The blurred lines between eroticism and art

In 2013, we were provided with plenty of fresh evidence supporting the adage, “sex sells”. Miley Cyrus’s seemingly ceaseless twerking and gyrating, for example, helped her album “Bangerz” achieve the year’s biggest album sales week for a woman, while the song and video for “Blurred Lines” vaulted a 36-year-old Robin Thicke, who had been toiling away in near obscurity since the mid-1990s, into our collective cultural consciousness. Two recent exhibitions at the Musee d’Orsay and the British Museum contributed eroticized bodies to further stoke the fires of our desire.

Masculine/Masculine: The Nude Man in Art from 1800 to the Present Day, which opened on Sept. 24 at the Musee d’Orsay, featured plenty of depictions of sensual male flesh for visitors’ contemplation. Male genitalia abounded, either coyly covered in wisps of cloth or on full view, prompting one woman when I visited to loudly proclaim that the exhibition was “positively pornographic”. Works such as the celebrated classical masterpiece the Barberini faun, with his invitingly spread legs and head thrown back suggestively, however, show that “pornography”, with its dismissive, pejorative associations, is an inapposite term to apply to the works of this exhibition, in which the male form is celebrated both for its erotic and more purely aesthetic associations.

The art at the D’Orsay, however, looked positively prim compared to the pieces in the British Museum’s exhibition, Shunga: sex and humour in Japanese Art, 1600-1900. Shunga, in the form of paintings, prints, and illustrated books with text, are sexually explicit, with frank, graphic depictions of sexual intercourse. Featuring a wide variety of male-male and male-female interactions, the works in the exhibition, according to the museum, promoted societal values “generally positive toward sexual pleasure for all participants”, as evidenced by the numerous depictions of both male and female orgasms. The light-hearted images of, for example, a cat batting the testicles of an otherwise-engaged man, furthermore, suggest an integration of sex into broader society, culture, and, in particular, art; while the images are sexually explicit, their meticulous compositions and attention to detail made them prized, celebrated possessions, regarded as suitable gifts for brides or official foreign visitors.

Both exhibitions are undoubtedly attempts to increase the cultural relevance of the two venerable institutions and to appeal to a demographic more familiar with Beyonce than Bonnard. On this front, they have been wildly successful: according to museum figures, Masculine/Masculine attendance was triple that for a show at the same time last year, and the Shunga show, which was sold-out its opening weekend in early October, was packed when I visited in mid-December.

The exhibitions, however, do not simply copy the depictions of sex and sexuality found in popular culture. Music videos and television shows worryingly feeds us the same tired model of sexuality again and again, in which young women, and particularly nonwhite women, are relentlessly objectified for heterosexual male consumption. The D’Orsay and the British Museum trade the trite images of Miley Cyrus slapping black women’s bums and rappers ogling strippers for a wide range of sexual models, featuring men and women of various ages, ethnicities, and sexual preferences exercising agency. What these exhibitions, and their incredible success, show is not so much society’s appetite for “pornography” as its hunger for more nuanced, varied, and honest depictions of human sexuality.