Art of Sex and Sex in Art

The role of the Guild of Erotic Artists.

Erotic art may be indistinguishable from classical art whenever it matches that work in quality. A critical audience judges the quality of a painting or sculpture over time and many classical works have an erotic theme or content. But if the intention of the artist is to create erotica the audience can be critical in a different way; one that has more to do with social conventions than creative excellence. The label ‘erotic’ itself is applied by a subjective process; dependent on context and the cultural background of the audience. Fashion and the artist’s reputation may also play a part in deciding when a work is considered erotic and either defined or condemned by that label.

If a work of art is judged to be erotic why should it be devalued or disregarded? This is a common reaction to erotica in our culture; a prejudice expressed as disapproval, righteous indignation or at best, a childish humour. So why does that prejudice go unchallenged when our society accepts erotic imagery in every other area of visual media? TV programmes, films and advertising all exploit the erotic in a way that would have caused outrage only a few decades ago. But the old attitudes prevail when erotica invades the sanctuaries of fine art. Except, by a curious double standard, when time and reputation has made the imagery acceptable, usually when the artist is safely dead.

Perhaps this is a clue to contemporary manners – That it’s the living artist who is being judged, not the erotic work itself; his or her motives and character becoming the subject of prurient speculation and suspicion. If the artist has established a body of work and a reputation then some erotic work is accepted, even if it was kept secret in their lifetime. Once an artist has become accepted and popular, and the work is safely on show in museums and galleries, their life and character begin to be separated from their art. They may be celebrated and made the subject of biographies and films but are now being divorced from their own artistic creations. The work has taken on a life and value of its own.

Maybe ownership is another factor. Art becomes a commodity once its worth has been established and the owners of a work of art, whether private or public, proudly display their possessions. The name of the artist is transformed into an icon of value and prestige and the fallible human fades into the background, even if he or she is still alive. They may still be fêted, interviewed or put under a media spotlight but the connection to their work is subtly severed.

Artists have always been judged harshly and often regarded as renegade, worthless, even dangerous, in their own time. Both technique and subject matter have been attacked by churchmen, moralists and art critics, or derided by contemporary cartoonists and popular opinion. It’s also a truism that art only becomes fully accepted and valued after a certain passage of time. It’s as if we don’t want artists to be ordinarily human. That works of art should exist on a more rarefied plane; a place where blood, sweat and tears are long forgotten and become irrelevant to the responses of a sophisticated audience. So we prefer the muses to transform a person into an agent of higher forces; transfigured by some superhuman vision. As in the Hollywood system, artists are perceived as extra human, somehow outside the norm. The faults and foibles of film stars may held up for scrutiny but few believe they are really like us.

A fine artist is of course a different animal; in principal more akin to a philosopher or even a scientist who reaches into the wilder shores of experience and reality. They come back and show us what they have seen but we’d rather they kept the means and the mechanism to themselves. So it’s possible the erotic artist is too close to our visceral desires and fears; we can accept sex on advertising posters and even in TV soaps but we’d rather art stayed cerebral, even spiritual. We invite guests to admire our living spaces, but very rarely our bedrooms. There may also be a suspicion that the sensual and erotic should remain hidden to preserve their magic. When a glimpse of stocking was something shocking did the erotic excitement run deeper or just more ignorantly? Any sort of sexual freedom was largely reserved for a privileged few by circumstance, harsh realities and social restriction. As the elite once feared the education of the masses are they now fearing a total breakdown of erotic and sexual taboos?

If erotic artists are condemned and exiled to the shadows do they have to be regarded in the way Hollywood now views porn stars; as an alternative, somewhat seedy but tolerated tribe? Maybe it’s just the quality issue again; that no artist of any true worth would or should waste their talent on such a base and worldly study. How can high art celebrate low sensuality? There is a parallel here with war artists, just as sex and violence are almost automatically linked in our language and attitudes. Yet here again classical, acceptable art has depicted the whole gamut of human warfare, from the highest ideals to the most awful atrocity. But this should be the subject of another debate; perhaps exploring the boundaries of what is truly pornographic. Sufficient to say that the label ‘war artist’ can also consign that artist to a restricted category.

Contemporary erotica is for films or TV, clubs, music halls, magazines and any other area of performance or entertainment that isn’t classified as art. Because sex has now become a form of entertainment there is a new freedom to enjoy what was previously known to be a dangerous pleasure outside of marriage. Before penicillin and the pill the ‘little death’ could literally be life threatening, or at best the start of a socially unacceptable pregnancy. All the horrors of VD, back street abortions and even infanticide justified, or maybe only now explain, the censorship and inhibitions that have been reformed and liberated over the last fifty years.

We’ve only recently come out of the dark ages of sex, when nature ruled and medicine could do little more than hold our hands and hope for the best. In less than a human lifetime medical and technical advances have revolutionised human affairs; freeing first women and then a whole new generation from the diseases and social restrictions of the past. So maybe it’s no surprise that old attitudes linger and old fears lurk under a thin shell of new ideas. We are caught between a new vision of self-worth and a savage self-criticism; a place where art has given us mirrors to reflect the human condition from both sides.

A parallel occurs in the tensions between childish greed and responsibility that technology and a tsumani of information have created. We can see our way around the solar system and deep inside the functions of the human brain, measure the dynamics of our planet and the effects of our activities but our genetic and tribal inheritances have stayed the same; coming into clearer view but remaining ancient. If sex is our primary imperative this new awareness made the exploration and freeing of our sexuality inevitable and only the most repressive regimes could try to restrict and control it.

Pornography is continually being re-defined as its producers adopt each new technology; leaping from photos to films to video to the internet. So yesterdays pornography rapidly becomes todays erotica: TV, pop videos, mainstream films, even advertising in public places transmit images that would have shocked and astounded our grandparents. So there is a positive erosion of repressive controls and most people are increasingly responsible for their own preferences and lifestyle decisions. This process filters most slowly into our venerable institutions, and the temples of fine art, public and private shows and galleries, seem to be most resistant to change. A rarefied atmosphere of privilege and a contempt for popular culture combine to keep an outdated and elitist morality alive. So if the sex industry is coming out of the shadows to permeate every level of our life and culture how long it will be before fine art institutions and galleries reflect this sexual renaissance? This is open to question but whenever erotic art becomes just ‘art’ the question will have been answered. If artists remain free to mirror and express every aspect of human life this will happen much sooner than later and the label ‘erotic’ will have lost its power to alarm their audience and restrict their choices.

Wherever this new enlightenment might take us we should encourage pride and delight in our human existence and celebrate every aspect of that life, from the cerebral to the sensual. The erotic is everywhere; embedded so deeply in our genes and consciousness that to deny it is a form of emotional amputation. We live in a state of unique freedom and privilege and whatever problems the modern world may give us humanity is coming of age. It’s a time of understanding and new responsibility, not a descent into moral anarchy and selfish chaos - The garden of eden is waiting to be grown and we can be its gardeners.

John Coppinger
A Patron Member of The Guild
11th July 2010

Other News | Published Oct 2012