Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 6, 2017
Jennifer Tyburczy Sex Museums: The Politics and Performance of Display Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. 296 pp.; 27 b/w ills. Paper $37.50 (9780226315249)
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I have been carrying around Jennifer Tyburczy’s Sex Museums: The Politics and Performance of Display for months now, and have received, understandably, quite some attention for it. I have been reading it on my morning commute to work on the train, sitting in cafes and parks with it, and, most notably, have been often seen with it at work, much to the amusement of my students. Not only do people have a lot to say about the title, but the cover image furthers the book’s seductive allure. It features the dorsal view of a person in front of Gustave Courbet’s L’origine du monde (1866), her head placed precisely between the figure’s thighs, such that it looks—quite humorously I might add—as though Courbet’s sensual subject is being visually, but also perhaps physically, consumed by the spectator. Both details amount to the variety of “knowing looks” that Tyburczy surely anticipated and desired in writing this book. Sex Museums is one of those texts that challenges the binary methods that continue to structure more conventional approaches to art-historical studies of the museum. Instead, Tyburczy provocatively weaves together a mode of research and writing that thickens the role of sex in the museum, and in so doing cracks open an unwieldy composition of narratives, critical approaches, and sensual objects to thinking the pleasure and politics of display.

The book’s preface immediately throws the reader into the National Portrait Gallery’s 2010 removal of David Wojnarowicz’s work A Fire in My Belly (1986–87) from the exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. This framing establishes the particular significance of controversies around queerness in museum display and the ongoing manifestations of the culture wars in the reception and circulation of contemporary art in the United States. Tyburczy extends this legacy into her introduction, where she makes clear the centrality of normative modes of policing as evident in the ideological function of the museum as an extension and storing house for objects of white supremacist, patriarchal, and heteronormative structures and practices. Tyburczy’s introduction is disciplinarily unruly as she moves through performance studies, museum studies, queer theory, and feminist studies in record speed and enacts an intersectional approach to questions of display. Her introduction mobilizes an attention to the body as a meaningful container, maker, and arbiter of knowledge—a seemingly simple intervention that informs how Tyburczy impacts the role of sex, and thus pleasure and desire, in modern and contemporary visual practices within the museum.

The chapters that follow analyze how modes of display are wrought with conditions of scandal that only sex can mobilize. These scandals are performed, sometimes spectacularly and sometimes more insidiously, and are only possible in the service of securing normative (read: white, straight, and male) desires. Tyburczy stunningly accounts for the structure imposed by what she calls “patriarchial perspectivalism” in modes of display as well as their reception in the modern museum (14). These ideological storehouses becomes sites of contestation (and sometimes live conflict) when the museum displays “sex objects” that sometimes take the form of renowned modernist paintings and sometimes sex toys. Indeed, Tyburczy’s suggestion—as indicated by the introduction’s title—that “all museums are sex museums” compels the reader to reconsider both the proper location and notion of propriety itself in the presentation of pleasure in the museum.

Each chapter revolves around a set of seemingly divergent examples of displays of sex as performative endeavors. The book’s first chapter presents Tyburczy’s notion of “erotic exhibitionism” as a “consistent and crucial component of patriarchal perspectivalism marked by white privileged access” which is mostly activated by the “slow reveal of striptease of the object itself and highly managed spectatorship” (40). Tyburczy applies this notion of erotic exhibitionism as it most explicitly becomes known in the story of Courbet’s L’origine du monde and its mythical appearance, disappearance, then sudden reappearance in psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s personal art collection. Tyburczy makes a case that Lacan’s performative exhibition of the work (in which he notably offered a “big reveal” to his guests at the end of their time with him) enacts a choreography of display that indeed influences—if not instructs—his theory of the gaze and its lasting impact on female sexuality (50). In this move, Tyburczy repositions at the heart of his theory Lacan’s own embodied subjectivity as it relates to the sensuous female figure in Courbet’s painting. Pulling back the mythological “nonposition” of his subjectivity (as a subject whose particularity is ignored and is thus assumed to be “universal”), Tyburczy opens up the role of sex as an at least two-way experience—one in which the object of display is but one mere body in relation to the conditions of its erotic exhibition. This early moment in the book serves as an example of one of two pivotal interventions that Tyburczy makes. Firstly, she focuses attention on the more subtle facets that shape the contours of these histories: the performative gestures (Lacan’s exhibitionary striptease), incongruous embraces (like that of the male nude under Nazism), and implicit signs (as in those WARNING signs that flag sexual content in museums).

Secondly, Tyburczy also examines what she calls “queer curatorship” as an active practice of reconceptualizing how sex can work in the museum (2). This move is best identified in her own writing in which she disrupts linear time, placing moments in unaligned historical relation, as a way to think about the anachronistic relationship between sex, display, and spectatorship. For example, in chapter 2, historical events are not placed within a normative timeline of history’s progressive sequence, but instead happen outside of causality or progress. In this version of a history, Mary Richardson’s 1914 slashing of Diego Velázquez’s The Rokeby Venus (ca. 1647) is told before the 1913 effigy of copies of three Matisse paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago. If only Tyburczy pushed this methodological device to its limit, readers would be asked to reconsider the relationship between history and the contemporary in a more dynamic—and perhaps non-normative—way. But while some chapters blur their temporal propriety in relation to their narrating of early to mid-twentieth-century moments, they all “end” with contemporary examples, thus reinscribing these temporal logics despite Tyburczy’s clearly stated desire to scandalize the mandates of academic writing.

The book is a dynamic and compelling study of the wide-ranging modalities in which sex has been displayed in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries. Tyburczy joins writers, methods, theories, and objects otherwise uncoupled, and in so doing brilliantly archives an approach to museum studies that accounts for gendered, racialized, and sexualized histories and theories of display. Her study is an urgent example of contemporary institutional critique that seduces us by asking us to look and feel sex differently in the museum, and therefore opens us to the affective elements of surprise enacted by encountering pleasure in public. What Tyburczy seeks is that those knowing looks compelled by the book’s title and cover are perhaps more queer than not.

Sampada Aranke
Assistant Professor, History and Theory of Contemporary Art, San Francisco Art Institute

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.