Negotiating the margins between private and public, identity and difference, pleasure and punishment, desire and debauchery, self and other, monkeys inhabit Western discourse on the borders of social limit, marking the place of contradiction in social value (McClintock 1990: 216). As Donna Haraway (1989: 10) has argued the primate body itself is an intriguing kind of political discourse that works by the negotiation of boundaries achieved through ordering differences. Primates in the inscription of "rational science" display the Western imagination of the origin of sociality, the appropriation of nature in the production of culture, the construction of race-marked bodies, the distinction of gender from the resource of sex, and the construction of the self from the raw material of the other (12-13).
The "Family Group of the Katarrhinen" offers a good example of the ways that a nature to culture progression has been mapped out as an evolution of racial types. In this image the eye follows the linear frieze of solo males up the page, from the primordial past to the modern, so that the entire chronological history of mankind is captured and consumed at a glace. It is no accident that in the "Family of Man" the apogee of human achievement culminates in the head of the Apollo Belvedere, a late 4th century B.C. Greek sculpture that during the 18-19th centuries epitomized beauty, cultural and intellectual achievement. It is also significant that the idea of racial progress was gendered in such a way as to render women invisible as historical agents (McClintock 1995: 39). Thus, nature was the alibi of political violence and primatology emerges in the 19th century as a theater for negotiating the perilous boundaries between humans and nature, women and men, sexuality and rationality.
Historically associated with the unrestrained body, gluttony, mischief, lewd meanings, and sexual lust the representation of monkeys mirror humans in a complex play of distortions (Tompkins 1994: 60-64). Fetishes straddling nature and culture, monkeys, in particular, were seen as associated with the dangerous and degenerate classes: the itinerant and working poor, Jews, prostitutes, black people, criminals, the insane and sexual deviants (McClintock 1995: 216). Indeed, representation of monkeys offered a symbolic space for rendering visible deepening fears of urban militancy, racial mixture, and moral breakdown.
In an exemplary ad, the fetish soap-monkey smiles inanely as he erases the unseemly dirt of the bourgeois world. In every respect the soap-monkey is a hybrid: not entirely monkey, nor entirely human, the creature inhabits the ambivalent border of jungle and city. In this ad the monkey is literally domesticated, rendered harmless he knows his place within the evolutionary order, he is proverbially "always at your service."
The ritual reoccurrence of the monkey figure in the paintings of contemporary artist Attila Richard Lukacs depends upon an understanding of the Victorian iconography of racial degeneration and as such becomes a fetish of displaced anxiety for the viewer. Taking sex out of the bedroom and into the boardrooms of science and social power, Lukacs flagrantly violates the sacramental laws of private and public, and flouts the edict that manhood is synonymous with mastery. Within Lukacs' paintings, monkeys are armed with the symbols of male supremacy and power.
Monkeys seemingly carry out complex experiments (Figure 3), discourse on the origin of the species (White Boy (Darwin), 1988), bath (Figure 4) (Allegory of Water, 1987) or contemplate the meaning of art ( Figure 5) reversing and transmuting the social meanings of the signs of progress and civility. Others don the theatrical paraphernalia of S/M performances: bonds, chains ( Figure 6) leather, blindfolds ( Figure 7 ) , costumes and scripts ( Figure 8) as they threaten ominously to unleash "the dark side" of human nature.
In 1885, the sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing medicalized the terms sadism and masochism as psychopathologies of the flesh. For Krafft-Ebing, sadism was an innate desire to humiliate, hurt, wound or even destroy others in order thereby to create sexual pleasure in one's self (53). Nature was the overlord of power. Under normal circumstances man was given a "natural" sexual aggression in part to conquer the "natural" passivity of women whom took a refined pleasure in man's rough victory. Thus, for Krafft-Ebing, women are indirectly to blame for male sadism. The task for medical sexology was to police the boundary between "normal" male aggression/female masochism and "abnormal" perversions by projecting the "perversions" onto the invented zone of race (McClintock 1993: 208).
S/M, like homosexuality and other "deviances," was constructed as a regression in time to the prehistory of racial degeneration. Sadism was figured as a "natural" trait of "primitive irrational" peoples that corresponded to an aggressive component of the sexual instinct in "civilized man" that remains subdued in the "normal" individual.
How then are we to interpret the S/M imagery that combines the sexual dominance of monkeys and the passivity of men in the works of Lukacs?
The juxtaposition of young men engaged in homoerotic S/M activities with monkeys plays social power backwards. It stages the "primitive irrational," ecstasy, public punishment and self-debasement as a dramatic script in the heart of Western reason. Does Lukacs manipulate the signs of power in order to refuse their legitimacy as "nature" or do these works represent the sanctioned exercises of male tyranny? Regardless of individual viewers interpretation of Lukacs' S/M paintings, readings of such works rely on racial and gender stereotyping for the production of meaning. The fetish slave-band worn by many of the monkeys in Lukacs' paintings calls up for viewers the metal collars worn by black slaves in the homes of the imperial bourgeoisie not too long ago. Similarly, interpretation of the spectacle of the feminized male "slave" on hands and knees before his monkey master (Figure 9) rests on an understanding of the "natural" sexual dominance of men and submissiveness of women. Whether its images of monkeys or Berlin skinheads engaged in violent rituals of male sexual bonding Lukacs as "master" manipulates an infinite circulation of signs that brings into crisis the historic separation of white male dominance and female and racial inferiority for the viewer. While we may be self-consciously ashamed or repulsed by these scenes of sexual transgression we are asked, as public witnesses, to take visual pleasure in the glittering gold and sumptuous surfaces of Lukacs artistry. As voyeurs we are not only implicated in the taboo or forbidden acts of abuse and violence before us but through the power of our gaze we become the master, we transform Lukacs' fantasies of pain into our pleasure.
|1989||Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. New York and London: Routledge.
|1995||Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. New York and London: Routledge.|
|1993||Maid to Order: Commercial S/M and Gender Power, Dirty Looks: Women, Pornography, Power, edited by Pamela Church Gibson and Roma Gibson. London: BFI Publishing, pp. 207-231.
|1994||The Monkey in Art. New York: M. T. Train/Scala Books.
|1885||Psychopathia Sexualis translated by Franklin S. Klaf, 1965. New York: Stein and Day.
1 In 1760, Charles de Brosses, a French philosophe, defined fetishisme as the term for "primitive religion." In 1867, Marx coined the term commodity fetishism and the idea of primitive magic to express the social form of industrial capitalism. Freud reassigned the term fetish to the realm of sexuality and the domain of the erotic "perversions" (c.f. McClintock 1995: 181).