism not withstanding, regardless of it’s tawdry subject matter. It IS a gorgeous painting. If arts role is to through inspiration, mechanical manipulation and a certain je ne ce quo to stir in the viewer a certain sensation that communicates the intent and passion that the artist is feeling than is their a more successful painting in all of the western cannon. Courbet succeeds at communicating one of the most human of impulses. It might not be pleasant dinner conversation but without the sensation this painting evokes we wouldn’t be here. Art is a mirror of the human experience and fucking is a necessary component of our very existence.
How art chooses to depict this experience is what determines how we view it. Much like a fun house mirror we tend to get most pissed at art when it shows us the side of us we are least comfortable with. This prism through which art funnels our collective experience can create a dialogue or a controversy. This ultimately is the question at the heart of this notion of dirty pictures.
How does context inform our appreciation of content? Can the formal qualities of a work effect the outcome of our perceptions of the work? In his piece Fruit of thy Loins, (Pictured Above), Mike Kelley addresses many of the same concerns that impact Courbet’s aforementioned work. It is about desire, lust and procreation. It is similarly vulgar and pureal. Much like Courbet’s painting, its formal qualities are what make it dirty. However, whereas The Origin of The World titillates with its vulgar detail, Fruit of Thy Loins repels with its childlike imagery and literal filth. Mike Kelley’s work takes the notion of dirty pictures very literal. His work often looks like he dug it out of the trash. It is this very white trash game room sensibility that creates this sensation of something truly dirty having had taken place. When paired with plush toys and childlike imagery Mike Kelley creates in the viewer a feeling that often leaves a bad taste in ones throat. In this way, much like The Origin of The World, it is a greatly successful work because it mirrors in the viewer a feeling of filth and immorality, of dirty deeds done by dirty people. In both works the artists convey their intention with economy. They are both in their own way dirty pictures, but also great works of art that cause us to consider the very nature of human experience and engage in a dialogue with the most basic of acts.