At a museum, we study artifacts. That’s the strict definition, but the name grew out of the idea of muses — those possessing spirits who inhabit artists and historians. Mouseion was the seat of the muses, the place where they resided when at rest. Therefore, a museum is where you go to see where the muses used to work but work no longer. They’ve moved on. A museum is Muse-Sabbath. Her working days, her inspiration, she now spends somewhere… else.
Funny, then, that New Yorkers would erect a museum devoted to sex.
And I do mean “devoted.”
Oh I know why they did it. They wanted to be edgy. They wanted to push the boundaries. They wanted a sanctioned place a sanctuary — to display their pornography and cheer one another on from inside the safety of their bounce house made of boobs. Yes, that’s a thing. Or was according to the subway advertisements. And it’s not unlike the figurines of Aphrodite we still dig up from Hellenistic archeological digs. Dozens and dozens of old, fake boobs with which our kids can play. Yes, we’re not so different from Athenians, we Americans.
But let’s plunge deeper: can a moment of ecstasy be preserved as an artifact for study?
At first blush — and there’s a lot of first blushing from an article like this — we feel tempted to say “yes.” After all, aren’t museums places where we preserve moments of ecstasy?
They are decidedly not.
Museums are places where we study artifacts, places where the muse once worked but has now rested from her labor, a place where she has rested from “doing it” or doing anything at all, really. A museum preserves Starry Night, but not that night of stars Van Gogh witnessed. We receive only Van Gogh’s missive about said night in a painting. A museum preserves Water Lilies, but cannot bring us to the day where Monet may have plunged into that padded water. A museum preserves The Thinker but not his thought, preserves Mona Lisa but not the actual wife of Francesco del Giocondo nor her relationship with Da Vinci that brought about that smirk in that place at that moment. Not to say anything for his understudy’s painting. Those instances of musing have faded. They are no more. She has moved on. The wind blows where it pleases, you hear its sound but cannot tell from where it comes or to where it goes.
We can see this most clearly in the word “inspire” which means “to put the spirit in.” When we say, “that sculpture was inspiring,” we mean that it calls us to recognize the spirit that brought about that particular piece of art once can bring about a new work again, right now, through our very hands and heart. An inspiring work of art calls us to work in light of that spirit who rendered it in the first place. Recently, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I stood stock still from a chill that ran over me while viewing The Angel of Death and The Sculptor:
Immediately I felt inspired: inspired to write novels about how time is of the essence for the artist, inspired to work harder and more often in my craft, inspired to love my wife more in the moment and meet the needs of my neighbor while I’m still alive.
I was not, however, inspired to make a marble sculpture entitled The Angel of Death and The Sculptor.
Because The Muse had moved on from its creator into me. In a dissimilar way, you won’t find people having meaningful sex in front of the exhibits they visit The Museum of Sex because the museum itself renders the moment of sex meaningless.
To have, then, a Museum of Sex at worst glorifies a very old decadence that has brought empires to their knees and at best tries in vain to capture an undetainable moment. You might as well have a Museum of Existential Crises, a Museum of Phenomenological Bliss, a Museum of Transcendent Epiphany. You might as well try to use a glacier from the first ice age to snare the wind that quivered before it wove our world — the glacier itself could not exist without said wind, to say nothing for the elemental impossibility of the act. Rembrandt might paint of Christ’s Transfiguration, but to erect a museum to the moment painted is to do exactly what Peter asked in Matthew 17: set up tents, preserve the exhibit, study the artifact. To preserve transfiguration by putting an end to The Transfiguration. To preserve erotic moments by killing Eros with his own bow and shipping him off to the taxidermist. Some Greek sculpture did just that and we at least call it ignorant and at most call it idolatry.
The very word progeny shows exactly what I mean: I, the progeny of my great-grandparents, am pro-gene — I live on behalf of their nation, their kind, their type just as my forefather and foremother lived on behalf of their own very different types. Their sex was a union not a uniform and their union eventually brought about me, their progeny: a living one who exists on behalf of their long-gone sex. To have progeny, then, is not to make but to beget — to join with a partner to make another person whom you have no control over. Sex, therefore, cannot be archived any more than the moment of conversion can be archived. In this alone, The Museum of Sex shares something in common with The American Museum of Natural History: to fill his dioramas,Teddy Roosevelt killed and stuffed his share of otters and oryxes while Daniel Gluck killed and stuffed his share of orgasms. A wide gate and broad road leads the way from the necromancy of 81st street to the necrophilia of 27th and it goes by the name of Broadway.
There are other comparisons of course — mind you, I obviously don’t make a habit of visiting the Museum of Sex so most everything I know is hearsay and subway advertisements. But we could compare one set of skeletons humping doggie style to another set of skeletons humping doggie style and without telling you which one comes from MoSex and which one comes from AMNH, you’ll never know whether I mean beasts or image bearers. That’s my point: the preservation of death contrasted against the conception of life.
A living Bliss, a living Faith, a living Muse will have no hand in taxidermy — a word that literally means “skin arrangement.” She’s too busy getting caught up in the bedsheets with her faithful lovers. Neil Gaiman has a brilliant issue from the Sandman series in which a writer has met a muse. She came to him one night and slept with him and the next morning he wrote a masterpiece of a novel. Forgetting himself and his relationship with this ancient personality, he chains her to a desk and systematically rapes her in order to gain inspiration. Yes, he creates masterpiece after masterpiece, but at what cost? Eventually he loses even himself. Tolkien would say through Gandalf, “Anyone who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” I am reminded of Cupid and Psyche in Lewis’s Till We Have Faces where Psyche was undone the moment she tried to petrify the moment rather than live it. Lewis says to us:
“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”
We might add: when the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to enjoy the bliss which the center of your soul has craved… you will not talk about the joy of sex. It is that “joy of words” and “joy of sex” this museum hopes to preserve when it could have helped us find our faces and encounter the center of our souls. It settled for a lesser pleasure when it could have brought us to living water that quenches all our thirsts. It hopes to buff the outside appearance of sex to a shine while the inside — actual intimacy with The Divine — rots and spoils. Man looks at the outward appearance and God looks at the heart. Man looks at anatomy and God looks at incorporeality. A man may draw pictures of his penis on the bathroom door of a Bushwick bar, but God drew his image on the door of man’s kind. We responded not with worship but by grooming ourselves with the bush which gives fig bars. It’s a difference as wide as that between imagery and imager, image and imaginer, puppet and puppeteer.
And so it goes that a group of sex-deprived Americans broke sex itself and preserved her shards in little exhibits at a storefront in Manhattan. Someday, archeologists will dig up our bounce house of breasts and say what we say of those little statues to Aphrodite: “Well isn’t that adorable? They thought by bouncing on these boobs that they could meet the transcendent grounds of reality.” And then they’ll celebrate their discovery with a bottle of wine and, for the couples, a moment of romance.
It will last a moment.
And then the muse will move on to some other genus.