Nov 24, 2014

Sexuality in Art

What is your response to the music video above?

There is something compelling about it to me. The music is stirring. The cinematography is poignant. The organic movement and vigor contrasted with the cold, stale industrial environment is very effective, and not the only film to do so in Sigur Ros' "Valtari Mystery Film Experiment" collection. Furthermore, the dancing is unique, allegedly very characteristic of its choreographer, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. And there is no doubt that it crescendos very sexually. This last facet is what has specifically led me to some further reflection and discussion.

I think that what is so powerful about the whole work is that it can be interpreted as showing a natural progression of two people toward the pinnacle of human relationship, much like Song of Songs in the Bible. A man and woman begin isolated, wandering, expressive in their own spheres. But then, reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, they discover one another. At first there is an interchange of surprise and curiosity: Are you like me? Am I like you? The two draw closer. As in a budding friendship, they begin to move together—more and more in sync.

All of this is sexual. Rob Bell writes, "Our sexuality [. . .] has two dimensions. First, our sexuality is our awareness of how profoundly we're severed and cut off and disconnected. Second, our sexuality is all of the ways we go about trying to reconnect. . . . with our world, with each other, and with God" (Sex God). While much of the world—and most Christians—still seem to practically separate the physical and spiritual, thus seeing sex (sexual intercourse) as the only or main expression of sexuality, the reality is that all human interaction is sexual to some degree. Yes, physical sex is a pinnacle of sexual expression; but in its healthiest God-blessed relationship, which is marriage, it presupposes a much deeper level of connection before physical consummation. It is not just about physical desire. It is about moving toward intimacy, toward humanity’s divinely intended state.

The dancers in Valtari definitely come together in a very passionate, physically consummate way at the end of the film. Their last movements suggest unity or oneness—or as much as is possible between two human beings. I have a sense that much of their fervor toward the end, in fact, echoes a God-inspired desire to be one with something—with someone. That it is sacred (see Genesis 2:23-24). Of course, only God can fundamentally and ultimately fulfill that desire. While human beings can experience a reflection of it in the most holistic of love relationships, it is not a complete unity because it is not literally permanent. Thus there is a kind of inevitable longing and tension that remains, even in the most intimate of relationships.

Art that explores the range of human sexuality has long made Christians uncomfortable. Or has it? Regardless, this is very rooted in a history of seeing the human body as something “evil” and, therefore, separable from the “good” human soul. There is further tension, a spiritual battleground really, because sexuality is both productive and destructive. However, like with one’s view of purity and the human body, much of this understanding can be quite subjective. It affects people or is meant to affect people differently depending on the circumstances. That is natural, even intended in art. Moral boundaries—and there certainly are in the relationship between art and faith—are a matter of much debate. Add to that the reality that there is a subjective challenge in defining art in the first place.

What is art?

In this writing, I am aligned more or less with the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s definition. Art is “something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings.” More aligned to the latter statement, I consider art to mean those creative works—whether in film, literature, music, the range of visual mediums, dance, etc.—that are generally characterized by originality, that aspire to examine meaningful ideas about the human condition, and that often transcend entertainment value. This is a very limited definition, but for now it must suffice.

Some celebrate art that examines or demonstrates human sexuality. Some decry it. Churches have been fickle in this regard. For example, the statues in the Vatican were at one time castrated—the genitals literally broken off—or covered by leaves throughout a few hundred years of church history. Much of this was in response to the “secularism” of Renaissance art, though some sexuality in art remains preserved—e.g. Michelangelo’s mural on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Is the plethora of naked human forms depicted in the mural too sexual for Christian viewing? What about Song of Songs’ glorification of sexuality and sex in the Bible?

Granted, I do not really want to see other people having sex. In feature-length films, for example, where viewers have more of a context for the relationship that they are viewing, sex is often an assumed next step in a relationship, a definition of love, or something merely recreational. It is often treated too irreverently, bordering on profane. Or it just lacks the deeper significance of sexuality’s true design and potential, which proves disheartening to some and/or confusing to others. For the most part, in other words, human sexuality in contemporary entertainment and much of art is simply uninspiring in its self-gratification or disillusionment. At least, that is my feeling. But that is not to say that sexuality is wrong in art. The context and heart behind the art, namely the artist, should be considered carefully before leaping to moral conclusions.

Each example will be slightly different, so it is difficult to make a universal moral statement about sexuality in art. Nor should there be, perhaps. Sexuality is too broad an idea. For example, I cannot readily think of a sex scene in a film that stands out to me in capturing the meaningful beauty of sex. A Painted Veil is the one that first comes to mind, but sex is only implied between the married couple, and not shown. I wonder if film is really a good medium to show the beauty of sex anyway. There is probably a lot more that could be considered concerning which art medium is best suited to holistically honoring sex; or whether any medium can do so fully—or if any should do more than suggest it, leaving true discovery for personal experience. But that exceeds the scope of this current writing.

My basic aim in writing about this is to acknowledge that sexuality in art is not inherently sinful. In the case of Valtari by Christian Larson, for example, there is no context by which to assess the two character’s relationship and, therefore, the morality of their actions. It is primarily a visceral experience, a combination of cinematic, photographic, kinesthetic, and musical art. The Bible contains racier settings than the one portrayed in Valtari. Still, most music videos and films do seem to include sexuality purely for the sake of marketing appeal—to sell something, to attract viewers, etc. That kind of motivation seems to be proving detrimental to our culture’s view of sexuality.

Overall, I see Valtari as thoughtful art—discussions of modesty aside, since that too is somewhat relative. That does not mean that I will be watching it all the time. After all, I must be mindful of how it affects me. Each of us must be mindful. Sexuality is powerful, like nudity. It a beautiful gift of God. Therefore, it is sacred, and must be honored and cherished as such—not exploited or used beyond the sphere of God’s highest intent for love, which can only exist in a marriage covenant. Above all, I believe that art like Valtari can serve as a valuable catalyst for discussion and for examining one’s heart, perspective, and motives. It can affirm what is true in an indirect way. All significant art does this.

Still, in the spirit of Paul’s teaching in Romans 14, it seems good to remember that one’s view of art—like with food, drinking alcohol, or viewing a particular day as holy—needs a lot of careful grace when considered in the context of a community or compared with the views of others. It is a matter not to be taken lightly. There are circumstances, in other words, where it is alright for people to disagree and both be honoring their Spirit-inspired convictions.

In the meantime, may we seek to create and/or cultivate works of art that point our culture to a healthy view of sexuality.

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If there are pieces of art in any medium that you find valuable to this discussion of sexuality—namely, that examines sexuality in meaningful, productive way—please share them with me via a link in the comment thread below to help continue the conversation. I welcome your feedback.

1 comment:

Arielle said...

I remember when this video came out. It caught me off guard, however the tormented and gracious beauty of the two dancers really captures me. In many ways it is countercultural, in comparison to Hollywoods glamorous and often times un-realistic take on how two individuals come together. Artistically it shows the graduation of a maturing relationship, in a very real way. The nudity is a striking symbol of that next phase being represented. (On a side note; Sigur Ros was a wonderful choice as well...).
The question is, why has the church at times opted into a mentality where sex equates a gross and a disgusting civic duty, that needs to be performed, by a married couple.

On a more positive note, we are seeing a mentality shift within the last few generations, which appears to be headed toward a more biblical view of sexuality( reffering back to the passages you mentioned, and a few others) My question is what brought about sexualities demonization within the church, and how long has it been viewed from that perspective?

.....Fun things to ponder on a Monday lol.