What I should have done with my art degree

Now that I’m practically at the end of it, I’ve figured out what I truly want to do with my life. I just don’t know what was holding me back when I was 22 and in my prime. If only I’d been there to coach myself. I know I would have been a great pornographer.

In the mid-90s I was a struggling artist. I struggled to master my materials, oil paint and photography. Necessary struggles. But I mainly struggled to find my voice, to distinguish myself. What important thing did I have to say? What was I about? It had to be in there, inside me somewhere, and I had to discover it and extract it. I knew it would be gold. I didn’t expect to become famous, but I knew important people would notice and reward me.

Now I know what was calling me, and it wasn’t some unique treasure buried deep within my psyche. It was dicks and pussies. It was people doing it. Sucking and fucking. The thing that has been most on my mind since age seven. The thing that’s on nearly everyone’s mind, but we don’t go around talking about it. It seems so obvious to me now. Why couldn’t I admit it to myself and “come out”? Ditch painting and take pictures of people happily fucking each other?

My art school cronies and I danced around it. Right at the beginning of freshman year four of us had a show in the student gallery called Sex and Death, a title I’d appropriated from the Woody Allen movie, Love and Death. Most of the work had little to do with sex or death, but the title was an attention-getter. I recall showing work that featured bony, nude figures in agonized poses. It would have been much more honest to show regular figures having kinky sex and loving it. Why did I repress that?

I got into photography as a sophomore. My cronies and I had a few photo shoots where we modeled for each other. Those were more overtly erotic, but always in a weird, pent-up way. Never in a sexy, relaxed way. We used props: a corset, a prosthetic leg, an enormous dildo, a vintage tricycle. One classmate brought a Super 8 movie camera to one of those sessions and we sort of dared each other to “do something” on film. We were all too chicken though.

I was no different in private shoots. I gave myself a soft-on for a couple of nude self portraits, but nothing more daring than that.

In fairness, college was a jittery, insecure time of life. My self confidence was at an all-time low. And although I had always wanted it a lot, sex was problematic even in the best of times. I had… issues.

Plus I was a romantic; I cared far too much about how it was for her. I thought that the simultaneous orgasm was the ultimate sexual goal, and I never came close to achieving that. Hell, I never made a girl come with my member at all. She always said she didn’t care, but I doubted that. I mean, who would even want a dick in them if an orgasm weren’t part of the deal? Especially if you’d had the pleasure previously? I couldn’t fathom it.

Then there was porn. I loved it, but I suppose I had some issues with it too. My religious conditioning had etched the words “bad”, and “wrong” into the back of my mind. And my lefty, liberal conditioning told me that all pornography was exploitative and objectified women, and I was participating in that. It didn’t always seem that way, but what did I know about that world?

And there was the porn itself. Sure it did what it was designed to do, help me get my rocks off. But it was all so conservative and formulaic: “Oh hi, I didn’t order a pizza, but since you’re here, come on in and help me look for my purse under the bed. I’ll suck you off, you’ll eat me out, we’ll do it in seven positions, and you can shoot your wad in my eye. Are you enjoying the funky Casio sounds playing in the background?”

Occasionally I’d run across something unusual and interesting, German or Japanese or “underground”. But these invariably swapped sexiness for weirdness and poor production value. Three zombies gang-banging a blue rabbit in a parking garage, for example. I can’t even describe the Japanese stuff. Point is, it didn’t make me horny. Amused, maybe. Or just puzzled. Or uncomfortable. Or worse, bored. But it didn’t turn me on.

Then I saw Susie Bright. She was a guest lecturer at PNCA when I was a junior, 1993 or so. She was billed as a “sex-positive feminist”, which both intrigued and worried me. I expected to hear a lot about how great sex is, and how men are ruining it.

Her lecture turned out to be two hours of porno clips, with her talking between each one about what made it so special. By the end, it was about 110* in the packed auditorium, and I had creamed my jeans without even touching myself. I bet I wasn’t the only one in need of a change of underwear either. It was totally hot, and completely eye-opening.

She started out with a clip of the standard pizza boy stuff, and then systematically tore it to shreds, along the lines of what I said above, but she went into greater detail about the many levels on which it was bad. She talked about how the industry was dominated by shady assholes who had no incentives to care about quality or originality or treating the talent humanely. That was thanks to society’s strong foundations in Puritanical shame. No one in government was dumb enough to bring up the career-ending question, “Hey, how can we make the porn industry better?”, and no one in the porn audience was writing critical reviews.

However! she reassured us, new and exciting changes were beginning to happen. We were shown a clip depicting the end of a couple’s tender lovemaking session. The actress seemed to genuinely enjoy it; she was fairly quiet, rather than exhibiting the typical shrieking theatrics. The truly revolutionary part though, Susie pointed out, was when she reached for a Kleenex to mop up the guy’s spooge afterwards. That is something you will never see in mainstream porn, she said triumphantly. I agreed, but I wasn’t as excited about it as Susie Bright was.  

Next we watched a scene from The Devil in Miss Jones, in which Miss Jones is vigorously savaged by a horde of demons. This looked like fairly standard stuff to me, but we learned that the actress Miss Jones had directed the entire complicated scene herself. Empowerment! I had a rock hard, guilt-free erection going.

Keeping with the “sisters are doin’ it for themselves” theme, we were next treated to a hardcore lesbian scene. There was no doubt about it being real; the quality was extremely poor, and the women just looked like a grocery clerk and a lumberjack. However, this was the one that put me over the edge. Very unexpectedly too. They’re going along, the clerk is fingerbanging the lumberjack. She’s enjoying it. Then the clerk picks the pace way up. I mean, like someone angrily trying to get her change unstuck from a vending machine. The lumberjack is coming unglued, and all the sudden a fucking geyser shoots out of her pussy and clear across the room. They slow it down, and then repeat the noisy waterworks a few more times, and that was the end of the clip. Also the end of me. I was so mystified and turned on by that, I just couldn’t contain myself. What the hell had we just seen?

Susie Bright told us all about how female ejaculation is a thing, how wonderful and empowering it is, how super fun and messy, but it shouldn’t be embarrassing at all if you’re a woman who can do it. It should be celebrated. I desperately wanted to find a woman who could do it and celebrate her. I thought that was the greatest thing I’d ever seen.

We saw a lot more. Gay, straight, indeterminate. Hardcore public fisting, softcore studio stuff that emphasized tender whispering. I guess the point was that porn was bravely throwing off its philistine, pizza boy shackles, freeing itself to represent the immense variety of tastes and types of people and attitudes about sex out there. Or simply put, those people were filming themselves doing it, and sharing. I was deeply inspired.

When I put on my wayback goggles, I see myself immediately responding to this obvious life calling. I drag my date to some out of the way part of the school, and after a lusty shag, I ask if she wants to photograph it next time. (Yes, I went to the sex lecture with a date.) She agrees wholeheartedly, and my porn career is off and away. I make a name for myself with my edgy, yet artistically refined, yet very raunchy and highly arousing productions. There is controversy in the art world: It’s not art, it’s just pornography! Yes, but pornography can be nuanced, it can say something, like fine art! Besides, plenty of fine art makes a point of having nothing to say! At least this deals with a universal, easily identifiable human dimension! No, it’s just puerile garbage! Showing it in a nice venue doesn’t change that! My parents are shocked, I start making money, and feeling very fulfilled.

What actually happened was, I left awkwardly with my date and my sticky leg. We said something like, “That was—woo! interesting,” and parted ways. I probably went up to my studio to stare at a painting that wasn’t working out. Even through my wayback goggles, the fact that that mind-blowing presentation didn’t even result in a quick shag makes it clear why the rest of it didn’t happen. I was completely unsure of myself, unable to even acknowledge what I wanted, let alone act on it.

There were a few more darkly erotic photo shoots—seemingly daring, but again, I played it safe. I imitated “challenging” photographers like Joel Peter Witkin, rather than being true to my real interests. It was safer to photograph a starkly lit nude torso, partially bound with rope and sitting uncomfortably sideways on a vintage tricycle, than it would have been to show the same model comfortably pleasuring herself with the rope.

My senior thesis consisted of a group of drawings. In my paper I stated my antipathy towards declaring up front what the work was “about”. I insisted that its meaning was hidden even from me. I described my firm belief that an honest work would only result if I kept myself out of it. I would work mindlessly but vigorously, and allow the meaning, if any, to emerge of its own accord, unedited and unadorned by my own aesthetic improvements. Any meaning that came with it would be inherent in the work, a product of the process, and unpreconceived by me. It was the only way to ensure a true and powerful work. In other words, I didn’t trust myself to create that on my own. I was sure that some timid genius lurked inside me, and the only way to coax it out was to look the other way.

I ended up with a group of stylistically divergent but semi-abstract and erotically suggestive figure drawings. No one had much to say about them—not even my thesis advisors—except my dad. “This is obviously pornography,” was his derisive comment at the thesis exhibition.

Because he was my religious crackpot dad, and not an esteemed academy insider, I instinctively disregarded his astute remark. Briefly donning my wayback goggles once again though, I instead set aside my resentment long enough to thank him for revealing a truth that had been literally right in front of me, and one I’d not recognized even though I’d devised a special means of allowing it out. In one off-handed criticism my dad had identified what I was “about”, and unwittingly suggested what would undoubtedly been a fulfilling life path for me. It’s much too late now, but thanks, dad. I’m sorry I wasn’t paying attention.

6 thoughts on “What I should have done with my art degree

  1. Mark,
    This is brilliant! You clearly have always been a porn star stuck in a gangly tween’s body. I’m sorry you didn’t get your chance, but it sounds like you made a hell of a go at it in your mind. Thanks for sharing the inside of a Pisces head. Classically macabre…both terrifying and hilarious. I appreciate you. ❤️


  2. This reminds me of a particular time when me and some of my buddies were hanging out in some obscure corner of the world (obscure to us, probably not so much to the people who lived there) and we decided that the coolest job in the world would have to be Porno Darsteller. This is german for porn something-or-other. Admittedly we were thinking more of the sleazy, hairy, pizza delivery guy kind of porn, rather than the more friendly or artistic kinds. In the end none of us gave up our day jobs, although one of us briefly acquired local fame with a video tape he recorded of himself and his then girlfriend.

    Thanks again for posting, Mark!


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