thumbnail image

As a part of the exhibition project COCKS! Mateas Pares — curator of this exhibition, artist, and founder of StudyForArtPlatform — sits down with Jenny Danielsson, art critic, writer, and curator, known for her contributions to the contemporary art scene in Sweden and her work as the co-founder of Konstkompaniet. Danielsson's critical writing and curatorial work often explore themes of identity, representation, and the role of art in society. Her podcast "The Artword" has become a popular platform for discussing the intersection of art and society. (The interview has been translated from Swedish).

15 min read

Mateas Pares: A poster with the word COCKS! on. Spontaneous reaction?

Jenny Danielsson: Why? Is it something funny? It is a loaded word and at the same time a word that isn't very triggering. The naked body, and specifically the cock, has existed in all ages — in Egypt, in Italy — it is nothing new in itself.

I agree, nakedness is an old motif. I, therefore, saw nakedness, and more specifically the cock, in art as a tool to explore gender roles, and the view of the male and the female, in our current society. The equality debate that we have had in the last ten years, which has more or less reshaped the discourse around these topics, made the topic feel extra relevant. The project can be seen as an attempt to address these questions in an art context. In this way, the works of art are not so important in themselves, but rather theoretical.

Art is very much about being a human, and human, in some way, and it doesn't matter where we are, and when we are, we can not escape the naked body, because we ourselves are it. Then there are a few times when it becomes delicate and somehow exciting because we live in a society where nudity is accepted. It is interesting in a way, while also being a bit tiresome.

The feeling of the motif of having been exhausted was my only feeling going into this project, and the cock was part of that feeling. My experience is that if you want to make any kind of work of art, be it a film or a sculpture, it is good to insert nudity, preferably with a dangling hairy cock, to increase the perceived quality of the work. But I understand that at the same time, that view is not correct; creators of various kinds most likely have a more honest intention in portraying the naked.

There has always been a fascination with nudity, and it seems reasonable that art also meddles with it. This is so much about culture: what are we allowed to do?; what leeway do we have?; in what way are men and women, and homosexuals and heterosexuals, equal before the law? This is an ongoing debate. How do we relate to each other and how do we want to live? An ongoing exploration of being human. And it is the duty of art to be in that exploration. But, as you say, nudity can be a cheap trick, and it can also get in the way of something more interesting.

When I think of artists who use genitals in their artistry, I think more of women who use their own bodies. You have Tracey Emin's work "I've Got It All" from 2000, where she practically shovels money into her lap. Or Marina Abramovic, who uses her naked body in many of her performances. You mentioned Mapplethorpe but the interesting thing there is that he takes the viewer's place. Just as Duchamp does in "Étant Donnés". You also have Yves Klein; again a man who uses someone else's nudity. Not many male artists use their own bodies.

Paul McCarthy.

Jenny Danielsson

I can not think of anyone else. Is that all we got?

I think it is about the fact that there is a mystery surrounding the female body. That the female genital is not visible but can become pregnant and give life... give something visible. The male genitalia is on the outside. You can look at it. It is very visual. You can hold it. You can relate to it. While a woman's body is somehow inside. There is something fascinating about it. As a woman, you are very much your body. You get your period. You get breasts. You should be afraid of getting pregnant. You have to be sexually restrained and protect your body. You mustn't be too sexy, but not unsexy either. And so on. You must constantly control your body. When you go from girl to woman, you talk a lot about these things. Which I don't think men have traditionally been allowed to do. But to return, for example, to artists who use nudity in their art, Sanna Albenius (who is in the exhibition, ed. note) has reversed the roles and is a woman who uses the male genitalia.

That's right, and the interesting thing is that I feel like she's doing it because she just loves the cock. I don't feel that there is anything intellectual in her choice. A completely unproblematic relationship. At least from her point of view. Maybe that is what is needed in order to be able to affirm each other; more feeling and less thinking.

However, that must be the starting point; that we should not be afraid of each other.

Although, there I see a difference between how we view each other, and the genitals. Björn Kjelltoft (who is in the exhibition, ed. note) has only written "kuk" on his board. ("cock" in Swedish, ed. note). We started talking about toilet scribbles and that the word "kuk" is a bit funny and innocent and childish, while "fitta" ("cunt" in Swedish, ed. note) suggests a more aggressive tone.

Is it about not being allowed to hit a woman? That the woman — the Madonna — should be respected. The woman should be put on a pedestal. And the whore is the one you can sleep with and you can call her a cunt, with that you can not call your wife. That there is a hierarchy of power in that.

The curator of COCKS! and artist Mateas Pares

I think so. When I was growing up, "fitta" was often used interchangeably with "hora" ("whore" in Swedish, ed. note) and was used to shame girls who had more boyfriends than it was thought girls should have. It was a very specific expression for a very specific person with a very specific behaviour, and by saying "fitta" you said that that person was less worthy. If you said "kuk" to someone, it roughly meant "idiot", and everyone can be an idiot sometimes, so there was no hierarchy of power in that word. Today, however, I can hear "fitta" used for guys too, but I can not help but feel that it means something different than if you had said "kuk"; that the guy who gets called "fitta" is beyond forgiveness in another way.

Yes, and the woman must constantly keep an eye on that risk of being shamed and ending up further down the hierarchy, where it is very difficult to get that forgiveness. Where you end up if you don't have a good figure, if you are not the best mother in the world, if you care too much about how you look, if you care too little about how you look if you can not take care of your home but must have domestic help, etc. Men seem more unconcerned, and they have been allowed to be unconcerned. There are many men my age that I know who remind me of my father's generation. Time seems to have stood still and it seems to have gone pretty well between playing football and not having to make your sandwiches because you have a wife who does it. But at the same time, I may be completely wrong because there is quite a lot of research that shows that it does not go so well for men. Greater risk of alcoholism. Become lonely to a greater extent. Not studying at university for the same degree as women. And so on.

What is interesting is how this is expressed in art. The cock has not really been used as a political tool. You mentioned Paul McCarthy as a man who uses his own body, but he works more with the grotesque in popular culture, and being naked feels more like a way to create a sense of something uncontrolled.

Humanity in all its rawness.

Yes, and it is interesting that you say humanity. While Paul McCarthy — through his naked body — is seen as a human, we see a woman through Tracey Emin's body. The man is seen as the norm.

And then the question becomes: what should we talk about when we display different bodies? I think of Courbet when he paints a vagina in 1866, which was revolutionary in its time. There, the discussion was rather about whether it should be shown or not.

Yes, there come those boundaries you speak of. Nude women in paintings at that time were more the rule than the exception. But the female genitalia portrayed as visible as the man's did not work. There the line was drawn.

And those boundaries of nudity have always been played with in art. And you can be more or less attracted to that, and it becomes more or less effective. It is all about intent. For example, what does Björn Kjelltoft want when he writes "cock"? Does he want to heighten something that can be found in a toilet? Or does he just want to illustrate your invitation? Or what does Sanna Albenius want when she builds her entire artistry on the cock?

At the same time, Björn Kjelltoft feels like a big exception. The intention seems to be reserved mainly for everyone except the heterosexual man, as they rarely seem to use the cock as a tool in art. I feel that while boys' penises are allowed to take up space and then be stuffed into a suit and never used, women live in an opposite relationship; as a little girl, the vagina must be hidden and then, when growing older, getting both exploited by others and used by the wearer herself for various political statements in art. And if the cock is used, it is by homosexuals such as Mapplethorpe.

Boundaries as a separate topic of discussion are also interesting. Carolina Falkholt is an example of that. She made a big pussy on a school wall in connection with a public commission, and a big blue cock on a house wall from another commission. She said that it can be difficult to talk about gender and sexuality and that the pussy and the cock can be good catalysts to start the conversation. And there may be a point in that this should just be simple and we should just accept this. Or maybe you can just say that, you know what, maybe I don't want a big blue cock outside my window. Can I just not get a pot with flowers painted instead? What do we do with the nudity and what do we do with this illustration? What does it contribute with? Does it add anything? If you work with boundaries, it can be a good thing to answer these questions sometimes. At least for oneself. With nudity in particular, it can become such a long fall. Both wall paintings were eventually painted over as well. If you take Tracey Emin, for example, and her fragile drawings of herself naked, that is her story. They are very vulnerable. You have to be very heartless not to embrace them simply as a story.

Would you say there are any dogmas around the cock in art?

I don't think so. I think that it is very much about time and place and culture. And it is also about nudity in general.

I think about the perception of the cock-size throughout the ages. After all, it is not just an aesthetic issue, but first and foremost about society. In ancient Greece, for example, the sculptures were equipped with reduced cocks-sizes, because otherwise it would have been considered vulgar, because a large cock stood for promiscuity, which was not accepted. You could see this right into the 20th century. Sweden has its own example with Mille's "Poseidon", where he was forced to reduce Poseidon's cock. Then came the 60's and John Holmes became a mega porn star with his big cock, and at the same time Tom of Finland developed his big-cock aesthetic which is now very famous, and then we have Mapplethorpe in the 80's as you mentioned. And now it is generally accepted that the bigger the cock, the more manly. Do you think gay culture has helped shape the view of that?

Yes, I think it had a very big impact. In Los Angeles, there is the house where he lived when he died. It is now a museum, and they have an artist-in-residence program. That speaks volumes for his influence. Another part of his artistry was the male body as a beefcake.

It is interesting that that image comes from gay culture.

Yes, but at the same time you have the strong man carrying the woman across the river, that image has always existed.

But wasn't that more about muscles as a tool? The man should be capable. What Tom of Finland created was muscles as aesthetics. The contemporary heteronormative man who came from the 50s wore nylon shirts, trench coat and briefcase on his way to the office. A template that was shattered by Tom of Finland's hypermasculinity, and the flower-power movement. All of a sudden, men were allowed to express themselves.

The man was allowed to be desired as an object. And that is where another aspect of the cock comes in; that it is synonymous with youth and virility. The older the man gets, the less relevant his body becomes. Older men have children in order to somehow appear young and thereby also be an object. I think men have a need to be an object. A body. They are often not allowed to talk about it. For example, how often do we talk about men's erectile problems?

Basically never, I would say. And I think it is because the man is still somewhat the norm. A representative of man. And man is something more than a body, he is the image of God. Man was created; suddenly he just existed. Then God took a rib and made the woman. In this way, the woman is literally born out of the flesh. The man is bodiless.

And as soon as you deviate from the norm, you become your body, and then in a way, it becomes the only weapon you have to claim your space and your integrity. But the man's body is also complicated. The cock is of course used for something good, but at the same time it can be used as a weapon and be something terrible. One of the biggest abuses is with the help of the cock, i.e. rape. And it is also done systematically in war.

Our brain likes simple narratives. We gravitate towards it. The cock, based on what you said, builds a more complex narrative than a pussy or the female body, which almost exclusively stands for something positive: life, solace, and pleasure. If a male artist is standing and waving his cock, what am I seeing? Is it something good or something evil? That ambivalence can definitely be something that as an artist you can exploit, but can at the same time be discouraging in a time where we don't take the time to problematize, but are very fast to judge.

The need must not be underestimated either. Women have always had a great need to free themselves and not be trapped. Tracey Emin who goes back to Margate and films herself dancing as a way to free herself from the abuse she was the victim of as a child, or Artemisia Gentileschi, who painted women cutting off the head of a man as a kind of artistic revenge on Agostino Tassi, who raped her. That need also created the women's movements for change. I don't think men have felt the same need. Maybe because they have felt so entitled. But I wonder if it has not actually been a disadvantage; that it has not given them the opportunity to talk about their bodies, something which is very positive; very liberating.

I think so. But I wonder, don’t we need someone who carries the norm? Because don’t we need it in order to navigate? I remember a clip with David Bowie from a talk show… This is during his Ziggy Stardust era and he's wearing a pair of high heels… The host asks him if he is wearing a pair of women's shoes or men's shoes, and Bowie replies that it is just a pair of shoes. My point is, I don't think he would have worn those shoes if it wasn't for the norm, because they would lack the importance he gives them on the show. He wanted to make a statement by mixing gender-coded clothes, but if the clothes didn’t have any codes, he wouldn't be able to do that. Norms, which by definition make invisible, also create identities. That being said, can anyone portray the cock?

You mentioned Jukka Korkeila (who is in the exhibition, ed. note) before the conversation. By painting a cock he came out as gay. Because it was taboo among straight men in conservative Finland in the 80s. And I was just listening to the radio, where in Uganda right now you could end up dead if you are gay. I think that if I, as a man or a woman, were to paint a cock on a wall, I would be risking my life. So no, not anyone can portray the cock, but everyone should be. We should aim for everyone to be able to draw a cock.

Explore all artists and artworks in the exhibition COCKS! 

Text and interview by Mateas Pares