Is sex dead? that's the main question raised by the opening last week of the Museum of Sex. The respectably safe and buried -- hallowed by irrelevance -- is what usually enters museums. The truly new and challenging occurs elsewhere. For this reason, artists often display a superstitious horror at the prospect of a retrospective, since attention by a museum implies that one's time has passed. Where sex is concerned, there may be a few New Yorkers who believe that it still has the power to upset, transform, and subvert the broader culture, and at appropriate points a Jerry Falwell can be found to throw a fit. But sex has obviously lost most of its kinks. It is manifestly mainstream. Good boys and girls watch Sex and the City on Sundays. Gay marriages are reported in the New York Times. Writers confess their fetishes in The New Yorker. Sex is Connecticut.
The opening of the Museum of Sex, located on Fifth Avenue and 27th Street, is part of this evolution. Far from being disturbing, its inaugural exhibit -- "NYC Sex: How New York City Transformed Sex in America" -- has the earnest, educational air of a college survey course. Organized by Grady T. Turner, it headlines pivotal public moments, such as the murder of the prostitute Helen Jewett in 1836 and the Stonewall Uprising in 1969, and it draws out essential themes, among them the development of vaudeville and burlesque, the covert origins of S&M, the reign of Playboy, and the emergence of AIDS. It contains photographs, illustrations, books, stag films, taped interviews, various curiosities (such as tokens from 42nd Street peep shows), and some examples of modern porn. Although the designers of the exhibit allude to the shadowy history of the subject by using chain-link curtains to enclose some spaces, the atmosphere is very white, clean, and almost sterile -- an autopsy room of academia. Visitors browse about with audio-guide phones held to their ears. I watched one middle-aged woman listen, a studious expression on her face, to an analysis of Vanessa del Rio performing oral sex.
Sex in the darker ages -- before modern porn carpet-bombed the scene -- is the most interesting part of the exhibit. People once had to smuggle their obsessions into the back rooms of the Bowery or hide them behind disguises. This led to marvelous forms of indirection. At a time when elaborate dresses imprisoned the bodies of women, nearly naked cortortionists became very popular. Homosexual desire found form in the seemingly innocent guise of admiring muscle. The comics were often wonderfully subversive. Batman obviously had more on his mind than saving civilization. (So did Catwoman, with her taste for whips and leather.) Some of the lurid melodrama was very funny: The nineteenth century was eager for stories about white maidens sold into slavery. Today, the awkward, Playboy-inspired attempts to make sex as wholesome as Wheaties -- such as a hilarious piece of kitsch called Diary of a Nudist -- seem almost as distant as that nineteenth-century "traffic in souls."
Despite its academic aura, the exhibit has a starry-eyed quality. Those who inhabited the underworld appear as both victims and heroes. They seem to embody an implicit moral: They lived difficult lives and fought important battles so that today we can emerge from shadow into the light of sexual freedom. Well, perhaps. Tolerance is without question a great and hard-won virtue, but sex is also a sometimes darker, deeper, and more intractable force than this perspective suggests. The show would benefit from the inclusion of more actual art, which can explore the ambiguity not only of gender but of existence itself. One of the strongest images is a self-portrait by Thomas Painter, a man who documented his obsession with "rough trade" from the late forties until the sixties. In his brilliant and melancholy portrait of youth and age, surface and depth, Painter presents himself standing before a mirror with a beaming piece of naked beefcake. The clothed Painter, camera in hand, appears lost in the reflections of his bought Narcissus.