The Mostly True History of Art

[Warning: If you have any respect for either art or sexual propriety (or yourself), you probably won’t want to come within the same postal code as this article. Just sayin’.]

A recent visit to see antiquities at The Cyprus Museum got me thinking about ancient art in general — which led, as it necessarily must, to contemplation upon the subject of sex. Specifically, some of the Cypriot pieces reminded me of the tiny beauty above, the famous “Venus of Willendorf.”

A well-known Paleolithic damsel discovered in Austria at the outset of the 20th Century, Venus is one of humankind’s oldest known artworks, clocking in at around 25,000 years or so. (Almost as old as Chuck Grassley!)

As is clear from the photo, she’s a pretty weird little homunculus, though certain features stand out, shall we say, quite recognizably. When I first learned about her in Art History 101, long back in the day, she was considered in contemporary scholarship to have been a fertility figure. Since that time, it’s also been suggested that she might have been a good-luck charm, or a “mother goddess”, or (in the Encyclopedia Britannica‘s hilariously obfuscatory phrase), “an aphrodisiac made by men for the appreciation of men.”

All of which, of course, is complete ass.

I mean, c’mon, look at this chick. The naked truth is that Venus and others of her ilk are history’s earliest Hustler fold-outs, and you don’t have to think hard to imagine the rather oogy use to which early men subjected them. I have zero doubt that some stone age dude carved this little statue as a visual aid, so that when his horny index got a bit too high, he could grab her, duck behind the ol’ wattle-and-daub when the kids weren’t looking, and rub out a quick one to break the fever.

The Mostly True History of Art

I know what you’re thinking. (Not that. I mean the other thing.) You’re thinking that Venus hardly looks like a Miss Universe contender, and hey, I hear you; but to a fellow in prehistoric times, gaunt with starvation and disease and facing a lifespan measurable in a handful of Scaramuccis, standards of beauty would have been a bit different than they are today. Also, given the demographics of the time, most of the romantic comparables would have been four legged and woolly. To that guy, this little pestle of porn would have looked like Megan Fox.

For some reason — lack of imagination, presumably — men have always required visual aids in order to attain that state of mind that facilitates the autoerotic experience. And after a lifetime of visiting galleries and museums both large and small, I’ve come to the conclusion that that precise need has been the prime mover for the development of art through the ages. Because if there is a single thread that runs throughout the history of art, both east and west, and ties it together, it is this:


I know — you think that’s too sweeping a statement (and you can’t believe I used the word tits in the #MeToo era). So try this experiment for yourself: Enter a moderate-sized city art museum, walk through the collection, and count the number of breasts you find just sort of hanging out without any reasonable explanation (or clothing). Now go outside, walk down the block, and do the same calculation. If the ratio of museum boobs to street boobs is less than about 145 to 1, you live in a nudist colony (and congratulations on that, by the way).

Admittedly, all that bosom-baring was confined to art of the ancient world, and through the ages we outgrew such sophomoric displays of — ha ha ha ha ha ha! — sorry, I couldn’t keep a straight face there. Truth is, underdressed women have been a staple of galleries, art academies, and bathroom graffiti all the way up to the present day.

Though there are literally tens of thousands of examples in major museums alone, one of my favorite is the famous Delacroix painting Liberty Leading the People (below, 1830). A picture that could easily be confused for a Mardi Gras tourist photo, it illustrates the indisputable fact that if a woman pulls down her bra straps, men will follow her anywhere, even if gunfire is involved.

Now ask yourself, why and by whom has all this breastage been deemed necessary to the forward progress of art? Because it seems pretty likely only one gender is implicated here. To put it another way, let me just suggest that if Larry Flynt and the four-color printing press had been around since Olduvai Gorge, the fine arts would almost surely never have happened.

Yes, yes, of course I’m overstating it. It is not true that art is all about bosoms. Proclivities being what they are, other naughty bits have been indispensable components as well.

In that regard, I draw your attention (as if your attention could stray anywhere else) to the fellow on the left of the illustration below. In case you were wondering, that is Priapus, depicted in a wall painting in the ruins of Pompeii. Priapus was a Greek god, who was known especially for… well, let’s just say it wasn’t for his jump shot (though I imagine under certain circumstances he might have acquitted himself pretty well at hockey). As with our little Venus figure, Priapus here has been lent a fig leaf of respectability by academics as being a fertility god; though I’m thinking any worship of this particular image in Pompeii would have occasioned more elbow grease than silent prayer, if you take my meaning.

Antiquity was overall quite approving of the male junk, as evidenced for instance by the many herm statues in Greek and Roman art, like the Arcadian chap to the right, above. Aside from the fact that ED was clearly not a widespread problem for the ancients, I think we can also learn from the proliferation of these penis pylons that suggestive genitalia were not just incidental to the classical art appreciation experience, but in fact pretty much the point of the exercise. (I suspect the heads were only deemed necessary in order to tell which bits belonged to which model.)

Not surprisingly, the artists of the Renaissance, aping in all things the example of antiquity, lustily took up the exuberant sexuality of Greek and Roman art, thus keeping it safe for the next several hundred years of wealthy male voyeurs. In that regard, one need only recall Michelangelo’s magnificent David, for instance — standing proudly in the Piazza della Signoria as he prepares to go to battle with Goliath, clad in nothing but his sling and, er, a couple stones.

Ah, there you go thinking again. What about the middle ages? Where did the smutty art go then? As it happens, there was a paucity of art of any kind during much of the medieval period, and what little there was, was dedicated primarily to ecclesiastical purposes. So, naturally there was smut! Check out the cute couple below, carved into the stone of two different medieval churches in northern Spain.

Then, of course, there are the manuscript marginalia of nuns picking penises off phallus trees, naked ladies riding cock dragons, and such. Tragically, though, a great deal of the medieval church’s money that might have gone into illuminated pictures of monks and nuns boinking were lavished instead on reliquaries — jewel- and gold-encrusted boxes that held bones or other pieces purportedly from the bodies of saints. It was thought that such consecrated vessels held the power of healing maladies and expunging sins. Given the lack of bony structure or durable membrane that could have preserved the saints’ fancy parts, the middle ages could unfortunately offer no Shrine of the Vulva of St. Hildegaard, or Reliquary of St. Anthony’s Epididymis. Otherwise, who knows what sorts of diseases might have been ameliorated?

Here in the latter centuries, influenced by the ever-growing and salubrious participation of women as both producers and consumers, art has come to embody a great deal else besides masturbation fodder — including such wholesome subjects as fruit still lifes, water lilies, unmade beds, balloon animals, stuffed and deteriorating sharks, self-shredding pictures, whatever this fucking thing is, and a host of other stuff.

So, what’s the point of all this exegesis? None, aside from the fact that I’m a retired web developer with time and a laptop, and not enough sense to refrain from using it.

If there is a lesson in here somewhere, though, I suppose it’s that sometimes we go overboard to attach more profundity to things than they really justify, just to distance ourselves from the primitive meatsacks we like to think we evolved from. Maybe we’ve been over-ennobling this whole “art” dodge from the get-go.

Maybe, instead of being the harbinger of 250 centuries of ever more refined aesthetic sensibilities, the Venus of Willendorf was just something to help a lonely caveman buff the beefstick. Ya think?

Published by Ronald Crittenden

American SciFi writer in France. Amateur historian of art and war. Tea not coffee, s'il vous plait, and don't forget to say hi to your dog for me.

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