Unknown photographer, French, active 1840s-1850s. No title (Nude Woman with Long Hair) c.1852 daguerreotype, 9.4 x 14.8 cm. National Gallery of Victoria
Woody Allen famously defined the difference between erotica and pornography: ‘With erotica you use a feather and with pornography, the whole chicken.’ But fowl play notwithstanding, deciding what denotes pornographic material is ultimately subjective. While erotica can certainly swing over to the explicit, it also celebrates the less fetishised aspects of the body – the hinge of a waist, the curve of a wrist, a loaded glance.
The criteria used for distinguishing between the erotic and pornographic is steeped in personal moral, aesthetic, and religious values, and so remains largely subjective. Generally, erotic art tends to have higher production values and artistic merit than pornography and focuses on the body, the nuances of emotional and physical desire and psychological impact of sex, rather than the act itself.
The artist decides
One way of looking at the differences between erotica and pornography is to investigate the aim of the creator. The erotic artist is helping his or her audience rejoice in the human form and to honour physical intimacy and the joy of the flesh. The pornographer, on the other hand, is aiming to ‘turn on’ the viewer. Art is evocative, pornography exhibitionist.
The distinction has traditionally been indicated by presenters: art museums and mainstage theatres could embrace the nude in the cause of art but the more blatant productions of photography or the full-on striptease belonged in dark alleys in the seedier end of town.
The difference is no longer so straightforward. Arts Centre Melbourne is currently running a season of burlesque and as part of this year’s Melbourne Fringe Festival displayed an erotic art show in a Brunswick warehouse. The show, produced by “socially responsible erotica” producers Feck, featured the painting, installation, photography and video work of more than 50 emerging Melbourne artists, with around 60% female and 40% male artists represented, including work by transgender artists.
According to show coordinator Hannah Miller, socially responsible erotica does more good than harm. ‘That means self-consciously choosing work that doesn’t perpetuate stereotypes or repeat negative teachings about sex that are often found in mainstream porn. We are interested in alternative models of eroticism,” she said. “We were looking for, and I think, found some great variety on what can be considered erotic.”
Founder of Feck Richard Lawrence also holds life drawing classes focusing on erotica and fetishes. He said the reaction towards the classes has been fantastic. ‘Considering the current wave of sexual liberation, I’m actually surprised nobody was already doing it, in a public class.
‘The human nude has been a muse since the beginning of art itself, but in a sexual context has mostly been the domain of pornography. We knew plenty of artists would be interested in drawing the uncensored, unfettered nude, and we had a lot of interest from models who were keen to express themselves in that way.’
A cross-cultural perspective
Our attitudes to erotic art in Australia are often culturally narrow. We can be more comfortable with erotic art from Japan or India where its foreignness somehow holds it at a distance while there are still pockets of deep conservatism in response to the simplest nudity.
In countries with a long tradition of erotic art, modern conservative values have lead to an interesting dichotomy: contemporary erotica artists are being arrested on obscenity charges while traditional erotic art – often more explicit that the contemporary versions – are prized by galleries and collectors.
In Japan, the tradition of explicit woodblock prints called shunga is celebrated and valued by the art market yet in 2014, Tokyo artist Megumi Igarashi was arrested and charged with distributing indecent material. The content in question was a scan of her vagina, the prototype for a 3D-printed artwork made into a bright yellow kayak.
As society’s attitudes towards sexuality and erotica has changed over the past centuries, so have obscenity laws. Since the 3rd century, when the Karma Sutra was being written in India and the Romans were having open-air orgies in England, our relationship to our bodies, to sex and to intimacy generally have slowly become more distorted and distant.
Porn as therapy
The highly respectable School of Life, founded by philosopher Alain de Boton, has gone so far as to argue that both erotica and pornography have therapeutic benefits. The School argues that porn is a cure for the burdens of loneliness, seriousness and responsibility. In its online publication, The Book of Life the philosophers mount an argument for good porn.
‘The idea that porn could, under the right circumstances, actually be beneficial, strikes many people as very strange. But it shouldn’t. Looking at a lot of porn tends to leave us feeling disconnected and hollow. That’s because it doesn’t seem connected to anything else we value in the rest of our lives. It’s merely about sex, rather than being also about other things we care about: like self-understanding, kindness, intelligence and good relationships.’
As a producer Lawrence too believes that erotica can be healing, both for the viewer and for the artist. ‘Good sex is therapeutic and so is good erotica – but so difficult to find in a pornified culture, where explicit depictions are also stigmatized by many.’
He said that many models at his erotic life drawing classes describe erotic life modelling as ‘as a liberating and sometimes healing process. Tonight’s model, for example, suffers from cerebral palsy, and told us “I want to become a life model because I want people to see that everybody, even those with disabilities, can be and are beautiful.”’
While the plastic and plumped world of pornography can leave the viewer feeling empty, reading and watching erotica can be affirming and validating in a way that connects us to our bodies and to a greater depth of emotion. In literature, books written by women that include sex scenes have been ghettoized – like “chick lit” and “rom-coms” – into ‘erotic fiction’ and are seen to be tacky books designed for desperate housewives.
The Fifty Shades of Grey series was routinely mocked and ridiculed, but it also topped bestseller lists around the world, and set a UK record for the fastest selling paperback of all time. It influenced sales of lingerie and prompted a spike in the purchase of sex toys. Many publishing companies re-marketed their erotic fiction books in the wake of the success of the book, which single-handedly shook up the publishing industry and legitimised a literary form. It helped bring erotica out of bargain bin and into the supermarket trolley, reviving marriages and helping women express their sexuality.
And this is why erotica is important. It can succeed in connecting us with our deeper desires, where pornography strips us down to mere single-minded body parts. Erotica is about sex, but it is also about relationships, intimacy and the mind. And ultimately, being human.