Solitary Pleasures

An exhibition exploring onania in the work of Carolee Schneemann, VALIE EXPORT, Vito Acconci, Marchel Duchamp, and others


Fields of Knowledge
  • Aesthetics / Media
  • Artistic legacies
  • Curatorial practice
  • Performance

Organizing Institutions



Kevin Richards, Osvaldo Romberg


Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI) and Charim Galerie, Vienna

Opens to public



4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104


0% Formal - 100% Informal

Slought is pleased to announce "Solitary Pleasures," on display from March 26 through April 21, 2010. The opening will take place on Friday, March 26 from 6:00-9:00pm, with a special lecture by Carolee Schneemann entitled "Infinity Kisses - The Movie" at 6pm. "Solitary Pleasures" is a provocative exhibition exploring the theme of masturbation and other forms of solitary pleasure, including smoking, drinking, reading, and art itself. The exhibition will feature historical works, contemporary works, and work by younger artists that present different visual representations of solitary pleasures. In addition, texts, quotations, and other research material will offer a larger historical context for appreciating the multiplicity of solitary pleasures in contemporary culture. A visual lineage including artists such as Durer, Titian, Giorgione, Hans Baldung Grien, among others will be suggested through reproductions, while quotations from Diogenes, Diderot, Rousseau, Kant, Freud, Irigaray, Foucault, Derrida, and others will offer an intellectual and historical context for the exhibition. Instead of trying to be exhaustive, the exhibition speculates on the possibilities posed by the subject of solitary pleasures.

Around 1712, a small anonymously authored book with the lengthy title Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self Pollution, and all its Frightful Consequences, in both SEXES Considered, with Spiritual and Physical Advice to those who have already injured themselves by this abominable practice. And seasonable Admonition to the Youth of the nation of Both SEXES ushered in a period of widespread panic concerning the dangers of masturbation throughout the Western world. Transformed from at worst a minor sin barely worth mentioning or punishing, Onania attributed a wide range of common ailments to the even more common activity. Written by a profiteering quack surgeon, John Marten, the text concluded with advertisements providing expensive elixirs to the ills caused by masturbation, warning readers that the continuation of the act could be lethal without use of the medicine. Ranking high among eighteenth-century best sellers, Onania was a huge success with over 60 editions published and being translated into several languages. Moreover, the book gave birth to an industry of texts on onanism, as Thomas W. Laqueur's authoritative Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation details. On the cusp of the Enlightenment, rationalization through causality constructed an irrational fear. The ills described in Onania and her offspring were shared by most people, given the diet and living conditions of the early eighteenth-century. Given human nature, there was a cause at hand to place the blame.

The controversy stirred by masturbation continued into the twentieth century. In 1910, the meetings of the Vienna psychoanalytic circle on the subject of Onanie offered no resolution on the subject. Moreover, the discussion was suppressed from publication by members of the group. Freud's own views on onanism reflect both progress and conservatism. His theories place a priority on masturbation, noting as early as 1897 that "masturbation is the one major habit." In doing so, he associates it with addictive substances, including alcohol, tobacco, or morphine. These solitary pleasures are marked negatively as infantile, narcissistic, and poor substitutes for unfulfilled desires, maintaining the negative associations of masturbation even while elevating its stature in the formation of the self. Freud also continues the articulation of an androcentric discourse of sexuality, making clitoral stimulation a lesser form of sexual pleasure than vaginal stimulation. It is only by the middle of the twentieth century that attitudes towards masturbation and sex begin to significantly shift. Yet, as recently as 1995, Jocelyn Elders was forced to step down from the position of Surgeon General for suggesting that masturbation be included in the discussion of safe sex practices taught in sex educational programs.

Like death, masturbation remains a taboo subject, one whose propriety is often delineated by context. Yet, this has not always been the case. We can think back to Chrysippus' account of Diogenes the Cynic masturbating in the public market, telling the bystanders "Would to Heaven that by rubbing my stomach in the same fashion, I could satisfy my hunger." If only all our world problems were so easy to solve. Solitary Pleasures does not offer a comprehensive exhibition on masturbation and other forms of isolated pleasure. Rather, it opens further avenues for a reclamation and exploration of a fundamentally shared human and humane experience as represented through an array of artistic perspectives and media.

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During the Enlightenment, onanism becomes a subject not of quackery, but of high culture. In his Encyclopédie, Diderot included a lengthy entry on "Manstrupration or Manustupration" written by the physician Jean Jacques Menuret de Chambaud. Chambaud's article relied heavily on Samuel August David Tissot's L'Onanisme; ou, Dissertation physique sur les maladies produites par la masturbation. With the publication of Tissot's L'Onanisme, the official medical world soon nearly universally proclaimed the dangers of onanism, leading to a classification of symptoms, visible signs, and forms of medical treatment. Jean Jacques Rousseau discovered Tissot's text shortly after publishing his novel Emile, where many of the ideas present in anti-onanism rhetoric are articulated. Rousseau found his own fears about the 'dangerous supplement' confirmed by the medical expertise provided in Tissot's book, furthering his private struggle with the dangerous supplement, one made public in his Confessions.

With Tissot's L'Onanisme, the language changes, but the message remains the same. A new discourse comes to rationalize masturbation as the culprit for a range of ailments. In the first volume of Histoire de la sexualité, Michel Foucault notes "Educators and doctors combated children's onanism like an epidemic that needed to be eradicated." Surveillance became the subject of educational discourse, leading to the development of desks that would allow a teacher to see if students were masturbating during class. The gaze of surveillance was also internalized, leading to a self-punitive, self-policing subject, one documented in the age of the diary as seen in the journals of Samuel Pepys and countless others. Given the stature of Rousseau's Emile, as well as its role in Derrida's De la grammatologie, the dangerous supplement is most commonly associated with Rousseau's texts, and, yet, almost all the influential figures of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century offer commentary on onanism and its dangers.

Featured Artists

The exhibition Solitary Pleasures will feature historical works by Vito Acconci, Carolee Schneemann, Peter Weibel, VALIE EXPORT, and Marcel Duchamp, and recent works by Gabriel Martinez and Pedro Roth.

The exhibition also highlights younger artists including Jon Allen, Mariya Dimov, Billy Dufala, Steven Dufala, John Grieg, David Romberg, Aki Torii, and Tina Zavitsanos of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; John Avelluto, Paul D'Agostino and Paul-Luc Vincent, Brent Owens, and Josh Willis of Brooklyn, New York; and Joe Niem, and Michaela Bondad and Zoë Gholson of Oakland, California; and Evil Wine Films (Wes Malvini and Dustin Jones) of Boise, Idaho.

Infinity Kisses: The Movie

Slought is pleased to invite you to join us for "Infinity Kisses - The Movie," a lecture by Carolee Schneemann on Friday, March 26, 2010 from 6:00-7:00pm at Slought.

Schneemann will discuss the sensuous agency of a pet cat, and her decision to capture ritual kissing as determined by the cat. Her discussion will extend to taboo issues of physical contact, hierarchical fractures between human and animal, and "appropriate" aesthetics of erotic depiction. Her presentation will include a screening of Infinity Kisses - The Movie (2008), courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), NY, and contextualized with regard to her larger body of work.

Carolee Schneemann is a multidisciplinary artist. Her video, film, painting, photography, performance art and installation works have been shown at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art; in NYC at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, as well as the Reina Sofia in Madrid, Moderna Museet Stockholm, the Pompidou Paris. The recent multi-channel video installation "Precarious" was presented at the Tate Liverpool "Abandon Normal Devices" Festival in September 2009. Through July 25, 2010 the Dorsky Museum at SUNY New Paltz is presenting a major retrospective encompassing a full range of her visual work.

For more, download Carolee Schneemann's visual presentation.