The Art of Desire

by Leigh Hedger

What do we have so far? Erotic playing cards, ancient Chinese scrolls, and a nineteenth-century European chastity belt. About 6,500 reels of film, 7,000 original works of art, approximately 75,000 photographic images, and countless other items. Sorting through the thousands of items in the collections of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction is no small task.

Despite the intimidating nature of the assignment, this is precisely what it took to curate The Art of Desire: Erotic Treasures from the Kinsey Institute, an exhibition to be mounted in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Kinsey Institute. The exhibition is scheduled to open at the Indiana University School of Fine Arts Gallery on October 24, 1997, with a reception from 7 to 9 p.m. The show will run through the beginning of December. Planning for the exhibition began in the fall of 1996, and Dr. John Bancroft, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Indiana University Bloomington and director of the Kinsey Institute, charged the team working on the exhibition--Betsy Stirratt, director of the School of Fine Arts Gallery; Jeffery Wolin, a professor of fine arts and director of the Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts Sarah Burns, a professor of fine arts; and Jennifer Yamashiro, curator--with the mission of presenting a survey of the institute's collections.

Stirratt says, "We took John's direction to mean the entire collections, so we've been through everything." The team has delved through the institute's photographs, paintings, prints, library materials, audio and video items, and other objects that have been amassed over the past fifty years. "The exhibition will include pieces that have a celebratory feel," Stirratt says. "Our mission is to create a show that will make a positive experience for those who attend and a positive statement about the representation and study of sex." The exhibition also aims to present a broad view of sexuality--not just heterosexuality, but every range of sexuality represented in the images and objects donated to the institute. "When people come in, we want them to understand that there are diverse perspectives," Stirratt says.

The exhibition will necessarily leave out a lot of the collections. "It's just a massive amount of material," Stirratt emphasizes. Sorting through everything from fine art to amateur works, the team has come up with a selection that includes humor, beauty, and the unexpected. "The institute has a fascinating collection of bookplates from the 1920s and '30s that are beautifully done and imaginative," Burns says. "I never dreamed there was a thriving trade in erotic bookplates."

While Stirratt says the team consciously steered clear of "shocking" images, Yamashiro says she hopes people are "shocked that they're not shocked." Yamashiro says she wants visitors to "see a lot of aesthetically beautiful work with real cultural value and debunk the myths about 'all that filthy stuff' housed at the institute." Stirratt adds, "We can't have a show about sexuality without sex, but we're presenting sex in a positive manner, showing the huge range of materials and methods of expression that have tremendous aesthetic and scholarly value."

Lack of information is an obstacle to putting together histories of the items to be included in the exhibition. The team members have certain areas of expertise- Wolin's specialty is photography, for example, and Burns has a background in art history. "But when you examine things that were collected from all over the world from all different historical periods, you can't possibly be an expert on everything," Stirratt says. For this reason, the team called in some experts to illuminate the origins and context of some pieces.

Overall, Burns says, the diversity of the pieces in the exhibition reflects the vast spectrum of sexual behavior and the essential nature of sexuality in human social life. "I hope visitors take away from the exhibition how basic and ubiquitous sexual drive is and how visual it is in the world culture," Burns says. "It doesn't need to be hidden all the time; it's integral to society and can be celebrated. That's what has impressed me the most in looking at the Kinsey Institute collections: sexuality is there, and it finds expression in so many ways." Kinsey