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Erotic art is a broad field of the visual arts including any artistic work intended to evoke erotic arousal, usually depicting human nudity and/or sexual activity. It has included works in almost any visual medium, including drawings, engravings, films, paintings, photographs, and sculptures. Some of the earliest known works of art include erotic themes, which have recurred with varying prominence in different societies throughout history. However it has also been widely considered taboo, with either social norms or laws restricting its creation, distribution, and possession, particularly when it is deemed to be "pornographic", "immoral", or "obscene".
The definition of erotic art is somewhat subjective, and dependent on context, since perceptions of both what is erotic and what is art vary. For example, a sculpture of a phallus in some cultures may be considered a traditional symbol of potency rather than overtly erotic. Material that is produced to illustrate sex education may be perceived by others as inappropriately erotic. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines erotic art as "art that is made with the intention to stimulate its target audience sexually, and that succeeds to some extent in doing so".
A distinction is often made between erotic art and pornography, which also depicts scenes of sexual activity and is intended to evoke erotic arousal, but is not usually considered fine art. Some draw a distinction based on the work's intent and message: erotic art would be works intended for purposes in addition to arousal, which could be appreciated as art by someone uninterested in their erotic content. US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote in 1964 that the distinction was intuitive, saying about hard-core pornography which would not be legally protected as erotic art, "I know it when I see it".
Among the oldest surviving examples of erotic depictions are Paleolithic cave paintings and carvings, but many cultures have created erotic art. Artifacts have been discovered from ancient Mesopotamia depicting explicit heterosexual sex. Glyptic art from the Sumerian Early Dynastic Period frequently shows scenes of frontal sex in the missionary position. In Mesopotamian votive plaques from the early second millennium BC, the man is usually shown entering the woman from behind while she bends over, drinking beer through a straw. Middle Assyrian lead votive figurines often represent the man standing and penetrating the woman as she rests on top of an altar.
Scholars have traditionally interpreted all these depictions as scenes of ritual sex, but they are more likely to be associated with the cult of Inanna, the goddess of sex and prostitution. Many sexually explicit images were found in the temple of Inanna at Assur, which also contained models of male and female sexual organs, including stone phalli, which may have been worn around the neck as an amulet or used to decorate cult statues, and clay models of the female vulva.
Depictions of sexual intercourse were not part of the general repertory of ancient Egyptian formal art, but rudimentary sketches of heterosexual intercourse have been found on pottery fragments and in graffiti. The Turin Erotic Papyrus (Papyrus 55001) is an 8.5 feet (2.6 m) by 10 inches (25 cm) Egyptian papyrus scroll discovered at Deir el-Medina, the last two-thirds of which consist of a series of twelve vignettes showing men and women in various sexual positions. The men in the illustrations are "scruffy, balding, short, and paunchy" with exaggeratedly large genitalia and do not conform to Egyptian standards of physical attractiveness, but the women are nubile and they are shown with objects from traditional erotic iconography, such as convolvulus leaves and, in some scenes, they are even holding items traditionally associated with Hathor, the goddess of love, such as lotus flowers, monkeys, and sacred instruments called sistra. The scroll was probably painted in the Ramesside period (1292-1075 BC) and its high artistic quality indicates that was produced for a wealthy audience. No other similar scrolls have yet been discovered.
The ancient Greeks painted sexual scenes on their ceramics, many of them famous for being some of the earliest depictions of same-sex relations and pederasty, and there are numerous sexually explicit paintings on the walls of ruined Roman buildings in Pompeii. The Moche of Peru in South America are another ancient people that sculpted explicit scenes of sex into their pottery. There is an entire gallery devoted to pre-Columbian erotic ceramics (Moche culture) in Lima at the Larco Museum. Edward Perry Warren adapted a love for Greek Art during college. An Erotic Art collector, specifically inclined to gather Greek erotic art pieces that often represented gay sexual relationships. The Warren Cup features scenes of anal sex between men. Many of Warren's eclectic pieces collected over the years are in the Boston Museum of Fine Art.
There is a long tradition of erotic art in Eastern cultures. In Japan, for example, shunga appeared in the 13th century and continued to grow in popularity until the late 19th century when photography was invented. In Japan during the Edo period (1600-1869), Shunga, translated to "spring pictures," was a series of sexually explicit paintings created with ink or woodblock works that became printed onto paper scrolls as an introduction to sexual education. Shunga, embraced by individuals apart of the Shinto religion, focused on liberating the innate sexual beings that are within all humans, including women and homosexual sexuality. Couples engaging in sexual acts were shown laughing and enjoying the sexual encounter with their partner; this focused on the positivity of sex.
Around 1700, Shunga was met with opposition and banned in Japan, but the circulation of this prominent Erotic Art continued. Shunga could be found in local libraries and homes of many Japanese citizens. Similarly, the erotic art of China reached its popular peak during the latter part of the Ming Dynasty. In India, the famous Kama Sutra is an ancient sex manual that is still popularly read throughout the world.
In Europe, starting with the Renaissance, there was a tradition of producing erotica for the amusement of the aristocracy. In the early 16th century, the text I Modi was a woodcut album created by the designer Giulio Romano, the engraver Marcantonio Raimondi and the poet Pietro Aretino. Erotic Art in Italy took on many forms but was most famously encaptured by artist Giulio Romano for his famous I Modi sketches. Pope Julius II commissioned Raphael to decorate rooms in the Vatican, which exclusively housed the religious elite. His death left Romano responsible for completing his final installation in the Vatican housing quarters in the Sala. The Sala was a gathering place for the religious elite. Paintings in this room depicted Emperor Constantine in a manner that illustrated scenes of victorious spiritual conquests of Christianity over Paganism.
During the time of finishing these works, Romano sketched sexually explicit scenes between mythological famous historical couples. These sketches were made to elicit the simplistic nature of sex between individuals. I Modi gave the public the power to gaze upon material which was banned by the clergy members of the Vatican. The sketches eventually landed into the hands of Marcantonio Raimondi, an engraver who was also classically taught by Raphael. Raimondi published and distributed these prints made by Romano. The drawings quickly gained popularity amongst non-elite people in society and were scattered around Italy's Vatican City. This taboo subject matter in Italy was ordered to be destroyed by Pope Clement. Marcantonio Raimondi was arrested for this reproduction and distribution of I Modi.
An erotic cabinet, ordered by Catherine the Great, seems to have been adjacent to her suite of rooms in the Gatchina Palace. The furniture was highly eccentric with tables that had large penises for legs. Penises and vaginas were carved on the furniture. The walls were covered in erotic art. The rooms and the furniture were seen in 1941 by two Wehrmacht-officers but they seem to have vanished since then. A documentary by Peter Woditsch suggests that the cabinet was in the Peterhof Palace and not in Gatchina.
The tradition was continued by other, more modern painters, such as Fragonard, Courbet, Millet, Balthus, Picasso, Edgar Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Egon Schiele. Schiele served time in jail and had several works destroyed by the authorities for offending contemporary mores with his depictions of nude girls.
20th century onwards
Many erotic artists worked in the 2010s. Although, in some circles, much of the genre is still not as well accepted as the more standard genres of art such as portraiture and landscape. Erotic depictions in art went through a fundamental repositioning over the course of the 20th century. Early 20th century movements in art such as cubism, futurism, and German expressionism explored the erotic through manipulating the nude to explore multiple viewpoints, colour experimentation, and the simplification of the figure into geometrical components.
In the mid 20th century, realism and surrealism offered new modes of representation of the nude. For surrealist artist's, the erotic became a way of exploring ideas of fantasy, the unconscious and the dream state. Artist's such as Paul Delvaux, Giorgio de Chirico and Max Ernst are well known surrealist artist's that dealt with the erotic directly. In the aftermath of the First World War, a shift away from abstracted human figures of the 1920s and 1930s towards realism took place. Artists such as British Artist Stanley Spencer led this re-appropriated approach to the human figure in Britain, with naked self portraits of himself and his second wife in erotic settings This is explicitly evident in his work Double nude portrait, 1937.
The naked portrait was arguably becoming a category of erotic art that was dominating the 20th century, just as the academic nude had dominated the 19th century. Critical writings on the ‘nude’ and in particular the female ‘nude’, meant fundamental shifts in how depictions of the nude and the portrayal of sexuality were being considered. Seminal texts such as British Art historian Kenneth Clark’s The nude: a study of ideal art in 1956 and Art Critic John Berger in 1972 in his book Ways of Seeing, were re-examining the notion of the naked and the nude within art. This period in art was defined by an acute engagement with the political. It marked a historical moment that stressed the importance of the sexual revolution upon art.
The 1960s and 1970s were a time of social and political change across the United States and Europe. Movements included the fight for equality for women with a focus on sexuality, reproductive rights, the family, and the workplace. Artists and historians began to investigate how images in Western art and the media, were often produced within a male narrative and particularly how it perpetuated idealisations of the female subject. The questioning and interrogation of the overarching male gaze within the historical art narrative, manifested in both critical writing and artistic practice, came to define much of the mid to late 20th century art and erotic art. American Art Historian Carol Duncan summarises the male gaze and its relationship to erotic art, writing “More than any other theme, the nude could demonstrate that art originates in and is sustained by male erotic energy. This is why many ‘seminal’ works of the period are nudes.” Artists such as Sylvia Sleigh is an example of this reversal of the male gaze as her work depicts male sitters presented in traditional erotic reclining poses that usually were reserved for the female nude as part of the ‘odalisque’ tradition.
The rise of feminism, the sexual revolution and conceptual art in the mid 20th century meant that the interaction between the image and audience, and the artist and audience, were beginning to be questioned and redefined, opening up new possible areas of practice. Artists began to use their own nude bodies and began to depict an alternative narrative of the erotic, through new lenses. New media was beginning to be used to portray the nude and the erotic, with performance and photography being used by women artists, to draw attention to issues of gender power relations and the blurred boundaries between pornography and art. Artists such as Carolee Schneemann, and Hannah Wilke were using these new mediums to interrogate the constructs of gender roles and sexuality. Wilke's photographs, for instance, satirised the mass objectification of the female body in pornography and advertising.
Performance art since the 1960s has flourished and is considered as a direct response and challenge to traditional types of media and was associated with the dematerialization of the artwork or object. As performance that dealt with the erotic flourished in the 1980s and 1990s both male and female artists were exploring new strategies of representation of the erotic.
Martha Edelheit was a female artist known for her contributions to erotic art as a rebellious stance against typical gender roles, which excluded women artists from participating in free sexual expression. This limited women to often be the subject of many famous Erotic Art pieces which catered to men. Edelheit was criticized for being a female artist who created erotic artwork during a time where men were main contributors in this art. Edelheit was a pioneer in the feminist art movement because she was a woman who created erotic art and also depicted herself in many of her works, which paved the way for women's equality in sexual expression.
Edelheit confronted the common stereotype that this art was pornographic by offering an alternative view of oneself. Her works paved the way for women to openly express sexual desires. Painting nude male subjects were uncommon in the 1970s; her Art turned the tables and allowed for women to be at the forefront of this fem expression revolution that occurred in the 70s.
The acceptance and popularity of erotic art has pushed the genre into mainstream pop-culture and has created many famous icons. Frank Frazetta, Luis Royo, Boris Vallejo, Chris Achilleos, and Clyde Caldwell are among the artists whose work has been widely distributed. The Guild of Erotic Artists was formed in 2002 to bring together a body of like-minded individuals whose sole purpose was to express themselves and promote the sensual art of erotica for the modern age.
Between 2010 and 2015 sexologist and gallerist Laura Henkel, curator of the Erotic Heritage Museum and the Sin City Gallery, organised 12 Inches of Sin, an exhibition focussing on art that expresses a diverse view of sexuality and challenging ideas of high and low art. The erotic continues to be explored and employed in new types of art work today and the profound developments of the 20th century still underpin much of the prevailing erotic art and artistic intent.
Whether or not an instance of erotic art is obscene depends on the standards of the jurisdiction and community in which it is displayed.
In the United States, the 1973 ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States in Miller v. California established a three-tiered test to determine what was obscene—and thus not protected, versus what was merely erotic and thus protected by the First Amendment.
Delivering the opinion of the court, Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote,
The basic guidelines for the trier of fact must be: (a) whether 'the average person, applying contemporary community standards' would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
As this is still much vaguer than other judicial tests within U.S. jurisprudence, it has not reduced the conflicts that often result, especially from the ambiguities concerning what the "contemporary community standards" are. Similar difficulties in distinguishing between erotica and obscenity have been found in other legal systems.
pottery art by Brygos Painter, 480–470 BC
Oinochoe by the Shuvalov Painter, c. 430–420 BC
Erotic art by Peter Fendi
Hokusai, The Adonis Plant (Fukujusō), 1815.
Hokusai, The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife, c. 1820.
Egon Schiele, untitled nude, 1914.
Erotic art by Peter Johann Nepomuk Geiger
Sheela na Gig at Kilpeck, England.
Jupiter et Junon by Agostino Carracci (1557 – 1602).
- Artistic freedom
- Blue Movie by Andy Warhol
- Dionysism art
- Erotic comics
- Erotic fetish art
- Erotic photography
- Erotic pinup art
- Fantastic art
- Golden Age of Porn
- History of erotic depictions
- I Modi
- Lesbian erotica
- Nudity in art
- Pregnancy in art
- Sex in advertising
- Sex in film
- Sexual arousal
- Khajuraho Group of Monuments
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