“What I like is erotica, goes the old joke. “What you like is pornography.” There is probably never going to be agreement on how to separate one from the other, and besides, the same people who object to one are often going to object as well to the other. In Eroticism & Art (Oxford University Press), Alyce Mahon draws a distinction. “Pornography’s sole intent is to stimulate sexually; it is an aid to sex or masturbation.” It is, in her view, more strictly concerned with power rather than mere sex. Erotic art, however, “is about equality between members of the opposite and same sexes.” Even so, within erotic art is always another intent, “a shocking means to express social, religious and political criticism or defy bourgeois taste.” Not all of the art discussed and depicted here is shocking, but this is closely related to how long we have been looking at it. Manet’s Olympia of 1863 shows an alluring nude, a high-class prostitute, staring frankly at the viewer. It was controversial at the time, but it is hard to imagine anyone getting worked up over it now. But Manet borrowed the woman’s classical pose from an even more respectable Titian, and has in turn been borrowed by Mel Ramos in 1973 to show a California blonde complete with tanning lines along the Playboy archetype, and in 1988 by Yasumasa Morimura, a male homosexual Japanese artist who assaults the viewer by posing both as the courtesan and the black servant in the original. Mahon, a lecturer at the University of Cambridge, has drawn upon extensive sources (this is a book of mostly intellectual rather than sexual stimulation), and has concentrated upon Western art from the mid-nineteenth century to current times. She demonstrates that emphasis on the erotic in art is a constant and that it has profoundly affected not just art movements but also how humans understand themselves sexually.
One picture reproduced here is Courbet’s The Origin of the World of 1866. It is an audacious work that is still thrilling; it is simply a finely-rendered “lower portrait” of a woman, legs spread, dramatically foreshortened without showing arms or face. This was a decidedly male point of view, defiant and calling attention to “the dynamics and politics of desire” between artist, model, and viewer. Its dynamics and politics have been updated; two Yugoslav artists in 1997 made a video version. Instead of being a passive female exciting the male artist and viewer, the model stimulates herself in a feminist rendering of the same pose. Both artworks were shocking for their times, and certainly some would put the 1997 version in the category of pornography, but its deliberate intent to modify the message of the original clearly imbues it with the kind of political and social edge that Mahon finds as a universal characteristic of erotic works.
That there is such an edge is clear in many examples. Millais painted The Knight Errant in 1870, a picture showing a knight in shining armor untying a naked woman from the tree onto which some cad or dragon has bound her. In the original painting, she faced out of the canvas, and this made viewers uncomfortable. There were calls from the public that the painting needed to be changed, that she needed clothes. Millais in response did change the picture, but the change was not to add clothing but to have her avert her gaze into the canvas. It was an expression of modesty, even if she was just as naked as she was before. what’s more, it enabled Millais to sell the painting, a sale which might not have taken place if the lady had remained assertive.
Eroticism in art is often subversive, but is not always invoked against a current government. The fascists before World War II were interested in erotic images that were consistent with support to the state. Reproduced here is part of The Four Elements (1936) by Adolf Ziegler, which had the distinction of hanging over the fireplace in Hitler’s apartment in Munich. It depicts the “pure, unsullied female with Aryan features and healthy, gymnast-like bodies.” Good sex was good for the state. There is also a picture here of the monumental sculpture Readiness by Hitler’s official state sculptor Arno Breker. It is of a nude man of perfect musculature, and obviously draws from David, but it is clear that this is a “German warrior, drawing his sword, staring his enemy in the eye, firmly rooted in German soil.” (It is also a darned silly work: if you want to be in readiness for battle, put some clothes on!) Mussolini populated his stadium in Rome with sculptures of sixty heroic male athletes, showing off young, muscled bodies and exposed genitals. In case anyone doubts that there was eroticism in such a display, the Catholic Church had to be appeased by the addition of sixty fig leaves.
The surrealists had no such bent to support the status quo, explicitly using the erotic to shock the public into change. They are included here from their Dadaist beginnings, often championing the works of de Sade and putting on shows that were the ancestors of current performance art. Those performances, known as “happenings” in the sixties, became explicitly sexual during the seventies and by the eighties were appropriated by sex-friendly feminists deliberately commenting on porn. Yoko Ono invited members of an audience to cut snippets of her clothing away as she remained motionless on stage. Carolee Schneemann naked on stage read a scroll of feminist writing that uncurled from within her vagina. “Post Porn Modernist” Annie Sprinkle insisted that female pleasure was to be celebrated by gleefully showing an audience how she could have an orgasm with a vibrator and then inviting them to look into her vagina with a speculum. As is fitting for performance art, there are acts described here that are truly outrageous because they are literally dangerous, naked men spilling their own blood as part of the show. And then there is Jeff Koons, who performed for the camera by copulating with his wife, an Italian porn star, and making oils or sculptures of the result.
Mahon maintains a detached “What can we learn from this?” tone throughout, appreciative of even the strangest sexual displays, and she analyzes them with elegance and sympathy. The subject is literally vital; one chapter after another shows images that might be titillating for some while simultaneously emetic for others. There are over a hundred, mostly color, pictures, all well-keyed to the text, although Mahon has discussed plenty of other unreproduced works that make it handy to have access to the Web to see what she is talking about. It is a handsome and glossy volume, with many pictures and ideas to provoke, uh, thought.
© 2006 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.