The Importance of Erotic Art
Throughout my school career, I have always been programmed to see art as a higher pleasure; something that is understandable through vigorous education about the techniques and technicians who create such works. Though that might be true for some people, I have always found that artwork that stimulates me sexually is a much more enriching experience than art that only stimulates my rational thought; in other words, erotic art. The thrill of the primal urges, the aesthetic pleasure, and the complexity of the subject-matter all create a unique experience that cannot be mimicked. The importance of erotic art has been undermined throughout history however I still believe that it holds the same value as any other art genre.
When thinking of erotic art, it is hard to pin down a definition for it. There is the typical definition which is anything with sexual subject matter, however I choose to go off of Hans Maes’ definition that he came up in his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on "Erotic Art" which is, “…erotic art is art that is made with the intention to stimulate its target audience sexually, and that succeeds to some extent in doing so.” This, I find, is a great definition to go off of and from there we go to some of the arguments for erotic art’s importance.
One common theme among thinkers who disagree with erotic art’s importance is the fact that it entices us to want to own the subject. Let’s say we are looking at Edouard Manet’s Olympia (a painting of a nude woman lying on a bed as the main subject of the piece) and we say to ourselves, “Wow that woman is beautiful, I wish I could have her!” This is typically looked down upon and can be seen as a perverted male gaze. However Hans Maes argues that if 21st century philosopher, Alexander Nehamas saw Olympia he would say that, “… it does what all great art should do: spark the audience’s desire.” This is an interesting point, because what is the point of going to an art museum, or exhibit, if the art that is there doesn’t spark some type of desire in you? Your desire for the subject matter is what brings you to the museum in the first place.
An argument against this view on Olympia is also in Maes’ essay when he is talking about Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury, who was before Kant in his idea of disinterestedness. Maes paraphrases Shaftesbury’s tree argument, noting that someone may go from contemplating a tree to fantasizing about its tasty fruits: “Both activities are pleasurable, but the pleasures involved are very different…” Shaftesbury uses this to endorse the view that the lust after the fruit is based on the appetitive side we have in common with animals, or, as he likes to call them, “brutes.” He then goes on to say, “The contemplation of beauty, by contrast, is unique to us rational beings. That’s because beauty is exclusively an object of the mind.” Here he is saying that any “brute” can let his appetitive side take over, but humans have the ability to rise above this and be able to contemplate without desire. Shaftesbury, however, thinks of this ability as more of a responsibility than a freedom, as though we should look down upon it. Just because we share something in common with animals does not mean that it is a bad thing or something to dismiss. Do not forget that if there weren’t that appetitive/sexual desire then procreation would not be possible. Procreation is also something we share with animals, however should we look down upon that as well?
Nietzsche, in response to these attacks on desire, believes that, “To believe… that in matters of beauty and art there is such a thing as ‘immaculate perception’ (an aesthetic regard pure of any desire), is simply do deceive oneself.” This brings us to another interesting question: can you really separate the two (contemplation and desire) when it comes to beauty or art?
Contemplation is, typically, a requirement for art, however desire has always been put off to the side for its simplicity and primitiveness. Plato believes otherwise, using the ancient Greek tradition of paederasty. “…In…[paederasty], Plato saw an opportunity not only for the boy but for the man as well… Such a man would want to understand what made the boy beautiful and sparked his desire. Desire for the boy, then, leads to a desire for understanding.” In this quote, Plato explores the idea of desire being the catalyst for understanding. Why in the world would we ever want to contemplate something if we did not have some type of desire that sparked it in the first place? In Plato’s example, he uses the desire from the older man as the catalyst for his searching for why he finds the young boy so beautiful. This is the same feeling that I get when I see a beautiful woman in a painting. I seek to further understand what beauty is. Seeing erotic art from centuries of artists has shown me what societies’ definitions of beauty were and can say a lot about that society’s frame of mind, when looked into.
Another thought from Plato is that, “…all beautiful things draw us beyond themselves, leading us to recognize and love other, more precious beauties…” What most philosophers get wrong, when they look at erotic art, is the idea that eroticism is a mindless act of perversion. Just as Shaftesbury stated above, the contemplation of beauty is something unique to humans, however desire is simply the first step to enjoying a painting. Philosophers, such as Kant and Shaftesbury, appear to think that once someone sees a sexually desirable subject in a painting, it automatically turns off any rationality that they might have. However Peggy Zeglin Brand would have a problem with that. Brand created an efficient method to view paintings that involved both disinterested attention (DA) and interested attention (IA). This was what Brand named “toggling” and is what I believe is the answer to discovering the importance of erotic art. I must agree with the opposition to erotic art when they say that art and beauty cannot be simply understood from the primal urges of sex, however I do think that using beauty as a springboard into contemplation is the best method. This is what separates simple pornography from erotic art. We watch pornography for the simulation of sex without much thought into it, however erotic art forces us to see the subject and figure out what it means or represents
Erotic art, for centuries, has been looked down upon as a lower art form. Because of sex’s controversies over the course of time, erotic art has been forced to be seen as an average man’s painting. The importance of erotic art, however, is much deeper than a simple sexual urge. Desire, self-reflection, contemplation and even social understanding are all outcomes of viewing erotic art, if you do not undermine the experience as Kant and Shaftesbury have. If you can allow yourself to be overcome by a painting instead of suppressing your desires you will awaken the ability to “toggle” between DA and IA in such a way that you can fully understand a painting. This is why I hold erotic art to such a high standard. It IS more than simple pornography: it is art in every sense of the word.
Laki Nua, Philosophy student at San Jose State
 Alexander Nehamas, Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007), 6
 Peggy Zeglin Brand, “Disinterestedness and Political Art” in Aesthetics: The Big Questions, ed. Carolyn Korsmeyer (Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1998) 168