Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Sex in the British Museum

Art or Filth? The Infamous 'Warren Cup'...

The Rights and Wrongs of Hanging Homosexuals

It's amazing what you can find at the British Museum. The other day, waiting for my ticket to the Michelangelo cartoons, I nipped into a a small, temporary display, dedicated to one silver Roman cup. It turned out to be a singularly disturbing experience.

My anxiety had nothing to do with the workmanship of the object. The Warren Cup, named for its onetime American owner, is exquisitely beautiful. No, what made the Cup so disturbing to me was the subject matter engraved on its surface: scenes of tender homosexual love between a man and a boy. A boy of barely 14.

How was I meant to react to this? Was I meant to admire the terrific skill of the silversmith, and ignore the sexual perversion being celebrated? Maybe the Warren Cup was telling me something deeper: about my own sexual ethics?

Here in the West we like to think we have reached the final stage of moral wisdom when it comes to sex: we believe, for instance, that we are right to condone homosexuality at the same time as we condemn pedophilia. I certainly share the fierce repellence most of us feel for the sexual exploitation of children. But how do we know these moral attitudes are absolutely 'right'? What is 'right' anyway - when it comes to sex?

In Iran they hang homosexuals, which seems barbaric to us. Yet ancient Greece and Rome might have regarded our ferocious attitude to pedophiles as equally barbaric. Furthemore, some societies that we admire, like Renaissance Italy, would have found our tolerant approach to gayness or transsexuality quite incomprehensible. If not repugnant.

So, are there absolute rights and wrongs in sex? Or is sexual morality merely a question of fashion? For a very small object, the Warren Cup provokes some mighty big questions.

The Warren Cup is viewable in the Permanent Collection of the British Museum. So there.

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