A Lesson in Dildo Art History

02/05/2013 11:31 AM |

I spy two dildos in Henry Avrils lithograph.
  • I spy two dildos in Henry Avril’s lithograph.

Over the centuries, dildos have made many people happy. Dildo art hasn’t made such an impact, but it’s not for lack of trying. Today, the most common dildo art remains in the world of Etsy, like this “tentacled horror”, or in Williamsburg, where you can purchase these “glamorous towers of strength” featuring powerful women throughout history like Indira Ghandi, Marie Antoinette, and worst of all, Margaret Thatcher. These are not attractive things to plug up a hole, leading me to believe we’re in a downtime for dildos in art. Still, like all good things in the world—food, philosophy, animals, color, sex, and the like—there’s always been a place for them in art.

To review: we’ve got 19th century lithographs, like this one by illustrator Paul Avril, whose illustrated erotica belongs in plenty of museum collections.

Then we’ve got some Japanese woodblock prints showing dildos, too. Whatever their quality as art, they’re at the very least cultural documents, showing what the works’ commissioners liked. Read into these works what you will, but commissioned by men, it’s no surprise dildo art features lots of girl-on-girl action.

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The best-known example of using dildos in art, and to convincing effect, belongs to Lynda Benglis. There’s her infamous 1974 Artforum advertisement, and Smile, a cast-lead version of the double dildo used in the photograph.

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It’s hard to land a good follow-up to such a memorable charade, which resulted in upset critics, frantic librarians, and at least one irate museum-goer. It’s been almost four decades since a dildo’s caused such an uproar in art circles, but it’s not like they’ve died out. Since Benglis’s boom, Claire Fontaine’s used dildos in art—they filled a dishwasher with dildos of variable skin-tone—and then, just leave it to jokester Rob Pruitt to create a self-portrait with a strategically-placed dildo.

With all these examples, dildos appear to be used for one purpose in contemporary art: a joke. Maybe that’s all dildos are good for in art; it’s probably all you can expect from a jiggly, rubbery cylinder. But for all their silliness, they’re one of the few cultural tokens that can offend.

When a Jesus-with-a-dildo sculpture popped up in the Philippines, the show was closed down, but not before some vandals ran off with the dildo in question. That moment almost ruined dildos in art for the rest of us. Why? Because it took itself too seriously. The form, the structure, the punctum, whatever, of dildos isn’t about keeping a straight-face. When we start taking dildos in art too seriously, that’s when they fail.