Seduced at the Barbican

    I want to write this week about good sex and bad sex. In art, that is. The country seems to be going through one of its recurrent touchy periods on these topics, and an exhibition called Seduced, which has popped up at exactly the right moment at the Barbican Art Gallery, claims to be trying to tackle them.

    First, a résumé of the knicker-twisting. A few weeks ago, an exhibition of photographs from the Elton John collection opened at the Baltic in Gateshead. In the show was a picture by the American photo-punk Nan Goldin of a couple of small girls dancing in a kitchen in a dishevelled state: happy and undressed. Usually on these occasions, Knacker of the Yard gets called in by an irate member of the public, but in this instance, it was the gallery staff, who, in a display of unforgivable ignorance of the aims of their artist, summoned the police to “precheck” the image for paedophile potential. The police saw some.

    The image was removed. As a result, Elton John angrily withdrew the rest of his collection from the gallery. And where once there was a passionate and stimulating display, there is now a hole.

    The entire affair was pathetic. The gallery staff were pathetic for showing excess caution and a lack of conviction on behalf of their artists. Knacker of the Yard was pathetic for finding anything other than appropriateness and typicality in the image. And the rest of us are pathetic – profoundly, destructively, alarmingly, depressingly pathetic – for allowing our society to get into such a confused state about photos of kids that I am no longer able to record mementos of my daughters swimming in Highgate Ponds, and famous news-readers are reported to the police by staff at Boots for sending in pictures of their children having a bath. What have we become?

    As it happens, more work by Goldin is in Seduced, and once again, there are naked children in her loud and emotional mix, and, yes, the boys are showing their willies. The piece they appear in is one of the best things in the show, a pictorial ode to happy couples, called Heartbeat, in which various French pairings hug and love each other, occasionally in the company of their kids, while Björk on the soundtrack sings moody Kyrie elei-sons to an intense religious score by John Tavener. Since I went to a Catholic boarding school, where I was taught both Latin and heavy Mass-going, I can tell you that Kyrie eleison means “Lord, have mercy”, and that, by having it playing while her naked couples pleasure each other, Goldin is poetically asking questions of exactly the guilts and darknesses that are relevant here: the guilts and darknesses that have been relevant since Eve seduced Adam and produced us as a result.

    Goldin’s piece is fabulous. Its ecstatic, slightly batty tone reminded me of the poetry of Sylvia Plath. Others, however, will hear only the tap, tap, tap of the paedophiliac voyeur surfing the internet. And they will forget that art has always been interested in sex, and always will be.

    One of the few things Seduced – an irresolute show, with many faults – succeeds in indicating is how ancient these problematics are. Hence, the excited Roman satyr at the centre of the opening vista, pinning a struggling nymph onto his stiff little spear. If you called it a rape fantasy, you would not be wrong. But it’s a rape fantasy that is 2,000 years old and that is usually found in the Capitoline museum, sited by Michelangelo on the most important hill in Rome.

    Hence, too, the Greek plates from 480BC-460BC, on which bearded Attic warriors mount silhouetted attacks upon the rears of their naked wives and boyfriends. This Attic shagging crockery, with which the Greeks amused themselves at banquets, is not usually on show to the public. Or, at least, it never used to be. It forms part of the infamous Gabinetto Segreto, the secret cabinet at the national archeological museum in Naples, in which naughty ancient art was stored, made available only to “mature persons of secure morals” – until 2000, when, in a magnificently satanic gesture, the Neapolitan authorities decided to let everyone have a peep, as their contribution to the papal celebrations of the Great Jubilee.

    This hilarious unveiling is worth remembering because a telling aspect of the story of sex in art is that it isn’t actually one story, but two. The first story is the one you would expect to follow: the ancient saga of art’s fixation with the sex act. But running parallel to that, and butting in every step of the way, is the story of censorship. As soon as human beings began making art about sex, they began simultaneously to feel furtive and guilty about it.

    The events in Gateshead are merely a recent example.

    Seduced has announced rather proudly that it is the first exhibition in Britain open only to visitors who are over 18 years old. Yet the display opens not with a proper example of art about sex, but with a giant plaster fig leaf that was used to cover up the tiny penis of Michelangelo’s David when the quickly offended Queen Victoria visited Florence. By becoming the first exhibit in this show, Victoria’s ludicrous fig leaf makes it obvious that we are dealing here with an aesthetic terrain that turns people giggly and unreliable.

    Witness, for instance, the claims made by the organisers of Seduced in their absurd opening statement: “Sexual reproduction is the process by which we have come into being,” warbles the first caption unctuously. “We are offering you the pleasure of being seduced by the artistry with which sexual subjects have been brought to life.” Note the royal “we”. This wholesome-sounding guff about reproduction and “coming into being” turns out to be entirely misleading, because there isn’t a work on the opening floor that can honestly be said to be about fertility or procreation. All of the ancient acrobatics secreted away in these spooky cabinets are about ruthless international pleasure-taking: boys, girls, whoever is around.

    That these are global fixations, pan-cultural, pan-religious, is made strikingly evident by an energetic Turkish manuscript in which Shaykh Muhammad Ibn Mustafa Al-Misri shows himself having anal sex with an assortment of soldiers and servants, mostly male, sometimes female. “Ah, the days of our youth,” reads the accompanying inscription. Some nearby Persian miniatures of the 19th century tackle the tackles rather more gracefully and remind us what a stentorian loss it was when Islam turned so rabidly against its own historic sensuality.

    Neat Indian illustrations of the Kama Sutra; florid Japanese shunga of small men with huge phalluses; exquisite Chinese interiors, in which the love-making is as elegant as the tea-pouring – all add up to a survey of international sex that is wide-reaching but distinctly unarousing. It is this event’s most surprising failing: it isn’t sexy. And since so much of the western stuff on show was made to be carried in secret pockets or stored in hidden drawers, it doesn’t have the space, either, or the time, to become good art, and tends towards a furtive quickness. See, for example, the awful illustrations to the Marquis de Sade.

    The invention of photography was a boon because it did away with the need for bad and hasty squiggling. It is around here that the show’s pulse begins to quicken: at precisely the point where the divide between art and pornography is eradicated. I mean, I enjoyed the shenanigans from Jonathan Ross’s private collection as much as the next appreciator of creative Victorian coupling, but is there some reason I’m missing why this isn’t shaky porn, pure and simple?

    Artistically, the show only really springs to tumescent life upstairs, where the most recent examples of sex’s relationship with art are preserved. This is where Goldin appears, where Jeff Koons’s hilariously kitsch antics with La Cicciolina are gathered, and where some grainy Thomas Struths loom up, too blurred to arouse. Here, at last, you feel you are looking at art that does not actually conceal a furtive pornographic agenda. It is this show’s ultimate irony: the first era to tackle these subjects that doesn’t have covert pornographic ambitions is ours.