You can learn a lot about modern mores and attitudes toward sexuality just by hanging out in the lobby of the Time Warner Center, the upscale mall at New York’s Columbus Circle. Watch how many passersby touch the tiny penis of Adam, the twelve-foot Botero sculpture who, with his distaff counterpart, greets visiting shoppers. Of course they touch it, and grab it, until it’s as golden as Saint Peter’s foot; it’s human instinct. Periodically the management needs to reapply the patina.
Not long ago, I was at the Metropolitan Museum, walking behind a family. We came upon a naked kouros. While her parents were talking, a little girl of maybe three extended a small arm toward the statue’s penis, a look almost of hypnosis on her face. Her hand moved slowly, inexorably, and then—she grasped it. At that point her mother noticed and batted her hand away from the antiquity. “Stop that,” she said.
When it comes to touching the Botero, though, the lines aren’t as clearly drawn. Perhaps it’s the cynical mishmash of art and commerce in the Time Warner building—note the proximity of the giant H&M—but the frank Boterismo on display seems to bring out the snickering puerility in everyone. Kids dart between his legs. Schoolgirls go in for a quick, hysterical photo op while their friends chortle. Touch by furtive touch, his nether region begins to shine.
The thing about Botero’s Adam is that he seems so … unembarrassed. By his girth, by his nudity, by his lack of endowment. I think it’s this shamelessness, in part, that inspires such snickering. People fear what they do not understand, and they move to hide this fear; there is no reaction without an audience. They have none of that little girl’s honest engagement.
Or do they? The other evening, I passed through the lobby and saw a mentally ill man thrashing that statue’s little penis with an umbrella. He was whaling on it, and with real anger. None of the security guards did anything—it was as if he were merely a red-faced tourist taking a souvenir picture. His, at least, was an honest experience of art.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.