Private Eyes: Stolen Glances of Homemade Pornography

An exhibition at the Kinsey Institute showcases an eclectic mix of non-commercial, erotic artifacts that have "crawled out from their original hiding places.”

  • Nurse giving a man an injection

    Image 1 of 4

    Photo: Kinsey Collection

    Anonymous prison inmate, United States Nurse giving a man an injection, mid 20th century Graphite and colored pencil Donated in 1963

  • Nude woman with green backgrounds

    Image 2 of 4

    Photo: Kinsey Collection

    Anonymous prison inmate, United States Nude woman with green backgrounds, mid 20th century Ink and watercolor Donated in 1953

  • Standing, topless woman

    Image 3 of 4

    Photo: Kinsey Collection

    Anonymous prison inmate, United States Standing, topless woman, mid 20th century Pencil on brown paper Donation date unknown

  • Copulating chickens

    Image 4 of 4

    Photo: Kinsey Collection

    Copulating chickens, 20th century Wood, wire, paint Donated in 1965

Event Information

Private Eyes: Amateur Works from the Kinsey Collection


Morrison Hall, Indiana University's Bloomington Campus

Through April 2nd, 2010

free

Art And Artifacts

It’s hard to characterize this exhibition, currently on view on Indiana University’s Bloomington campus, as an art show per se. Yes, there are paintings, drawings, sculpture, and photography, but there are also bottle openers, altered coins and home-made Valentines. Private Eyes: Amateur Works from the Kinsey Collection showcases an eclectic mix of non-commercial, erotic artifacts.

“What you have here,” explained Private Eyes co-curator Blaise Cronin, “is a very heterogeneous collection of works that in a sense have crawled out from their original hiding places.”

Cronin is the Dean and Rudy Professor of Information Science, IU School of Library and Information Science. He curated the exhibition with Betsy Stirratt, director of the IU School of Fine Arts Gallery, and Garry Milius, associate curator at The Kinsey Institute.

A Variegated Collection

The Kinsey Institute’s art collection contains around 100,000 objects, including forays into erotica by such heavy-hitters as Picasso and Chagall. But Private Eyes culls mostly anonymous work, the makers of which had little to no artistic training or professional experience.

The Erotica Of The Incarcerated

Many of the pieces on display were made by prisoners. Seeking to represent a broad demographic swath in his research on human sexuality, Alfred Kinsey developed relationships with prison wardens across the United States, who allowed him to interview the inmates and collect their creative issue, which would otherwise be confiscated and destroyed.

“There is tremendous sexual urge in a prison context,” Cronin explained, “but no easy way of accessing materials; so they become do-it-yourself producers.”

The results include naughty drawings in ball-point pen on napkin, desecrated San Quentin stationery, and bestial fantasies hewn out of prison soap. Although often “desperately inept,” as Cronin characterized them, in most cases the pieces are also “fascinatingly economical,” as Stirratt mused. “The artists were able to communicate exactly what they needed.”

“The show demonstrates quite convincingly that necessity is the mother of erotic invention,” Cronin ventured.

Invention And Transgression

Not everything on view is the handiwork of the incarcerated. There are plenty of playful items that would likely have been considered contraband in jail—pornographic bottle openers and smoking paraphernalia, for example. One case is devoted entirely to “spinners”—altered coins that have been mounted into brackets allowing them to spin, creating rudimentary animations, in this case with adult themes.

Much of the work consists of defaced legal tender or institutional stationery that’s been altered to become pornographic materials, which suggests that transgression might be a central force at work here.

Transgressing is exactly what the viewer might feel guilty of, especially when looking at pieces created within a private domestic context. A long-married couple, for example, donated a photo album charting their sexual relationship as it evolved from their first kiss in 1934.

“We have intruded,” Cronin concedes. “Something that was private has been inserted into the public sphere, which is of course what we do today. We live in a culture of self-exhibition–the goal is to expose oneself to as many people as quickly as possible. This is the antithesis–a subculture of non-self-revelation.

“In that sense, what we’re looking at is a world that has disappeared.”

Yaël Ksander

WFIU's Arts Desk Editor, Yaël seeks out and shepherds the stories of artists, musicians, writers, and other creative people. In addition, Yaël co-hosts A Moment of Science, writes essays for A Moment of Indiana History, produces Speak Your Mind (WFIU's guest editorial segment), hosts music and news hours throughout the week, and lends her voice to everything from accounting courses to nature documentaries. Yaël holds a MFA in painting from Indiana University, an MA in art history from Columbia University, and a BA from the University of Virginia, where she studied languages and literature.

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