American, b. 1939, The Three Graces 1900, Gelatin silver print (chlorobromide), toned and bleached
It is often argued that Joel-Peter Witkin’s pictures are not pornography because they are art. This seems a false premise. One should ask, rather, whether this work of the pornographic imagination is authentic or not. Is it profoundly perverted, or merely exploitative? As Van Deren Coke has written, is Witkin ‘a wild wicked man, surveying the world for subjects to shock us, or is he a dreamer searching the darkness for revelations of man’s true nature?’ Probably the jury will remain out in perpetuity, but two points seem fairly certain. Firstly, Witkin, by some strange alchemy, manages to avoid the superficial. And secondly, the very ambivalence of his imagery is deeply disquieting. It pricks the conscience at the same time it opens the cabinet of deviant desires.
Witkin’s own ambition for the work is clear, indicating a socio-cultural as well as a psycho-sexual agenda (thought the usual warnings about swallowing artists’ credos wholesale might apply). ‘My hope is not only to show the insanity of our lives, but also that this work will be seen as part of the history of diverse and desperate times.’ His theme is the link between eros, spirituality, and death. His means are the tableau vivant, his mis en scène the chamber of horrors. And his actors? His actors are drawn from dubious realms indeed – the wilder shores of sexual practice, the freak show, and the autopsy table.
The Three Graces represents the lighter side of Joel-Peter Witkin. He might confront the eschatological nightmare unflinchingly – sparing us nothing of the pain of bodily existence and the anguish of death – but not without humour. Macabre irony and ghoulish jokes abound in Witkin. Furthermore, being a good postmodernist and plundering (some would say degrading) art history, much of the fun revolves around sexual and gender inversion, a cariciaturing of desire. Witkin’s Graces, for example, seem to have stepped straight out of an eighteen-fifties erotic daguerreotype, one of those evocative magic mirrors, scratched and pitted with age, that dimly reflect a distant demi-monde of apparently more innocent pleasures. The photographer habitually veils his images in this way, applying a patina of toning and staining that is frequently drawn from the animus of the earliest photographs. This serves to distance us from the horrors within, while at the same time reinforcing them, and formally, generating an aura of faux mementi mori.
Instead of an apple, each member of the masked trio holds the skull of a monkey, a symbol of wordly wisdom. They certainly are potentially all knowing in matters carnal, for they are transexuals, androgynous creatures of the night who ply both sides of the sexual street. They might say that they have the best of both worlds, though probably in actuality they have the worst of either. Their stigmata might be self-inflicted, but they are truly the ‘wise’, to use Irving Goffman’s renowned expression3 – if only the streetwise. Already a creeping patina of corruption, eating away at their faces and feet, implies that a terrible price might be exacted for that forbidden knowledge.