History of Erotic Art

What Constitutes Erotic Art?

The modern-day notion of erotic art is very different to that of the ancients'. Fashions change, body sizes and parts become eroticized depending on the era and in a lot of cases the intervention of religious and moral ideals.

The ancient civilizations viewed art as a way of expressing the facts of life, the things that happen to the everyday person and in many cases a way to instruct the public in the ways of sexual practice. What in modern times we call erotic art was to them neither indecent nor scandalous but a response to the natural world and the importance of fertility and enjoyment as being essential to a person's wellbeing. In all these cultures the notion that binds them together is the lack of guilt and shame that modern cultures associate with the naked body and sex. The Japanese and Chinese produced explicit paintings and prints of sexual positions and practices as a means to educate the uninitiated in the arts of intercourse. India again uses the artistic interpretation of sexual intercourse as a means of education and religious instruction.

The idea of depictions of sex being seen as an obscenity developed in Europe from the 18th century to the modern day, largely due to the modern Christian ideals at the time. Society finds it difficult to separate the depiction of a naked body from the act of sex. Sex was for procreation, not pleasure, however it is human instinct, a natural sexual impulse, unique to man to use sexual intercourse as a means of experiencing pleasure. As soon as something becomes forbidden, it excites human nature. Erotic art brings to the viewer feelings of guilt and shame for being the voyeur whilst at the same time arousing sexual desire. The voyeuristic scene appears to be born from the viewing of erotic imagery. The voyeur can imagine stumbling upon a scene which may, in current society, be deemed improper, yet the voyeur is compelled to watch and can fantasize about taking part, corrupting the chaste, helping out those ladies etc. Sex has enormous erotic power when secret and forbidden, it excites, but loses that initial appeal when exposed, like modern pornographic imagery which leaves nothing to the imagination.

One of the biggest elements of erotic art which separates it from being classed as pornography is the art of concealment. It matters not so much what is exposed but the accoutrements that accompany the naked form. A mask on a figure conceals the nude's identity so the viewer can relate more readily to the picture, placing themselves or another in a similar postion. The covering of the face also places increased emphasis on the areas of the body which are exposed. It is the details of a picture that carry an erotic charge: the turn of the neck perhaps in ecstacy, the arch of the back, the texture of the skin. Of course, the use of ‘props’ in paintings leads to the world of fetish, which has been around since ancient times, for example the bound feet of Chinese women. The word fetish comes from the latin ‘factitius’ meaning artificial, originally alluding to magical amulets from the Guinea coast. It is an item which adds mysticism and power to the wearer and the image. Modern fetish items include leather corsets, high heels, whips, masks and all manner of bondage gear.

Eroticism is born from an ancient basis in magic, mystery, religion and expression in the arts. It is divorced from pornography in that it hints at what lies beyond, it gives the voyeur something to fantasize about, imagine and place themselves in a similar postion. It is not explicit, however the line can be very fine between the two. Both use the naked body and notions of sex to sell themselves, pornography just goes one step too far. There is no magic or mystery but a history of exploitative violence and coercion. Nothing is left to the imagination, and the imagination is a powerful tool in the art of erotica.