Co-Directors of Feminism & Co.: Art, Sex, Politics, Elissa Auther and Gillian Silverman, sat down with artist Maya Gurantz to talk about her MCA Denver installation The Whore’s Dialogue, on view at MCA Denver in the Whole Room from April 11 – June 23, 2013. Maya will be speaking at MCA Denver on Thursday, April 11 as part of MCA Denver's series Feminism & Co.: Art, Sex, Politics.
Fem & Co.: Maya, tell us about the history of the “whore’s dialogue.”
Maya Gurantz: The whore’s dialogue is an extinct genre of literary pornography, in which an older libertine schools a young protégé about sex and seduction as well as society (a lot of time is spent dissecting human nature, local politics, manners, survival tips). The main portion of the text of a whore’s dialogue involves the Mother’s advice to her Daughter; it often includes a Daughter’s response, in which she describes her own experience after her wedding night, her first lover, or after having turned her first trick.
The form emerged in early Renaissance Italy as an erotic and parodic take on Plato’s Dialogues, which had recently re-entered intellectual life. The whore’s dialogue remained the dominant form of written porn in Europe for hundreds of years, and it took until the late 1700s before a major erotic work was written in a style other than a dialogue. The word “pornography,” coined in 1857, means “whore’s story” or “whore’s writing” and early erotic novels maintained a structure based around a whore’s storytelling. The Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom (1785) and Justine (1791) or John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748) are good examples of the style.
FC: How did you come across this genre of writing?
MG: I came to the whore’s dialogue backwards, through two layers of adaptation. The filmmaker Luis Bunuel led me to the Marquis de Sade, and de Sade led me to the whore’s dialogue.
Portait of Donatien Alphonse Francois, the Marquis de Sade, c. 1730
The final act of Buñuel’s film L’Age D’Or (1930) is based on de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. The title card for the section briefly summarized the novel’s plot involving four corrupt nobles who stage a bestial orgy. It went on to say,
“To them, the life of a woman mattered no more than that of a fly. They took with them eight lovely adolescent girls to serve as victims for their criminal desires. Plus four women well versed in debauchery, whose narrative skills would serve to stimulate their already jaded appetites whenever interest flagged.”
I instantly zeroed in on that last part—forget the virgins, I thought—who are those women?! That led me to the original novel.
In 120 Days of Sodom, the old madams who narrate the orgy quickly become the central characters. De Sade spends a lot of time making clear that this sex party absolutely cannot happen without these women and most of the book revolves, Scheherazade-like, around their sexual histories.
Caterina Boratto as Signora Castelli in Pier Paolo Pasolini's 120 Days of Sodom, 1976
In further researching de Sade and erotic literature of the period, I came across other whore’s dialogues, which were clearly the basis for de Sade’s raconteuses. It was fascinating to learn that a dominant form of porn involved an older woman telling a younger woman about sex. This exchange held such erotic charge for hundreds of years but is now, essentially, absent from erotic and pornographic discourses.
Still from Pier Paolo Pasolini's 120 Days of Sodom, 1976
Living in Los Angeles, it also made me think of how women actors become invisible as they age. It’s ironic, because the more experienced they are, the better they are at what they do. Those two thoughts collided and that was the start of the piece.
FC: Is your installation The Whore’s Dialogue connected to your personal life in any way?
MG: That’s an interesting question. My work usually is not directly personal, and I wouldn’t say that The Whore’s Dialogue is either. However, although it’s not a piece about me, it definitely has more of a synergy with my personal life than my work usually does.
The idea, of the older woman’s role as the taxonomist of the perverse—a sexual memoirist, if you will—relegated entirely to the role of language, seemed to be a provocative container for my own ambivalent and conflicted investigations of sexuality and gender.
When I first had the idea, I was a new, first-time mother. Getting married and having babies wasn’t something I had ever fantasized about or yearned for. And yet, here I was, living out hetero-normative clichés I had resisted all my life. It was like the Talking Heads song, “Once in a Lifetime”—I woke up and thought, “how did I get here?”
At the same time, in the news, I was reading story after story after story about incredibly complex sex crimes, including men locking up their daughters in basements and raping them for twenty years and child predators with these intricate, sophisticated modes of grooming and abuse. Everywhere, everywhere, there is this constant parade of brutality and prurient details, and it just seems ubiquitous, horrifying and humdrum all at the same time.
While I’m thinking about the de Sade characters… the authority and skill possessed by these women comes from their encyclopedic sexual experience. But it doesn’t mean they are empowered or independent. Their childhood initiations into sex all involve being abused by various old lechers. They are hired to make a really brutal, murderous orgy possible by keeping the hosts aroused; they are entirely complicit in the machine.
So I was thinking about the strange inevitabilities of gender roles and wondering if there’s any escape from them or our increasingly pornographic culture, in which everything—horror, arousal, pleasure, violence—becomes the same, just another form of creating sensation.
It’s an exploration, an interrogation, more than an answer.
FC: In a museum setting, you usually see the sexual material, but in The Whore’s Dialogue you listen to it. Were you thinking about this inversion when conceptualizing the piece?
MG: What a great question—it did not occur to me in exactly that way.
The visual language was about framing these women as simply and directly and elegantly as possible—in order to elevate their virtuosity as experienced performers as they demonstrate ease and mastery with such explicit material.
Explicit sexual imagery in museums provokes sensation in the viewer—but it doesn’t necessarily make them think, or question their own complicity. You can just blame anything you feel on the picture. In this piece, the explicit sexual picture is purposefully absent—it’s turned into memory and language—so that any sexual images that come to the viewer’s head are entirely his or her own. The viewer may or may not create the pictures in his or her head—but it makes the viewer more active, more complicit in the production of sexual imagery.
FC: In your understanding, what’s the relationship between pornography and politics?
MG: It’s a Brechtian idea that all interactions between people are political interactions. It’s something I think about a lot.
In her study “Sade and the Pornographic Legacy,” the scholar Frances Ferguson writes that porn “shifts the burden of sexuality from sensation to representation...from individual bodies to the political world. Pornography thus registers the symbolic capital of even of apparently private experience.”
Illustration from Raimondi's I Modi or the Sixteen Pleasures, 1524
In other words, pornography makes the intimate political by putting the private into the realm of language and discourse. This idea was very provocative for me in creating The Whore’s Dialogue. It’s different than how pornography is usually thought of.
And it’s interesting that the most influential writer of whore’s dialogues was a political satirist, Pietro Aretino (1492-1556), nicknamed “The Scourge of Princes.” Another whore’s dialogue of the era, La Cazzaria (The Book of the Prick, by Antonion Vignali, 1525), actually climaxes in an “extended fable of civic conflict in which personified body parts fight for dominance in an imaginary commonwealth.” Cocks, Cunts, Assholes and Balls each correlated to one of the major factions of Sienese politics. Vignali was allegorizing the collapse of his state’s government as a fragmented body.