Can Genitals Be Beautiful?

Egon Schiele: The Leopold Collection, Vienna

exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, October 12, 1997-January 4, 1998., Catalog of the exhibition by Magdalena Dabrowski and Rudolf Leopold
DuMont Buchverlag/Museum of Modern Art, 363 pp., $32.50 (paper)

In Civilization and its Discontents Freud found the civilized love of beauty something of a puzzle: “All that seems certain is its derivation from the field of sexual feeling. The love of beauty seems a perfect example of an impulse inhibited in its aim. ‘Beauty’ and ‘attraction’ [the German Reiz means “stimulus” as well as “attraction”] are originally attributes of the sexual object.” And yet, he goes on, “It is worth remarking that the genitals themselves, the sight of which is always exciting, are nevertheless hardly ever judged to be beautiful; the quality of beauty seems, instead, to attach to certain secondary sexual characters.”1

Breasts, hips, shoulders, and throat, for instance; in females, a rhythmic soft curvaceousness and in males an angular hardness, signifying strength. The beautiful nudes of Western art aren’t close-ups. Only in primitive art, with its urgent need to evoke the sources of fertility, are the phallus and the vulva emphasized, as it were, innocently; by ancient Greek and Roman times there already existed the specialized category of the pornographic—graphic art or writing supposed, like a harlot (pornæ), to sexually stimulate. In a compartmentalized society like premodern Japan’s, shunga erotica, with their giant genitals and decorous faces, form a distinct genre, and a district for prostitution could be set aside as a “floating world.” But in a questioning Western world, where the crucifix and the figures of Adam and Eve give the naked body a sacred sanction reinforced, in the Renaissance, by the artistic authority of classical statuary, the genitals awkwardly cling to an artistic humanism whose epitome and measure is the human form. If men and women have sexual parts and a sexual purpose, how can an art of re-presentation suppress them?

Indeed, Leo Steinberg has persuasively proposed, in his The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (recently issued in a revised and expanded second edition),2 that from before 1400 to the mid-sixteenth century, European religious art emphasized the genitals of the infant Jesus and the dead Christ in an ostentatio genitalium that enforced the doctrine of the divine incarnation. God became, so to speak, all man. But something, perhaps a sexual puritanism present in both Protestantism and the Counter-Reformation, caused a cloud of fig leaves and gravity-defying loincloths to descend, even upon such splendid works as Michelangelo’s boldly frontal Last Judgment and his statue of Risen Christ in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Human male genitals are hard to overlook—harder than those of four-legged animals—while those of the female, happily, are tucked out of sight. No incarnational theology ever championed pubic hair, and with its conventional omission a Diana or Venus as smooth and bland as soap could be displayed in parks and on façades and as decoration in bourgeois homes.

The reassimilation of the genitals into art that could be shown in public galleries and museums has been a relatively recent revolution. In 1917, the Paris police closed an exhibit of Modigliani’s paintings because he…

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