Taboo is often times a sub-genre of art that delves into an area that makes people uncomfortable. Pubic hair, menstruation, sex, fetish–the list goes on. For the purpose of this opinion piece, I’m going to talk about the photography medium, because that’s where my expertise lies. I’d love to know your thoughts on taboo in other areas of art in the comments below.
a social or religious custom prohibiting or restricting a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing.
I attended a Robert Mapplethorp documentary screening last night (sep 25 2016). It was eye opening, very sexually explicit, incredibly captivating and what many would class as taboo. Afterwards, a Question and Answer talk with Bill Henson, which turned more into a talk about censorship, intimacy and tabooism, but I didn’t mind that at all. But it got me thinking about taboo, and thinking about it on the train ride home I came to a conclusion. It’s all bullshit.
Let me explain. Taboo is simply a reaction to something natural, yet society wants to pretend it doesn’t exist. Period blood, fecal matter, anal fisting in leather chaps with a gag in your mouth. It all happens, it’s all perfectly normal… but society wants to block it out.
Taboo is bullshit for the simple fact that the topics that make up taboo are all completely natural activities and thoughts that people have and do. Sure it might make you uncomfortable, but that’s just your insecurities and inability to handle what’s being offered up. But that doesn’t make it taboo.
I’m going to use Mapplethorpe’s photography as an example here.
His nude photos. The S&M work, is not taboo one iota. It doesn’t even shock me in the slightest if thinking about the taboo topic, because I know that people partake in these kind of fetishes and acts. I know it exists. It does certainly take me aback when I’m suddenly confronted with an image of a pinky finger, inserted like a catheter into the urethra of a penis. But it doesn’t take me aback because it’s taboo, it takes me aback because “fuck; how is that enjoyable?”. This is simply my insecurity and inability to handle what I’m viewing. It’s not taboo. It’s normal and it’s natural… Believe it or not.
I’ll use another example that may be a bit more relatable. I was in a uni lecture the other week, I cannot remember the photographer, but on screen was an image of a toilet with period blood staining the water. Again, I didn’t think that this was taboo because – and I invite you to agree but with me – it’s perfectly natural and every woman goes through it. It might make them feel a little uncomfortable, probably more so men, but it’s not taboo. Now; I don’t think it had to be shown. There was no reason for it to have been photographed and showcased. It doesn’t add to the discussion of art or add anything to the art world. It’s not something we need to talk about to break the ‘taboo stigma’. It’s simply a private matter that every woman endures that everybody knows about… Whether we talk about it or not.
Taboo is a concept invented by society as a coping mechanism to try and understand the art world.
Going back to Mapplethorpe, his S&M images are pornography. It’s blatant, and straightforward and that’s the point. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but it’s not art. It has no place in a gallery because I, and everyone else can look at porn whenever we want. Or better yet we can go and enjoy sex ourselves. We can take part in the real thing instead of looking at prints on a wall. The person taking the pornographic image doesn’t make it any more or less pornographic than it makes it art. Of course when these images were being shot the internet wasn’t around. But this type of photography was being printed in magezines and pornography videos long before Mapplethorpe was exhibiting it. There is nothing overtly special about the images, it’s just simple hardcore porn.
Maybe sexual taboo had a place in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s because perhaps the general population weren’t as aware of it as we are today. But taboo in art and photography today really has no place. It’s a fictional ideology that has no place in the modern art world. Everyobdy acklowdelges the existance of every fetish on earth, every sexual desire, all the diseases and health issues. The world is a more knowledgable place today than it was 40 years ago.
Nothing is shocking or disturbing because it’s taboo. It’s shocking and disturbing because of you.