Editor’s Note: This article features sex, pornography, eroticism and nudity. 

The New Yorker recently published a piece reviewing an exhibit of illustrator Tomi Ungerer at New York’s The Drawing Center.

Highlighting his avant-garde children’s books, his eccentric variety of work and his spat with library censorship, The New Yorker shines a focus on Ungerer’s erotic artwork, a collection of pen-and-ink perversities that come together in Ungerer’s 1969 book Fornicon.

Fornicon “featured men and women plugging appliances into sexually appropriate places” in what the magazine called a satirical “attack on the mechanization of sex,” as well as “its de-personalization and commercialization.”

In all honesty, Fornicon is relatively tame by today’s NSFW standards, but the bondage-like scenes – one inside cover features an illustration of a woman bound at the hands and feet inside a wheel of sexual apparatuses – foreshadow today’s proclivity for sexually explicit media.

Today, such media has jumped from the pages of obscure art house illustrations to the silver screen in Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film Fifty Shades of Grey.

The History Of Hot

The creation of art depicting nudity predates even the Venus of Millendorf, an archaic limestone figure of a naked woman dating back to 24,000 B.C.

The history of nudity in art is long and complex, marked notably by the chiseled muscle mass of heroes, the supple curvature of nymphs in Greek sculpture and the often naked forms that lined the walls of Ancient Egypt.

When a fundamentalist fervor of chastity took hold during the Middle Ages, the form suffered and by the time it returned in the Renaissance, nude art was all but sexless. The putti, nude babies and cherubim, for instance, were models of innocence.

As evidenced by the painting, Titian’s “Danae,” (which visited the National Gallery until November) and works like it, all painted and sculpted female sex organs were nondescript. There’s an apocryphal tale of a Victorian art critic who refused to consummate his marriage because he hadn’t known women had pubic hair due to this phenomenon.

Any adult nudes shown drew inspiration invariably from myth.

Nude depictions of Christian figures were considered taboo. Although British quiz show QI did recount that a certain miracle – The Lactation of St. Bernard – allowed artists to portray the Virgin Mary’s breasts quite openly without sacrilege.

Michelangelo’s “David” was a prime example of renewed male biblical nudity, and the fig leaf added in the Victorian Age to conceal his genitals from women is an example of opposition to nude images.

Eventually, though, the world came around, and in 1866 the French realist Gustave Courbet premiered “The Origin of the World,” one of the world’s first realistic artistic depictions of female genitalia. The work, of course, sparked controversy.

Drawing The Line

As nudity became relatively acceptable in art and easily attainable with photography, the line between artistic eroticism and pornography began to take shape.

One day my middle school art teacher – a goateed, progressive-type who was also certified to teach seventh grade science – announced he would be putting a nude portrait on the screen.

This was middle school, and nervous laughter erupted.

What instead showed up was Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2).” I dare any reader here to find a naked woman in the nest of lines my class was shown.

What that piece signified was that literal nudity was no longer the device: the movement of the figure descending, the abstract feeling of eroticism had taken over.

With the mid-twentieth century rise of Playboy and the subsequent rise of pornographic films, the line between erotic art and pornography either becomes clearer or dissipates, depending on how you see the world.

Buzzfeed published an article about one of Taylor-Johnson’s previous works, a short film segment called Death Valley that consisted of a semi-nude man “masturbating to completion in the desert. And that’s it.” The film, paired with the unprecedented success of the unabashedly smutty Fifty Shades of Grey, raises important questions on where ars gratia artis (art for art’s sake) ends and XXX begins.

Whether or not pornography is art is not for me to say, but assuming they are two separate categories, I would argue the difference is its purpose.

Erotic art has mixed intentions: to provoke thought, stimulate the mind and to portray the human form.

Pornography has a sole purpose: to arouse.

Even so, it is not always cut and dry. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said of hard core pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

Art is a world of exceptions. There is no clean cleave between pornography and erotic art – when faced with an example of each, the differences are enormous.

Nothing is black and white, but I’d be remiss to say it’s Fifty Shades.

headshotEvan Berkowitz is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at evanjberkowitz@gmail.com.

1 comment

  1. who can state a legitimate world wide anything that is just the women, is not any photographers or government coup. (contacts lawyers) and does in fact border the clerical inputs (CLERICAL isalways lower , w or w/o the “build hell” chants) in (intended or not?) result?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s