Pagan Wholeness and Holiness of Bodies
Sex, especially if it’s even slightly unorthodox, is - as the ladies at Toronto’s Pauline McGinnon Cultural Centre know - rendered decent only in the dark, under the sheets. So, it shouldn’t have surprised the Centre’s former curator to find a drawing of hers and two more by Claire Weismann Wilks - the two which appear here - hung in the Centre’s gallery alright, but under a sheet.
The sheet was draped over the drawings during a crisis arising out of show, Women’s Images of Men, which opened in the gallery last September. All seven members of the Centre’s Gallery Committee resigned and the show was dismantled. The reason was the censorship of the drawings in question and a series of demands issued by the Centre’s Board of Directors. The Committee held that the demands infringed upon “the autonomy, integrity and artistic freedom of a curator to pursue the aesthetic concepts she or he considers important.”
The Committee was unwilling to accept compromises to placate the Board, a handful of the Centre’s 700 members and a large financial contributor, the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire.
A public panel discussion on the censoring of the exhibit was organized. But none of the complainants attended - or, if they did, they didn’t express themselves. Quoting Dostoyevsky, one panelist commented: “The viewer doesn’t judge the painting; the painting judges the viewer.”
Shortly after these events, TBP asked artist Mary Meigs if she would write a commentary which might accompany Claire Weissman Wilks’s drawings in these pages. Her response follows.
When the people at The Body Politic asked me if I’d like to do an article about Claire Weissman Wilks’s two erotic drawings and the closing of the Toronto show, I demurred for what seemed even the next day to be the wrong reasons. Since then I’ve been thinking about my reaction, trying to analyze it, and I think my analysis might be interesting to the readers of The Body Politic, all of whom I assume to be sexually liberated, as the view of one who was once censorious and who still has unresolved scruples about sex.
Claire is a friend whose work I’ve admired for a long time, - for the passion she puts into her study of bodies, the strength and density of her drawings. To Claire Weissman Wilks every part of the body is as plastically and visually interesting as every other part, and since she is totally free of any sexual hang-ups, she draws male and female genitals with the same attention she gives to arms, legs, breasts, hands, feet, heads. She is interested in the secret power that whispers in each of us to the ends of our fingertips, and the power that moves a penis or twists limbs in lovemaking is all one and the same. She does not bother with superficial differences, skin textures or the details that make A different from B, but is intent on the expression of the powerful life-spirit that takes the bodily shapes we all have in common.
People who are natural about sex find it hard to believe that other people are not. They do not know about the doors that clang shut like firedoors in the mind, and do not understand the fine drawing of lines between what is acceptable and what is called pornographic. Those who draw these lines can contemplate an ancient phallic sculpture or look at an aroused satyr on a Greek vase without the slightest tremor, but hold up their hands in horror if they see a drawing of an erect penis. The reality of female sexuality has been suppressed and denied for centuries, but so has the underground, ever-active world of male sex been denied by both men and women, - for the sake of women? for the sake of society? one scarcely knows which. Why do the Toronto police break out into pure savagery if they do not feel threatened by the idea of sex freely indulged in by men? The fury of sex-inspired rage is more furious than any other and has many heads as the Hydra.
The reaction always sets in with the pretence that this immense life-force can be hidden again and contained by expressions of outrage, by by-laws, by police raids. These forms of censorship of harmless sexual energy and its expression seem to me as ridiculous as King Canue’s command to the tide to stop rolling in. As for those who flinch at the site of Claire’s erotic drawings or who think that we are in danger of drowinging in sexuality, they had better ponder the nature of the threat to themselves. Is there a real threat and if so, why?
In my case, I understand how the overwhelming presence of sex can seem threatening, for fear of it was planted in me by my upbringing and there are still traces of this fear. If I have made progress in the last few years it is because of knowing Claire in her freedom and frankness and trying to look at her work with her own sense of the pagan wholeness and holiness of bodies.