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By Association Member China Hamilton.

We all take the visual depiction of nudity for granted. It exists and has always existed since cave paintings. Different times and different societies have both welcomed it and rejoiced in it or they have condemned it and censored it. Whatever the point of view of the current world we have always been ok with trees and birds, hunting scenes and mountains with clouds but not with nudity and the dangly bits. As there has always been this strange line in the sand, many who have crossed it have felt ‘what the hell’ and gone onto give us just about every permutation of our sexual exploration that can be imagined. Do we though stop to think about why such imagery?

While driving along the other day and rejoicing in the collaboration of Levi and the female bottom, I started to think about what really makes an image ‘erotic’. It’s a word that is bandied around a great deal, it forms the main part of the name of this Society, and it is constantly discussed in relationship to the word pornography. Do we though really think about just what it means and stands for, rather than use it as just a piece of short-hand for a very complicated part of our thinking. To even pose this question is to enter the very shaky ground of definition in an area where the private, sexual thoughts of individuals are as unique as their DNA.

What really started this of, was a recent a discussion with fellow member. Yet again the thorny old question of eroticism versus pornography was raised. I have always in the past relied upon the theory that the erotic stimulated the mind and pornography stimulated the genitals. My more recent thinking has however seen this theory as far too simplistic. I do now believe that eroticism quite happily overlaps with, or interfaces with, what we see as visual pornography. Through intellectualisation of the visual representation of nudity and sexual imagery we have perhaps sought to provide a form of social comfort blanket in which to wrap our less comfortable thinking.

There certainly is a considerable amount of imagery depicting nudity that has little or no chance of being described as erotic or even pornographic, at least by the standards of today. Perhaps some reclusive Victorian might have been shocked or a castaway on a remote island titillated but in the main there is a wealth of naked imagery that is too passive and in sexual peace, to tweak the senses of the average healthy person. We may be too jaded or anaesthetised by exposure but even when people set out to produce extreme images, is their effect erotic or just provoking a reaction of curiosity?

This is the problem for artists in any medium who wish to produce work that is seen as erotic. It is just not that simple to hit the exact spot. If the work is very explicit it may be seen as unacceptable as art and even be denigrated as pornography. If it is too passé and gentle, it may miss the mark of erotic and be found neutral and happily acceptable to the wider society.

I was looking this morning at a book of photographs of nudists. I have some experience of this liberating pleasure and know that when surrounded by others as naked as yourself, it is a very sexless but beautiful time. Looking at pictures though, especially of normal, every day young women with normal every day bodies, I discovered what I would certainly term erotic. These weren’t the perfect beauties of the top shelf magazine showing all; these women were far more real and far more, shall we say, approachable. The pictures were often as explicit as soft pornography loves to be and I was interested and my imagination did go to places such as warm beds with these warm women. For by the freezing of a moment of naked innocence and making it into a still picture I could study it and mentally changed the parameters. When the mind is triggered and stimulated into musing sexually and imagining and fantasising, then undoubtedly erotic thoughts have been generated and certainly for me some of the pictures indeed became erotic. I say ‘became’, because superficially they were not, and I’m sure not intended to be but rather intended as a sincere reportage of naturism.

I cite this simple and personal example because it seems to help the quest to quantify what is erotic. I suggested earlier that there was a merging between the erotic and the pornographic, that the definitions are unreliable and blurred. I am beginning to realise that the attempts to segregate these two terms is a deception that claims a superiority for what is described as erotic art over pornography. If the work is produced by a respected artist and intellectualise, then even if it is obvious and perhaps sexually extreme, it is art; an identical work produce for quite different reasons, will be dismissed as pornographic.

I recall Mapplethorpe’s photograph of a whip inserted into an anus, which was exhibited in some of the most respected galleries in America.

I have next to me a print of a picture by Gustave Courbet, 1866. It is of course a painting and therefore in real colour, it is exceptionally competent, therefore it has considerable photographic realism. It shows a female torso emerging from the bed sheets, there is a hint of a nipple and a ripe breast, the centre of the picture is of the sex, legs well spread. It is capped by dark pubic hair and the labia runs quite beautifully into the cheeks of the bottom. It is by a respected artist, yet it is unequivocally sexual, explict and for many then and now erotic. It could so easily be re-posed and photographed and published in a top shelf magazine and become soft-core pornography. Both works would be for many men and women erotic, in that they would certainly provoke the imagination perhaps even the fantasy of speculation as to her circumstances. What is certain, is that the first could be hung in the National and the second though equally valid, would not qualify.

Even today, explicit views of the female genitals, crudely referred to as ‘spread leg shots’ by the less sensitive, are often seen as a step too far. Even more unhappily the word gynaecological is often used. Boucher said of this Courbet, “The female sex has been closed for two thousand years. Now it has been opened again.” Sadly, his enthusiasm for such liberation is premature. Courbet knew that it mattered both to be honest about what turns on so many of us and to see its visual liberation as a thing of beauty. He had almost certainly enjoyed it and this passion spurred him to share it. Rodin restored the genitalia to his statues of women, when statues for so long had been content to display hairless pubic mounds alone and share again with us a woman complete. Our art is so often about sharing what we ourselves find so personally erotic.

It is perhaps this recent exposure, of something that has been the victim of the airbrush artists’ skills that seems to make it such an essential part of most pornography. It is through the honesty of pornography that the creative work that has higher pretensions is liberated. The male though has escaped this genital censorship throughout history. Most paintings and statues have failed to sport the demure fig leaf and seeing the male genitalia therefore seems not to provide much of a buzz for most, gay guys included, that one could describe as erotic or sexually stimulating to the voyeuristic. Of course the erect penis is another matter and has only recently ‘come out’ in mainstream art and photography. I put an autoerotic image of my erect penis in a recent book of mine, I doubt if it was an erotic picture rather more motivated by a desire to break a long standing taboo. I have even appeared very naked in the book ‘Fully Exposed’ on the male nude, though not I’m certain an erotic image, something that is also deliberately missing from most of the books fascinating contents.

This brings in an important point in the discussion of this word erotic. Most men are easily pleased, even many women, when it comes to seeing very sexual images of women. Images of the naked man prove far more complicated if their intention is to satisfy a sexual need. The heterosexual might even be disturbed if he showed too much interest in the male nude. A gay man though might admire, might even react in the same way as the female nude reaction. They may though be more interested in subtle things. Women certainly do not usually react to male nudity as men to the female equivalent. Women often look for other things that are less obvious to arouse themselves. With what I have just said, I am of course also being unfair to men. Faces, expressions, hands, feet, voices [films], eyes, all play a major part in what is erotic stimulation. Simple suggestion or ‘edge’ as I like to call it can play an immense part in generating sexual and erotic thinking.

So far I have therefore dealt with obvious, nudity, genitals, and explicitness. The erotic or the pornographic can be and often should be far more seductive and sensitive. Each of us have our own little quirks that turn on the light. I for example can find a woman’s beautiful and sensitive hands very erotic, in that I visualise them encircling my penis. Perhaps that is why hands play such an important part in my own work. It can become even more subtle than that. In a world where a great deal of our communication is about body language and facial expression, the generation of a powerful erotic image can take place by simply exploiting these signals. A face can be defiant or submissive, instantly altering our reaction to the image. The entire message of the picture is changed by the face alone, the pose, the background can all be the same but the face can tell so many different stories by the expression depicted. Even more subtle, can be the posture of the body itself. Such signals can be quite subliminal, the observer not consciously aware of what it is that is actually turning them on. It is these ‘stories’ that spring from work that power the fantasy and make it erotic for some of those who look upon the it. What went before, what is happening now, what will happen, will I just look, will I take part, am I disturbed, do I empathise, do I dominate, do I use it as a starting point for my own fantasy and so on?

No reaction means that for that audience of one the work was not erotic or pornographic! As Hannibal Lector said, we covet what we see around us. Some pieces of work, either fine art or pornographic possess us and for this reason we need to possess them. No other field of the visual arts has quite that effect upon us, sometimes upon our very soul or being. It is why erotica and pornography has always been collected, usually covertly and the acquisition of a piece that disturbs the centre of our being, our sexuality, must be possessed. It is also why church and state have so often been active in its suppression for they prefer the power to lie in their hands alone. So creating the erotic in all its forms and through all its mediums, can have complex repercussions beyond the artists original intentions.

We can of course admire and record a naked form for its simple beauty, like a sunset or any perfection of nature. We can write endless erudite appreciations of art and endless condemnations of pornography. If however as artists we say that our specialisation is erotic art then we must ensure that we succeed in lighting a few sexual fires. Better the naked man in a Viking helmet that provokes the rape fantasy in some woman, or the stereotypical lusty, glamour blond that makes some men want to disappear for a wank, than the world walks by not noticing. We all have our own agendas and motivations for our chosen subject and as individuals we all see it in different ways. Just producing work that focuses upon the naked form or associated sexuality is not enough. We must understand very profoundly what is it we are trying to achieve. It must be understood that it is firstly, always, an interplay between us and our subjects. If we work purely from imagination then it is an extension of ourselves, if we use another person as our subject, our finished work is as much about their contribution as it is our own. What ever they are doing before us, that we try to capture, will be a projection or encapsulation of their thoughts, personality, and fantasies. They are not so much meat on a plinth. As we produce the work, be it slowly with a pencil or quickly with a camera, that person before us must become a living personification of the art of the erotic; the very starting point. If it is not present at the moment of conception and at the moment of birth then it will never be there.