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John Currin Fights Repressive Fundamentalism … By Painting Porn?

The artist John Currin is striving to bring sexy back, and he believes that the future of civilization depends on it. The New Yorker profiled the artist's career last week, focusing on his recent pornography-inspired paintings. (A small portion of the article with artwork is online.) Through "painting porn," Currin says that he seeks to challenge liberal, western societies that have disavowed — and refused to defend — artists who critique and attack puritanical, anti-sex ideologies, or offend the sensibilities of religious fundamentalists. His interest was piqued by the controversy over cartoons of Mohammed in European newspapers:

"That the Times decided it was not going to show the cartoons-O.K., they're terrible-ass cartoons from a quality standpoint, but the idea that those thugs get offended and we just acquiesce, that was the most astonishing display of cowardice. And the killing of Theo van Gogh, the film director, by some jihadist in Amsterdam-all of a sudden the most liberal societies in the world were having intimidation murders happen. That's when it occurred to me that we might lose this thing-not the Iraq war but the larger struggle." … Currin talked about low birth rates in Europe, and people having sex without babies, and pornography as a kind of elegy to liberal culture…

Will Currin succeed in politicizing porn? Will his reaction-provoking paintings, such as "The Danes" and "Women of Franklin Street" inspire liberal societies to rise up against the forces of violent religiosity?

Maybe, but Currin fails to address an ominous paradox: He wants to spark resistance to censorship, but he's using a medium that has lost its ability to shock anyone. The pornography industry is suffering at the creatively destructive hands of the market. Sex has been sold, sold and sold. Consumers are past the point of saturation. The corporate extensions of the biz are in crisis due to Internet piracy and amateur video. High definition is "ruining" the "quality" of porn because every blemish becomes magnified, reducing those perfect bodies to flawed flesh with wrinkles and surgical scars.

Even the definition of pornography has been lost. The hyper-publicized paparazzi trophies of 2007 — crotch-shots of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan — blurred the line between pornography and celebrity gossip-mongering. The label "pornographic" no longer elicits major outrage. The majority of our population would no longer hold book burnings to purify the world of sinful material. Instead pornography simply bores us.

Unless the mullahs of London and Amsterdam subscribe to the New Yorker or take a pilgrimage to the Gagosian Gallery, Currin's jabs at sexually repressed extremists might very well go unnoticed. (Will the same newspapers that were afraid to run the Mohammed cartoons decide to spotlight Currin's provocations?) Nevertheless, Currin's intermingling of Hustlerian voyeurism with "Mannerist compositions echoing Old Masters from Baldung to Parmigianino" makes his work striking. Even if no political mobilization arises, Currin's "elegy to liberal culture" is a solace for those who are disgusted with flaccid western complacency.

Related: Arabs Hot For Israeli Porn  

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