Vice & Virtue: Sensuality and Sin in Art

NYC Artist Jeremy Penn Explores the Divinity of Immorality

The Divinity of Immorality – Sex, Sensuality and Sin in Art

What is sin, exactly? From an early age, we’re trained to recognize wrong-doing and bad behavior. It is ingrained into our psyche by our parents, our teachers, our neighbors and our friends. Most of us, when quizzed, would state that we understand what sin is, and what it means to be sinful. But how well do we actually comprehend the nature of naughtiness? More to the point, do we secretly take delight in delicious devilry?

Jeremy Penn Vice Painting

The Temptation of Sin

My latest works seek to explore the enigmatic personality of sexuality. For years, I’ve often queried human response to sex. We believe that it’s a taboo, something to be practiced only behind closed doors. Exposing our bodies is seen as degenerate. Being forceful and aggressive in our sexual approach is viewed as predatory and dangerous. The act of sex, if not for reproductive purposes, is seen as unholy, carnal and inherently bad.

Jeremy Penn Desire Painting

Even the female form is perceived as something shameful. In certain cultures, women hide their bodies completely, for fear of inspiring lust in the male. Even in highly permissive societies, a woman that chooses to wear a low-cut top or short skirt may receive derogatory labels, such as ‘slut’ or ‘whore’.

It’s precisely these notions that intrigue me so much. When did we humans start to view sexuality, which is so necessary for our survival, as something to be ashamed of? When did sex become sinful?

The Female – Original Sin or Divine Goddess?

Those who are already familiar with my work will know that I often gain inspiration from beautiful females. I love to explore the power that a woman can exert over a male, often simply by using nothing more than a powerful glance in his direction.

In this collection, I’ve chosen to focus instead upon the essential idea of the female, particularly with regards to her sexuality. Of course, the notion that women should behave modestly and be sexually submissive has obvious roots in the Bible. The story of steadfast Adam and lascivious, explorative Eve is known throughout the world. This tale, taught to all of us at a young age, teaches that nudity is shameful, that experimentation, boldness and desire to gain power is sinful. Indeed, it educates that Eve’s dalliance with the forbidden fruit brings about the ruination of Mankind.

It is regrettable that other tales are not better known. For example, the Sacred Marriage rite, or Hieros Gamos, is a deeply symbolic sexual ritual, celebrating the equality of the man and woman as deities – the god and the goddess. It rejoices in sexual communion. The Hindu devadasi tradition operates on a similar principle.

In Mesopotamian times, a priestess would take on the role of ‘sacred prostitute’. The word prostitute, in modern culture, has negative connotations. It indicates something ‘dirty’ – a process of selling the body for money. In ancient times, there was no monetary reward for sex. The act of coupling was ritualistic and designed to please the gods. In ancient Greece, the Heterae (courtesans) were highly educated, sophisticated and well-respected by society. It may interest you to know that the original meaning of the word ‘prostitute’ is ‘to stand for / represent the goddess’. How is it that an act that was once recognized as honoring the gods, came to stand for degradation, corruption and immorality?

The Modern Female Deity

The question that really intrigues me is this. If sexual rites were so celebrated in so many ancient cultures, why did we choose instead to label the act of sex, and in particular the sexual female form, as inherently wicked?

It is perhaps something to do with the intrinsic power that women hold over men. The male is often quite literally brought to his knees when faced with a beautiful woman. When he adopts this position, he essentially mimics the process of worship. The woman becomes a goddess. He is powerless and defenseless against her holy beauty. In certain opinions, this may be akin to blasphemy.

She is also, of course, the fountain from which life must spring. She is Demeter, the earth-goddess of ancient Greece. She is the very representation of the magical process of birth itself. We men, armed only with our sword-like phalluses, must seek to penetrate her, to discover her secrets through sexual congress.

Is this the essential root of modern society’s difficulty accepting female sexuality? That actually, it’s more akin to divine worship than we feel comfortable with? 

Linking Ancient Attitudes with Modernity

In the 21st century, contradictions towards sex are everywhere. We’re confronted with endless images of scantily clad women, but ‘normal’ females are trained not to aspire to dress like them, for the sake of their modesty. Sex is shown frequently on TV, in movies, in songs, in art; yet we find it difficult to discuss it with our own parents. Adverts frequently entice us by using overt sexual references, yet we don’t dare to attract one another through the same process.

In this collection, I sought to blend modernity with pervading sexual attitudes. I’ve deliberately referenced the bold, brash colors of graffiti – as it’s so often on our street corners and alleyways that we find truth in art; unashamed representations of sex and sin. My art, like graffiti images, are deliberately uncompromising. They don’t ask you to think… they demand that you do.

When the viewer sees these pieces of art, they’re not only confronted with a deliberately thought-provoking word, such as ‘lust’, ‘goddess’ or ‘luscious’; they’re also forced to see themselves as part of the image, in the reflected metal material. They’re forced to acknowledge their own role in these pervasive sexual attitudes. After all, each and every person that views these images are part of the society that inspired them. They’re an integral part of the art itself.

Upon viewing them, examine not only the art itself, but your responses to it. It may reveal more about your own attitudes to sexuality than you realize.