Considering the topic, you probably know very little and feel puzzled. And it is a normal thing to feel so, since Erotic art is a complex art and sometimes brings more questions than answers. The list can be huge! What is erotic art? Do all paintings with a sexual theme qualify as erotic? How to distinguish between erotica and erotic art? Both people and works of art can be sensually appealing, but is the beauty in each case substantially the same? How helpful is the distinction between the nude and the naked? Can we draw a strict line between erotic art and pornography? We tend to think of art as complex and of pornography as one-dimensional, but how compelling is that differentiation?
This article aims to provide a short overview of historical perspective, some philosophical debates on erotic art and hopefully will clarify the true meaning of erotic art.
In the history of Western art, the erotic has long been hidden, ignored or condemned. For centuries, one had to look to mythological or even religious works for representations of the naked body. Greater part of Europe’s history is an enormous desert of time where sexuality in art is practically absent, especially compared to the rest of the world. But nevertheless, if looking back to the sources and history of art you will easily find works that were representing nudity and erotism. “The Venus of Hohle Fels” is the oldest goddess figure and the oldest example of figurative art known today.
It is amazing to know that such a type of art has a truly long history, even though, a lot of people still do not want to accept the existence of erotic art, or maybe feel embarrassed because of it, nevertheless history proves that erotic art was present since people remember themselves.
Another chapter in the Erotic Art history would be – Ancient Rome. Ancient Pompeii would have been an erotic art enthusiast’s dream come true! Many roman artifacts from buildings to pottery were a great proof of that.
Want more arguments? Here you go, we move to Greece. Here you will have a fact that the nude is often seen in classical Greek art because it was a part of society and as acceptable as say, wearing a hat in public today. More to say, Greek people were exposing in their art a lot of topics that evoke contradictions even now. Things like homosexuality, mentor-pupil relationship, the “dominant” and “submissive” roles. Now this is what I would call a classic Greek nude!
Then we move to Middle Ages. Here I would say that erotic Art had a pause since censorship has been the scourge of European at that times. This was largely due to the spread of Christianity in Europe. For a period of almost 1000 years, practically no nudity can be found in European art, that is until around the 15th Century, when classical nudity began to resurface with the Renaissance.
The Renaissance began around the 14th century simultaneously in both Northern and Southern Europe. The Renaissance also coincided with a period in history known as “The Age of Discovery”.
A favored subject chosen by many artists during the Early Southern Renaissance was the promiscuous Zeus/Jupiter, King of the Gods. Correggio (1489-1534) is a great representative of erotic artists of the Early Renaissance, he was the first to take art past modest nudity and straight into full blown eroticism! One of his works: “The Loves of Jupiter”.
The Northern Renaissance was very similar to the Southern Renaissance. It had a similar transition to artistic freedom and enlightenment, and a time when the services of artists were afforded by more than just the Church. The Protestant Reformation – this rapid surge in education was the catalyst for the rise of free thinkers. With the dawn of printing came the dawn of propaganda. Which caused the increase in nudes and erotic art, as propaganda used in a similar way sex is used in advertising today.
The Renaissance rather smoothly flowed into the next historical period in art known as Mannerism, which later developed into the Baroque Period, which later developed into the Rococo style. The Baroque period looked like a bad time for erotic art: the Catholic Church clamped down on pornography. But artists who really wanted to make their figures “exciting to lust” found a way — by using figures from Greek and Roman myths and Christian stories. The stuff we associate with Rococo pornography in the early 1700s is almost innocent in its domesticity. These three styles were rich with colors, shades, expressions and ideas, most of which were revealing erotic implication.
Art after the Rococo period began an accelerated evolution. New styles began cropping up all over Europe: Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Realism, Impressionism. All these flows are rich with paintings and pictures that represent nudity in all its beauty.
I believe that separate place should be occupied by the French Revolution that represented erotic art as Satire. The French knew how to make their erotica pointed and upsetting. The Marquis de Sade’s famous erotic novels from 1787 onwards, which were illustrated by Claude Bornet, are now primarily known for their serious BDSM themes, but at the time were understood as biting social satire as well as sexy fun.
In actual fact, erotic art was taking different expressions throughout years. Artists in different epochs were interested in the human body and were not afraid to show nudity on the canvas. Instead of claiming that erotic art is about sexual feelings or desires, one could say that erotic art elicits sexual feelings or desires. For example, Jerrold Levinson acknowledges in his definition of erotic art as: “art which aims to engage viewers sexually through explicit sexual content and that succeeds, to some extent, in doing so”. (Levinson 2006: 252)
After a brief overview of the main stages of erotic art growth, we have finally reached our time. And it would be wise to say that erotic art would go on to play an essential and inescapable role in the artistic revolution of the 20th century. By the 20th century, artists were no longer content with unambiguous celebration of the human form. The brutality of sex and anxiety brought by self-awareness began to take precedence over arousal.
Photography provided a new medium for erotic art and erotica, as well as a further blurring of the lines between art and obscenity. New manifestations of erotic art appear: artists are expressing their feelings through photos, later you can find erotic fanfiction stories, people start to express their imagination by making erotic cartoons or even by running blogs where they mix all the possible ways of representing erotic art.
You may think that finally in 20th century erotic art started to develop freely, as no longer people are as narrow-minded as before. People are no longer so shy about expressing their thoughts and feelings. But the real truth is a bit different. Modern aesthetics has cast a long shadow into the 20th and even the 21st century, and the idea that the aesthetic and the erotic are fundamentally incompatible has proved to be very influential throughout.
While not everyone will take the aesthetic side of the erotic, very few philosophers today will deny the existence of erotic art. So, does this mean that the wall between the sexual and the aesthetic has been torn down? Does it mean that people started to understand the aim of the artist who exposes erotica in his paintings? Not entirely. It seems more accurate to say that the battle lines have been redrawn. The suspicion towards the erotic has been replaced by a very pronounced scepticism of the pornographic.
We still have religions, and we still have politics that accept erotic art as something evil. They believe that human’s feelings cannot be expressed in the mood where the nude body is present. They still believe that nudity is a synonym to a forbidden fruit.
So the logical questions appear in your head – Why things haven’t changed? Why does the art, that has nothing common with pornography or really filthy things, like sexual abuse, taken into consideration as something offensive and often is in under taboo?
Art historians who write about erotic art are often quite anxious to draw a strict dividing line between “high brow” erotic art and “low brow” pornography. Kenneth Clark once mentioned: “To my mind art exists in the realm of contemplation, the moment art becomes an incentive to action it loses its true character”. (Longford 1972: 280)
Was the Clark, right? Maybe to some extent, he really performed a wise thought. To my mind, art is necessarily multi-layered, whereas pornography is one-dimensional; it has only one job to do and therefore lacks the formal and structural complexity. The fact is that, there are numerous religious or politically inspired erotic masterpieces that call on people to change their lives or perform certain actions because they depict hidden sense.
Erotic art is truly an image without context, a naked and pure image that transgresses the norm by making the private, the intimate and the sexual public, expressing the infinite power and beauty of the subconscious.
Pablo Picasso once said, “…sexuality and art are the same thing”. Perhaps he was right.
Maybe again we have more questions than answers, so to sum up, I would like to give a piece of advice – When you observe art, don’t try to find a hidden sense, just listen to your heart and open your inner “mischievous” side and the imagination will do the rest of the job for you.