To devalue erotic art works is to devalue erotic artists. Specifically, those who express their creativity through the body and through sexuality – whether by choice or because, historically, it has been the only creative outlet for women. And by only creative outlet I mean a performance that cannot be separated from the performer. Women have always been creators, it’s just that their creations have seldom been credited to them.
Maybe it’s just too personal for me to separate the art analysis from the art. But, to me, erotic art is incredibly valuable. In work, I write primarily about sexuality, but I also collect erotic art works. My collection has been an incredibly positive and inspiring habit (and, quite expensive) that has functioned as a window to another, more livable dimension. The times I’ve suffered through criticisms of erotic works being “all about sex” or too figure focused or objectifying has been exhausting and discouraging. I get that to some it’s boring, it’s overplayed, because the media uses our sexual desires to sell us shit we don’t’ need. We often times associate erotic works with advertisement (forgetting, I’m sure, that many great surrealists were working in advertisement mid-20th century). I totally get that. But erotic works can and do stand on their own, whether that be in literature, visual art, film, photography, performance or intentional pornography. Additionally, the argument that erotic works always exploit women is problematic. This fully disregards the fact that women have expressed themselves through eroticism, because it was the only place they would be recognized. Erotic performance has been an important form of expression and employment for so many women throughout history, and it’s no surprise that this expression is considered “lowly.” This isn’t a problem with the work or with eroticism, the problem is that there were no other options.
I believe that the root of these criticisms comes from patriarchal, Christian thinking that has been embedded in our minds since before we could think for ourselves. I didn’t even grow up with religion, but living in this *still* Puritanical society has trained me to think about sex and my gender in this capitalistic and anti-Pagan way. It takes a lot of self awareness to unwrap oneself from this thinking. Sure, there’s also some feminist point of view about eroticism – that it’s the male gaze, commodifying the body and it’s objectifying – which, in many cases is valid, but I don’t attach morality to art. Also, interestingly, a lot of erotic works especially in the 20th century were produced by women (though, sadly, under ambiguous or male pseudonyms). Particularly graphic works like pulp illustrations and comics. Though, that’s another aspect of my argument – the high art vs. low art issue. Most blatantly erotic works (such as illustration or pornographic films/photography) end up in the category of “low” art, or not art – just porn. In order to stand fully behind this argument, I suggest abandoning the very notion that there is high art and low art. That is, again, capitalistic thinking, it’s privileged prioritization and it favors celebrity over authenticity.
I want to start this criticism of religion and capitalism by saying that I am not suggesting the inversion: atheism and communism. The error in replacing one with the other is never escaping the original male-centric thinking. Atheists trade in religion for rationalism, which is still anti-Pagan and still male, mind-focused. Communists have notoriously been anti-sex and anti-art, as we fail to see Marxism properly realized. My criticism is for all male-centric, patriarchal thinking. But, primarily, Christianity. In Christianity, the spirit and the body are separate (rationalists, hypocritically, believe this too in replacing spirit with mind). The body is not to be used for pleasure. Though, if you are a man in most societies throughout history you may use one part of your body as freely as you would like because virginity is hinged on the hymen. Women, held to a completely different standard, may not use their body freely. They have been subjected to any number of accusations: that they are frigid, whorish, used-up, shameful, ugly, undesirable, tempting, evil. To different degrees in our current society, these notions are mostly fed to us subliminally and not nearly as overbearing (for most), but this thinking is what justifies certain ideas about women and sexuality. The Pagans of the Old Religion who practiced Witch Craft believed that our bodies and spirits were one because all things are connected, which is why an individual should value all life. The central figure of worship was the Goddess, not an idol like God the Father, but a presence that exists in all living things that we respect. There was no separation between male and female, both genders live in all beings. The Pagans did believe that the feminine was divine, because she is the source of all life. Sex was an act of pleasure and love, sacred, but not holy and exclusive. Because of this Pagan thinking that Christian leaders found dangerous, we saw thousands and thousands of women and othered men tortured and slain since antiquity until now. Why dangerous? Because women had agency, and men were not held to masculine standards. The Witches were defamed and had to die.
Interestingly, if the Pagans hadn’t been slaughtered and converted then sadomasochism would have never existed. Nor Satanism and the radical notion that pleasure and self love are good for you – and all the works that came from these rebellions. The seemingly eternal conflict between the oppressed sexual being and the male-centric, religious or rationalist dictators has been the catalyst for all these erotic works throughout history, in one way or another. Whether that is, for example, a woman radically expressing her sexuality, or a man expressing his frustration about his desire, unique fetishistic desires of all genders, violence in sex, different gender expressions, the art works of trans individuals, men and women desiring the same sex. So much of this work is about conflict and desire. Unfortunately, even when trans and gay identifying individuals create work it often ends up categorized as “erotic” because their identities are superficially seen as sexual, which is unjust and certainly symptomatic of this problem. There is so much inherent violence in the expression of sexuality, because no matter who you are or what you are creating, to create sexual or non-conforming works is in someone’s mind committing an act of violence.
My sexuality has been the center of my identity since I became a thinking, self reflective person. This is also because I associate my sexuality with my creativity. I believe that both of those things come from the same place, and in many ways I think of both sexuality and creativity as a connection with the divine. Maybe this is also unique to me because my sexual expression is *about* creativity and performance. That isn’t the case for all people, so I suppose it’s unfair to expect them to understand how much of me is in that, and sometimes how separated my sexuality is from the actual act of having sex. It’s difficult, though, because my identity can often times be seen as superficial, vain or sex-driven. These are all anti-Pagan insults. There is nothing wrong with the love of beauty, the love of the self and the love of intimacy. When you think of inverting those insults it becomes apparent that what a person is being told when they’re called vain is that they should not love themselves. In addition, when erotic works are called “cheap” or “pornography” the insinuation is that the work has no monetary value which is capitalistic, or that it does not have any emotional or intellectual value which is Christian/Rationalist spirit/mind vs. body thinking and that pornography is inherently bad or wrong. A pornographic work is, I suppose, one that intends to arouse. Though, a person can be aroused without the artist’s intention. Pornography is such a massive, nuanced genre that it’s impossible to talk about it as one thing. I guess the common point of reference for pornography is this 1970s early notion of mainstream pornographic films, which, I’ll resist a rant, was in so many ways radical, anti-Christian, anti-patriarchal, pro-sex and pro-woman that it is hard to believe that progressive people now are still under the impression that the (incredibly fucked up) anti-obscenity laws of the 70s and 80s were somehow justified. Not to say that these industries aren’t problematic, but they aren’t any more problematic than other industries. It’s a lot easier to look at pornography and sex work and call it exploitive or to say that it demeans women because it’s sex focused, but when was the last time you could honestly call any other (profiting) industry non-exploitive? At least the women involved in these works are consenting (yes there are times when this is not always true) unlike big corporations which exploit the bodies of women and men, usually in other countries, in far worse ways. It’s always so much easier to call out sex and to say that women don’t have the agency needed to consent.
Speaking of censorship, remember when artistic people who identified in the gay, trans, BDSM communities were arrested? Had their children taken away from them? Were put into mental institutions? Were subjected to horrifying forms of “therapy”? Are still murdered and unaccounted for today? What is so obscene, so offensive, so God awful about what they were putting out? Different notions of sexuality and gender. These expressions challenged the law of the land. Though the artist’s intentions were often not to “challenge” or “provoke” but simply to be, and to love. There is that need to control, understand, compartmentalize and condemn the sexualities of others, even in some feminisms. I’m talking about anti-porn, anti-BDSM and even scrutinizing straight male sexuality. I personally love the erotic expressions of men, regardless of privilege. Some of my favorite artists are straight white men! Unfairly, it’s true that pre-modernity their works were the only forms of eroticism (or….art) to gain fame and monetary success. Though, the only way to do this safely was to create works that were either religious or classical. Most famously representing this, Bernini’s The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Even the sexual expression of the European man was monitored by law.
It’s easy to criticize this history as male-centric and boring. So many Venus’s with no agency. But, you know what, I still love it. Those are great works, even though their production and fame stomped out (or stole from) equally valuable works by women and people of color. These are challenges we still face today, not nearly of that magnitude, but the glass ceiling is still there. Even as an autonomous, white, American woman I know I’m not really respected outside of my community. Because people still think about sexually inclined creatives the same way. Meaningless and superficial. Or, worse: trashy, shameful, disgusting, immature, dangerous, insane, insecure, unsafe, whorish. I’ve heard it all.
Without all these issues I might agree that erotic works are boring and superficial. Maybe the shame aspect would dissipate. Subversion and transgression would fall away and we, sexual radicals, would have nothing to fight against or for. Therapists would lose their jobs left and right. But people are often afraid to talk about sexuality, in all its tangible and intangible forms. As an art collector and an artist, my work and my erotic art collection empower me in ways nothing else could. These materials excite me and help me to feel connected to something when I fail to feel connected anywhere else. It is my escapism, my romance, my other world. It’s wonderful to me, and I know I share this wonder with others. Living in novels and paintings because real life is so dull, depressing and neutered. Eroticism, in my philosophy, is a rebirth of the Pagans, a return to the Craft and the divine feminine. These works are so much more radical than they are given credit for.
And Goddamnit, erotic art is emotionally and intellectually valuable. Even if we’re all broke.
Image: Meret Oppenheim, “Object,” 1936. Fur-covered cup, saucer, and spoon.