COMES NATURALLY #62
Spectator Magazine - August 22, 1997
(c) David Steinberg. All rights reserved.
Of Penises, Nipples, and Harper's Magazine; Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld's Museum of Sexology; Mark I. Chester's Sexart 5
In the Garden of Tabloid Delight
"Sex and Americans: Our recent parade of sexual scandal can best be seen not as a set of moral lessons but as a series of entertainments. Among people accustomed to living in a haze of quasi-pornographic images, who can pretend to be truly shocked that the President of the United States has trouble managing his penis? Yet the discussion of sex in our society remains muffled in embarrassment -- we approach the topic as cautiously as chambermaids dusting very old porcelain."
So reads the bright lavender wrapper to the November issue of Harper's magazine, a teaser to Harper's editor Lewis Lapham's cover story, "In the Garden of Tabloid Delight." Amazing. A serious discussion of sex as a social issue in a leading intellectual magazine? Of how "the discussion of sex in our society remains muffled in embarrassment?" Blatant cover reference to the President's penis? And a risque' (for Harper's) cover photo that puts a young woman's bare breasts and nipple front and center, forcing editor Lapham to battle with critics and distributors alike who object to the photo as pornographic.
It's enough to give a person a little hope: the commercial press trumpeting lines about supposedly scandalous but actually quite mainstream sexuality that I could very well have written myself. Indeed, Lapham's article starts out with some of my favorite themes. "Political, economic, social, and technological changes over the last 100 years have reconfigured not only the relation between the sexes," he notes, "but also the Christian definitions of right and wrong. The old guidebooks... either require extensive revision or we need to adjust our present behavior. For the time being, the words don't match the deeds."
Right on, Lewis. Especially when he goes on to insist that "the events of the last fifty years can't be ignored or reversed.... How many people willingly would return to a society that insisted upon the rigid suppressions of human sexuality dictated by a frightened aunt or a village scold?" And to all but thank Hugh Hefner for "open[ing] a window in what I suddenly saw as a prison wall made of sermons in Protestant stone."
But then, just as he's remarking that no one out there in America seems to worry any more about the sexual behavior of politicians, Lapham runs smack into some sort of invisible wall and totally reverses himself in a paroxysm of classic liberal guilt and moralism. "About the perils of the voyage to [sexual] paradise, the old moral guidebooks were not wrong," he shivers. "Sexual promiscuity and infidelity cause more misery than ever gets explained in the program notes.... Without the strength and frame of a moral order, [people] too often lose the chance for love and meaning in their lives."
Faced with the need to choose between obsolete morality and the possibility for people to "locate the character of their own minds" and "build the shelters of their own happiness," Lapham becomes frightened, throws in the towel, and runs for cover. (Literally. The lavender cover wrapper for the magazine is precisely wide enough to hide the offending woman's breasts and nipple from sight.) He calls up "the arithmetic of human suffering and unhappiness," "stories of bewilderment and loss," images of young children on the Internet exploring "the landscape of deviance first mapped by the Marquis de Sade." Without "a unified field of moral law that commands us to obedience," Lapham cries out, we are all descending into chaos. Fire and brimstone. Moral decay. Disintegration of the family. I imagine him dissolving tearfully into the arms of some Pat Robertson type, repenting decades of liberal-conservative in-fighting, and begging to be saved. From himself.
So near and yet so far. Here, finally, is a magazine with the stature of Harper's accurately identifying the social/sexual issues of our time, and then drawing all the wrong conclusions. The existential ambiguity of making choices for ourselves about what is right and wrong, about what will make us and the people around us happy and unhappy, about what enriches life and what impoverishes it, is first and foremost an opportunity, not a curse. Obedience to a "unified field of [antisexual] moral law" is and has always been the problem, not the solution.
The basic issue that Lapham is concerned about -- the pain, suffering and dislocation that comes with the crumbling of an antiquated moral code -- is an important one. It would be reckless to simply celebrate the growing sexual awakening all around us without also acknowledging the real damage done to people who just can't deal with making these important decisions for themselves, without being told what to do by some higher authority. There is real fear and confusion everywhere these days. Far-reaching social change always is accompanied by massive fear and confusion.
But to respond to that fear with a call for a new absolutist morality, imposed from outside the individual, is simply reactionary. What we need are ethics that are not absolute moralities, and belief systems that do not require homogeneity, especially when it comes to sex. Conformity, to twist an old quote, is the hobgoblin of small minds; sexual conformity most of all.
"A" is for "Aphrodisiac"
It sounded unusual enough to be interesting. I don't just mean a show about sex, or a show with a little live skin and titillation. Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld's Museum of Sexology purported to be something more -- a recreation of the atmosphere of sex-positive Berlin before the rise of the Nazis, complete with exhibits from the Hirschfeld Institute of Sexual Science, "aphrodisiac" oils and foods, and an evening of erotic cabaret performances.
The $35 a head price of admission is nothing less than outrageous for South of Market San Francisco, but it includes dinner and, well, I have a column due and it's bound to give me something interesting to write about, one way or another. And I've left a last-minute message so maybe they'll spring for press comps. (They don't.) So, loosened by a couple of drinks to pass the time during the early Sunday evening hours, Helen and I arrive at the theatre in a tipsily (tipsily?) receptive mood.
The exhibit about the Hirschfeld Institute -- a museum of a museum -- turns out to be quite interesting, from a sex-historical point of view. Reproductions of Hirschfeld's exhibits mixed with text describing the pre-war German social movement toward positive, if Teutonically overscientific, attitudes -- not only about sex in general, but also more specifically about sexual "deviation," particularly homosexuality and transvestism (a word that Hirschfeld apparently coined himself). "Homosexuality is as natural as is heterosexuality," proclaims one large placard.
Given more time to look around, I might have actually learned something new about that odd, pre-fascist moment in German history when liberality about sex and deviance, Freudian psychotherapy, Weimar democracy, and a giddy belief in salvation through science and reason were mixing with cultural and economic dislocation to produce what was to be the soil for Hitler's rise to power. (The Nazis attacked and destroyed Hirschfeld's Institute when they came to power in 1933, part of their campaign against the so-called Jewish pornographers who were supposedly responsible for the destruction of Aryan purity.)
Unfortunately, by the time we were served our free aphrodisiac cocktails (Stoly mixed with juice and spices, quite tasty) -- and sampled the various mixtures of essential oils to decide which aphrodisiac scents we wanted to don for the evening -- and examined the "male-attractant," "female attractant," and "third sex attractant" aphrodisiac soaps to see if we wanted to purchase any of same at $5 a bar (we passed) -- and watched Herr Bauer (Jeremy Hou) demonstrate the art of masturbating by rolling back and forth on a bicycle wheel tucked between his legs ("Ja, das ist gutt") -- and watched Chuck the Naked Saxophone Player blow his instrument while shaking his hips and keeping his ringed cock and balls in constant motion -- we had to forsake the latent history lesson, as all patrons were being escorted into the Aphrodisiac Lounge for dinner and show.
After finding seats, the near capacity audience of some fifty generally disoriented people was introduced to the (all together now...) Aphrodisiac buffet dinner, gathered (or so we were told) from five separate exotic cuisines by chef and Aphrodisiac [sic] Caterer Richard Visconte. Aphrodesia aside, a fine light buffet it was. There was a delicate and delicious spinach salad, moist with Nuoc-Man sauce and garlic ("Red Dragon Love Enhancer" to those in the know), a crunchy celery salad with cheese and spices (the "Marquis de Sade Prison Salad Plate"), flavorful dumplings stuffed with squash, ricotta and cottage cheeses, and exotic spices ("Aztec-Mexican Aphrodisiac Pastry"), wonderfully creamy deviled (er, "perfumed, Tunisian") eggs, and a tasty spiced ice cream dessert trifle of vanilla ice cream with cloves, cardamom, and cinnamon ("18th-Century French Aphrodisiac Dessert").
Quite a sumptuous repast, there in the darkened hall with huge evocative drawings of various debauchery on the walls. And in the background, excellent, if non-period, music by piano- and (later) bare-buttocksplayer Suzanne Ramsey. The staff/cast play the scene loosely -- mockingly adopting accents and demeanors without getting too serious about the whole thing.
Unfortunately, the cabaret part of the evening -- a mock sexology lecture by the controversial doctor himself (Howard Pinhasik), loosely knitting together a number of distinctly safe, not all that amusing, and certainly not very sexual nods in the direction of erotic performance art, failed to live up to its introduction, feeling more like a high school or summer camp play than a serious attempt at theatre.
In one skit we learn that homosexuality and heterosexuality are a continuum rather than a dichotomy as we watch a hapless member of the audience betray his previously unrecognized "homoerotic feelings" with rising pulse as he is shown slides of nude men. We watch young Herr Bauer, the bicycle-wheel enthusiast, offer his bare butt to pianist Ramsey so that she can incorporate rhythmic spanking into her musical offering. Readings, supposedly from questionnaires distributed among the audience, provide sexual fantasies to serve as fodder for not-sobawdy, not-so-funny one-liners from the professor -- kind of Jay Leno with a German accent and a 1930's costume.
That sort of thing.
Director Mel Gordon may have had a good concept, but he doesn't fulfill the evening's grand promise -- neither as sexology nor as cabaret nor as period recreation. The actors give it a game go, but they just don't have enough good material to work with. Pinhasik's valiant attempt to impose a consistently German, period-accurate perspective on the freewheeling evening fails in the end. (Someone should have told the charming woman serving aphrodisiac cocktails and desserts, for example, that a Dixie accent is just wrong for this particular show.) Varying the individual acts from performance to performance -- a device incorporated by Gordon perhaps as a creative innovation, perhaps as a logistical necessity -- just doesn't work. The shifting cast never gets a chance to relax and the show never gets to gel.
Perhaps as a result of this unrehearsed feel, the audience -- a mixture of out-of-town tourists having themselves one of them San Francisco experiences, and politely baffled locals checking out Edward Guthmann's respectful review in the Chronicle -- is more timid than enthusiastic, more confused than liberated from inhibition. Some raucous banter between audience and cast would have helped leaven the show, but alas there is little in the script to prod anything genuinely lively from such an uncertain and subdued group.
In the end the lesson seems to be that a sexology lecture does not entertaining cabaret make. The recreation of pre-war Berlin debauchery staged three years ago -- The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber, also written and directed by Gordon -- was both more elaborate and more entertaining. It succeeded in transporting the audience through time and cultural space because it insisted on accurately regenerating the bawdy, irresponsibly lavish, devil-may-care spirit of that period and place. Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld's Museum of Sexology just doesn't care enough to do the same.
Given the haphazard nature of the show, its list of sponsors and benefactors is nothing short of awesome, including The Goethe-Institut, the Holocaust Center, the Harvey Milk Institute, the San Francisco Center for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Art and Culture, the San Francisco Public Library, the Cultural Equity Endowment of the San Francisco Arts Commission, the San Francisco Foundation, and the Zellerbach Family Fund.
So where are all these bestowers of legitimacy and finances when real sex-positive, homosexual-is-as-natural-as-heterosexual, culture -- the Magnus Hirschfeld spirit transposed to 1997 San Francisco -- raises its threatening, unpopular head? Ah yes, I know: that's very much another story. Easier to celebrate the disenfranchised of the past while safely disenfranchising the pervs of the present.
An "East/West Radical Sex Photo Slam"
Which brings me directly to plugging Mark I. Chester's upcoming show of truly radical sexual and erotic photography, Sexart 5. Mark, San Francisco's most persistent and talented curator of excellent, sexually provocative photography and other art, has been pulling together groundbreaking group sexual art shows ever since the debut of the Sexart show concept in September, 1991.
This year's "east/west radical sex photo slam" is a lavish collection of work by photographers from across the country, including Barbara Nitke's infrared images of s/m scenes, Michele Serchuk's romantic images of women and radical sex, Vest Pitts' color photos of performance at a New York leather bar, Tala Brandeis' series of lesbian trannie radical sex, photos by New York photographer Katrina del Mar, and a series of provocative new sexual portraits by Mark himself.
This is the sort of sexual art that all those fancy institutes never manage to put their money behind -- work that is controversial in the here and now, and consequently not so chic to those who like to dabble in disrespectability that has become respectable with the passage of some fifty years. You can be sure there is nothing false, inflated, or emotionally inconsistent about the work that Mark chooses for his Sexart shows. And as word has gotten out about the quality and acclaim these shows gather year after year, the artfulness and variety of the work gets better all the time.
Sexart 5 opens with a gala party Friday, September 19th, 7-11 pm, at the Mark I. Chester Studio, 1229 Folsom Street (between 8th and 9th Streets), San Francisco; $5 admission. If past Sexart openings are any indication, this will be an event not to be missed (although to best see the photography, go back when the place is less crowded). Sexart 5 will be shown through October 12th, Saturday/Sunday, 1-6 pm, or at other times by appointment. For information and appointments, call (415) 292- 3223.
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at firstname.lastname@example.org. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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