An analytic, philosophical essay about the aesthetic question: What are the elements that make good erotic art good art and also erotic? - by Rick Garlikov
This essay is a sequel to "A Philosophy of Photography and Some Visual Art In General", and it presupposes some of the ideas explained there. …….
I have been fascinated with the question of what makes a painting or photograph seem erotic. For contrary to what many people claim about men, it is not simply the sight of a naked female, even an attractive naked female, that is particularly arousing. If it were, hospital corridors and wards would be very erotic places. They are not. And women seem not to be aroused in general just by the sight of a naked male. Moreover, as many (poor) pornographic works show, generally just capturing images of people in various sex acts or positions is not to create works that are either artistic or erotic. So the question is what it is about certain kinds of erotic art that makes it good both as art and as something erotic; what are the elements of eroticism in erotic art, particularly good erotic art.
There seem to me to be at least three different kinds of erotic visual (pictorial) art, reflecting three different intentions or purposes: to cause sexual arousal; to portray or capture some element or aspect of sexuality or sensuousness; or to express or communicate something in pictorial form about sexuality or sensuousness, often some insight the artist has about it. Of course, one work may incorporate all three of these features; a picture may be arousing, may capture some essential aspect of sex, and may make some sort of statement about sex. In fact a picture may be arousing because it captures some exciting aspect about sex or sensuality. (This might be some sort of seductiveness as in a seductive look, but it does not have to be; simply portraying well some kind of joyful or desirable sort of sexual or sensual experience apart from seduction may be quite stimulating.) I want to give some ideas here about what I think makes erotic visual (pictorial) art good or bad and I want to describe what I think makes for arousing erotic art, since there is a large market of items that seem to be intended to promote sexual arousal, but which seem to me to fail.
First, however, erotic art meant to be arousing can be good in that way without always being successful-- people's moods and interests are different at different times, so for even the same person, the same erotic art may not always be interesting or arousing. And different people have different interests and are stimulated by different things. One man may find a certain woman very attractive and arousing, but another may think she looks too much like his sister to be arousing to him. Yet it can be good in that usually it is successful, or that under normal conditions it is successful.
And second, from the number of erotic works which seem intended (primarily or only) to be arousing, but which are not arousing, to me and to many others, and which in some cases are even distinctly revolting, it would appear (assuming this erotic art is appealing and arousing to someone, even if just the producer of it) that what is sexually exciting might be in the mind of the beholder. Therefore this is an exercise, not to describe what would be visually exciting to everyone, but to describe the elements that I think (or that for me) make up a sexually exciting visual work (photograph or movie). I am here trying to see whether I can accurately discover and describe what I think my intuitions are about what makes erotic visual art arousing (for me) and about what I think is good visual erotic art in other ways as well.
There are some areas I can immediately eliminate -- those which portray degradation, humiliation, or treatment of people as merely objects with no consideration for their feelings, and those which portray any sort of pain, brutality, or violence in some manner that tries to extoll or equate it, or tries to associate it in some positive manner, with sexuality. This is true, however, not only for sex but for any kind of entertainment or treatment of people in this way, whether it is sexually related or not. A more difficult element to try to characterize as, I think a failure, is that of decidely "one-sided" attempted erotic art. What I mean by this is a series of pictures whereby one partner seems merely to be the recipient of physical pleasure at the expense, effort, or use of the other - where one seems to be primarily a taker and the other a giver who never receives what would seem to be pleasurable treatment. This is difficult to characterize because in any single given picture, or series of a few pictures, one partner may be "pleasuring" another at the moment. And this is perfectly fine as long as there is not some reason to believe the pleasure is only one-sided, and that the giver in one set of pictures might not ever be the receiver of pleasure if the photos were somehow extended or more complete.
Now some feminists regard all erotic art, by its very nature, as degrading women; but I doubt this is a fair assessment, since (1) some women themselves who have a good self- image enjoy looking at and/or posing for some erotic images, and (2) some men who respect and think very highly of women like to look at some erotic art without therefore thinking any less of the women who pose for it or of women in general. (3) If sex and sensuality are something both men and women can find wonderful and/or can enjoy equally, then I see no reason why art which deals with it should by its nature be one-sided or degrading to one sex. It would seem instead that only erotic art which portrays some degrading aspect of sex would possibly be degrading; and unless there is no sex which is mutually good for both sexes, I would think some artistic ideas about sex should be something other than degrading to women. I would think that if erotic art were by its nature degrading, all of it would have to actually make at least most of the people who enjoy it think less of the women it portrays. But it does not.
Some artists even seem to consider some of their work as an effort to elevate in the mind the sensuousness of women, or at least as an effort to capture or portray the sensuousness of a particular woman or women in general. And they do this for the same kinds of artistic or communicative (or whatever) reasons that one might try to capture, point out, or express any human quality, emotion, or insight. I would think that pictures which try to capture and express the joy, beauty, passion, and/or thrill of good sex are not pictures which, at least in any intentional way are meant to degrade. And I think pictures which succeed in that effort will thereby not be degrading. (By good sex I mean at least sex which is pleasurable, comforting, elevating, sharing, enjoyable, supportive, and/or reassuring to each, not sex which is risky, anxiety laden, frightening, guilt ridden, one-sided, degrading, humiliating, brutal, painful, violent etc. I assume there is such a thing as sex that is good--and I don't just mean sex that feels good--I mean sex that is right, sex that is good for the partners involved on whatever level one might want to analyze.)
So I think one element that can contribute to erotic art's being good is its capturing or portraying some of the things that might make sex good, such as the joy and/or pleasure it can cause, such as the excitement and the calm it can bring, such as its sometimes gentleness, such as its allowing a communion or sharing of spirits or feelings or moods, such as its ability to allow the simultaneous giving and receiving of pleasure, and any of the vast variety of things there are that make sex sometimes a wonderful experience. Since many of these things are themselves felt experiences or felt impressions, and not visible characteristics, capturing or portraying them visually can be quite an artistic or intellectual accomplishment. And, except for cases of extreme artistic luck, it requires some sensitive awareness to their occurrence in the first place.
Visual erotic art is often bad because it either does not capture any of the better essences of good or interesting sex or it does not portray them well visually (due to either technical or artistic reasons--i.e., bad lighting, bad composition, bad cropping, bad exposure, etc.), or it overrides good portrayal of these elements by featuring other elements that spoil or ruin the overall effect, such as pain, violence, humiliation, apparent one-sided "use" of one of the participants, terrible consequences for the relationship, or whatever.
This does not mean erotic art has to be realistic or to portray good elements of actual or real sex in order to be good. For I believe there is such a thing as good fantasy sex that is fun to think about but which one is perfectly aware would not be fun or good or even desirable actually to do. Lots of sex might be fun to contemplate that you know would not be fun to consummate. One might have a fantasy sex object about whom one likes to daydream or fantasize but with whom one would not actually care to have sex. In fact one might quite well know it would actually be an awful real life experience because of the intrusion of characteristics one might easily and happily keep out of one's fantasies. For example, in fantasy sex, one need never experience any sort of personal relationship difficulties-- one never has to feel guilt for taking advantage of someone and never has to fear being taken advantage of by someone; one's motives never are suspect and one's behavior never is insufficient or dissatisfying; one need not buy presents, remember birthdays, be gratuitously kind, sacrificially charitable, or even unselfish. Fantasy sex never needs to be uncomfortable, imperfect, or unsatisfying. Fantasy sex does not cause embarrassment in speech nor in deed. There are no stupid, ignorant, awkward, dissatisfying, improvident, uncomfortable, unconscionable, or ruinous things said or done that have to be explained, regretted, repented, recanted, forgiven, or forgotten. Sex in fantasy can always mutually suit your mood and your fantastic partner's mood. Fantasies, in short, are safe.
Since people's fantasies probably vary even more than their desires, erotic art attempting to capture or portray erotic fantasy sex is probably even more a matter of taste. But again, with me, these have to be void of brutality, mayhem, gore, degradation, "use", and the like. My fantasies are like my actual tastes in this regard. In fact, I think my fantasies are only unlike my actual sex in a few ways. I fantasize about partners I would not, in many cases, want to have an actual relationship with--and since I am not particularly interested in one-night stands nor sex without a fuller relationship, I thus fantasize about partners with whom I know I would not really want to become involved in reality or with whom in reality it would be bad to try to have a full relationship, for whatever reason. In my fantasies my partner(s) and I always excitedly and happily instinctively gratify each others' every possible wish, and discover previously unimagined things that tantalize and gratify each other; verbal requests and direction are not required. It is always satisfactory and comfortable; no position is uncomfortable or impossible; nobody's arm ever goes to sleep, no one is ever too heavy for anyone to support in other than perfect comfort. Our moods, desires, and feelings always coincide--so that when one wants tenderness the other does too; when one wants to be teased, the other is in the mood to tease playfully; when one wants witty conversation, the other is conversely conversantly witty; when one wants to be more passive, the other wants to act more actively; the same things seem funny, or especially momentous, or especially meaningful to both at the same time.
"Leaving Something to the Imagination"
People are fond of saying good and/or arousing (visual) erotic art must "leave something to the imagination." Sometimes it does but I do not think it needs to. Good erotic art must perhaps stimulate the imagination. And though teasingly or suggestively hiding some anatomy or activity may stimulate the imagination, that is not the only way to do so. An interesting activity, joyous body language or facial expression, interesting depiction of a viewer's own fantasy (perhaps with an interesting addition or modification), or any of a number of things portrayed, captured, or suggested by an erotic work of art might stimulate a viewer's imagination, even if it is not the nudity by itself or the physiology of the activity by itself that is what is stimulating. I think good visual erotic art does not need to leave anything to the imagination--at least not in terms of hiding anatomical parts or physical acts--because I think how something is portrayed is more important than what is portrayed; and if "everything" is portrayed well, then nothing needs to be unrevealed. The usual problem with nudity or blatant sexual activity which turns out not to be erotic is that it is portrayed in a way that is not interesting. A nude person with little expression or body language, interesting lighting or some other aesthetic element to make the picture visually appealing, is just a naked body. Portraying people, from no artistically interesting angle or perspective, merely physiologically having sex, with no subtle or dramatic lighting, and with no apparent, or honest hint of joy or pleasure in their body language and/or their facial expressions, usually will not be much different from portraying animals copulating. And it will not usually stimulate the imagination of an even somewhat knowledgeable viewer, unless he or she is simply motivated to think how much better the portrayal might have been and is then stimulated by his or her own ideas of how that might have been accomplished.
Of course, one may not want to show pimples, pores, perspiration, or other supposed "imperfections" when photographing a subject, but that is not what is usually meant when it is claimed "something should be left to the imagination." What is meant is that sexual acts and sexual anatomy should not be totally depicted. But I think there are sufficient good, yet explicit nudes, and sexually intimate pictures to disconfirm that claim. Such pictures need to be done very well though to be good. Just anatomy or anatomic rendering (or "copying" someone's body) is not art. Even eyes, which are often features that are beautiful to look at, have a way of being portrayed in anatomy books which make them repulsive or painful to look at. Erotic art that is more like anatomy texts in this way, make sexual features equally unattractive and unappealing to view.
I think the claim arises because it is very difficult to pleasingly photograph the human body, whether clothed or not, and the more of one's body one tries to photograph, the more difficult the lighting and composition required to do it well. Unclothed makes it even more difficult because clothes can often create interesting color combinations and contrasts (in painting and color photography) and interesting compositional shapes. And often clothes can allow play with lighting that adds beauty or interest to a picture--shiny silks or nylon materials in particular give all kinds of interesting tones and patterns of light much of the time. Skin does not always do that, certainly not without some artistic skill and lighting knowledge or sensitivity. Much bad visual erotic art is not only totally revealing, but is, more importantly, badly lighted (i.e., bad lighting angles, misplaced highlights and/or shadows or their lack, bad tones, etc.) and poorly composed (unpleasant lines, angles, and/or proportions from a design standpoint, apart from any sexual tastes). Hence, it is not surprising people might mistakenly confuse revulsion with revelation. Good visual erotic art is an art, and the proportion of good erotic art to all erotic art is probably not vastly different from the proportion of good art to all art, or of good commercial art to all commercial art. The fact that bad erotic art is often also revealing is either accidental, or is related to the fact that the more body one photographs (no matter how clothed or not), the more artistry is required to do it well. And that artistry is often lacking in erotic art as elsewhere. (Part of the reason it is difficult artistically to photograph more body than it is less, is that the human body is very long proportional to its width, so unless you do something to bend the legs and arms, you end up with something not unlike a long skinny stick in your picture, with a head and face so small a part of it that it is difficult to distinguish expressions, make eye "contact", etc.)
So, I think one of the important elements of good visual erotic art is good visual artistry to begin with--good composition (balance, proportion, perspective, framing, etc.), good lighting (tones, contrasts, balance, etc.). And, in painting or color photography, good coloring as well.
Second it needs to express or characterize something of interest and/or it needs to capture or portray something of interest; and with the more insight, the better. The interest referred to may be to the senses (such as something that looks or physically feels very pleasurable), the intellect, the "libido", the emotions, or whatever.
Some art requires subtle handling; some, less subtle. Sometimes humor is appropriate; sometimes not. The treatment of the subject should be appropriate in these and other similar kinds of regards to the sentiment captured or the statement or insight expressed. These kinds of things are true of all visual art. Good visual erotic art must first and foremost be good visual art; it is just art that has a specific subject matter, sex or sensuousness.
Now just renderings or photographs of nude bodies are not necessarily either art or erotic. Anatomy books are not erotic; they are not sensuous. Although 12 year old boys may get aroused by topless tribal pictures in National Geographic, that is usually because they have not yet located other sources of nude pictures and because they have usually not had much opportunity to learn to appreciate the difference between personal, intentional sexuality and the excitement of seeing or doing something somehow (even remotely) related to sex that is forbidden for them (in their culture). They have not yet developed the ability to discriminate between what is (purposely) emotionally and intimately sexual and what is a mere display of skin not intended to be sexual or provocative. Not unlike some overzealous Freudians, for boys almost everything has sexual connotations. Adults tend to be a bit more discriminating, particular, or subtle--or should be, I suspect.
It seems to me that the reason nudity by itself is not necessarily sensuous is that it does not necessarily involve a sensuous or excited or sexually interested state of mind of the person who is nude. Walking through the halls of a hospital with ill patients on the other sides of open doors in various states of undress in their cold gray, antiseptic rooms is hardly an exercise in eroticism. Similarly, living in a culture where more skin is typically asexually in view than it might be in another culture is not an erotic experience for the person used to that culture. Anyone who has ever had the opportunity surreptitiously to watch someone undress soon finds that the thrill, if any, is one of avoiding discovery while doing something prohibited rather than being a sexual thrill--assuming the person undressing is just normally undressing rather than performing. Even strippers and go-go girls who perform before an audience just matter-of-factly, and with little apparent interest in what they are doing, are found to be boring and not at all sexy by most of the people in the audience. Performers with audience eye contact and who seem interested in arousing the audience and who seem to be excited themselves because of it will often be perceived as far sexier than even far better endowed or better looking performers who give the impression they are just doing their job. Non-interest in sex is such a common turn-off that one common joke now even in movies is a wife or girlfriend's finally stopping an unwanted persistent mate by finally saying something like, "O.k., you can have me; just let me know when you are done."
In contrast to this is the fact that there are very provocative comments or gestures that involve no nudity whatsoever. The right kind of desiring or knowing look or subtle gesture or inviting comment or tone of voice can be most alluring and suggestive.
Further, while in college during the mini-skirt era I had my hair cut by a seventy year old barber who said he remembered the time when you practically passed out from excitement if you got to see a girl's ankle, since almost nothing was supposed to be uncovered. In such an era, if a girl purposely let you see her ankle, that was far more sexually meaningful than would be a modern woman's letting her thigh show while wearing a bikini at the beach or a mini-skirt in an appropriate place for no sexual reason but just because it was the fashion of the day. Contexts and intentions play much more a part of eroticism than does the quantity of skin displayed. Showing skin in an uncustomary or personal way is often erotic; showing the same or even more skin in a way that is fashionable or customary generally is not. Swimwear at the beach is no big deal, and in some circumstances is even sexually unappetizing. But a bikini at a business meeting or on a blind date to a movie might be extremely arousing. A beach bikini in the 1980's is not of special note, but it probably would have justifiably aroused the libido of some people and the ire of others in 1910. Even nude beaches or nudist camps lose their eroticism once the novelty wears off and once you realize that people, just by being nude, are not thereby necessarily insinuating they are interested in sex, in sex at the time, or in sex with you. In such contexts a display of skin is not the meaningful invitation or sign of sexual arousal or interest that it might be in other contexts. The meaning of a gesture or clothing, and the state of mind behind it, is often more important to its eroticism than is how much skin it displays.
What you wear, how you move, what you do, what you say, how you say it, the expressions you make, etc. all have erotic possibilities, by being sensuous and/or by being invitational. If a woman's normal closing of an umbrella in front of a man in society served as an invitation to "come up and see me sometime," then even such an otherwise hardly erotic action could be very stimulating.
I believe that many of the erotic magazines on the market today are not as erotic as they might be, if at all, because most of the subjects look bored, tired, uninterested, spiritless, nervous, or just anxious to pick up their paycheck. Some magazines even do their backgrounds or sets better than their subjects. The pictures are attractive because the scenery and lighting are attractive, not because the subject's position, angle, expression, or pose are interesting. Sometimes you can cover up the subject and the background and setting still makes a pretty picture; but if you cover up the background and setting, the subject looks ordinary, strange, or simply not particularly attractive or appealing. And even when some subjects attempt to look impassioned and aroused, or seductive, the expressions on their faces do not seem to match either their body language or the kinds of things they are doing; a girl who looks to be in a state of extremely impassioned ecstasy from stroking her own knee while standing nude on a hot, rocky beach seems more weird than sensuous or aroused. She certainly seems phony. Many porno movies show people having sex who either look bored or in pain at the time, or who are performing in a perfunctory manner, or who act very passionate and express great pleasure but while nothing is happening to them that looks like it would be very pleasurable. Ecstasy that is obviously fake is not very arousing. Esctasy that seems real and that seems to have a realistic (physical and/or emotional) cause can be very arousing to witness.
I think it can easily be demonstrated that even just a facial portrait with a come-hither look in knowing bedroom eyes can be far more sensuous, erotic, and seductive than any blatant display of body parts that instead support a bored facial expression or bored body language. It is not what shows in a picture that makes it provocative, but the way in which it is shown. If a picture is to be inviting (and not all erotic art needs to be inviting--comic erotic art, for example, need not be; nor perhaps any erotic art that wants to make a statement or display an insight about sex rather than arouse), then the body language and/or the facial expression must be inviting. The amount of skin revealed is relatively unimportant, though in a picture meant to be inviting, if all the other aspects are done well, then, assuming the revelation is also done well, it may perhaps give some extra provocation or intensity to the "invitation". It may be bit more serious proof or suggestion of how serious the model's "intentions" are (made to seem).
And if a picture is to be seductive, I think the model should look not only seductive, but discriminating in some way. The look should in some way be directed at each person looking at it, yet without appearing that it could be meant for anyone else. A look that says "first come first served" or "open house" is not nearly as exciting as one that seems to be a special invitation. And, for me, the model has to look like she has some sort of wise or intelligent awareness about what she is doing--some knowing look or sparkle in the eyes--something that elevates her above the simple level of just a dumb animal in heat. On cable television one night there was a striptease and burlesque show that featured a number of female strippers, but one male stripper as well. This was at the time that male strippers were a novelty, and this was the first male stripper I had ever seen. Even though I have no homosexual interests, I thought his act was by far the "best" in some performance sense, since he was the only one who seemed like he really enjoyed tantalizing the audience; he even had some audience participation, having some of the women in the audience help him remove some of his clothing, and he had some erotic comedy in his routine as well, sort of showing that to him the whole thing was fun and exciting, not just a job, and that he knew how to make sex or seduction fun and exciting.
Portraying Emotions and Feelings
If a picture is not necessarily meant to be seductive but is intended to capture or portray a certain experience or mood or feeling, whether in an arousing way or not, then an interesting challenge faces the photographer or artist since so much of sex is of a tactile and emotional, rather than a visual nature. The challenge, as with all visual art that tries to capture or portray moods, emotions, feelings, states of mind, is to portray something that is basically nonvisual with, or in, a strictly visual medium. In fact, I think that being able to do this (whether in poetry, prose, visual arts or whatever) is one of the characteristics that can make (some) art in fact be art at all, or, in some cases where it is done well, and perhaps particularly, subtly and creatively, be good art.
Portraying the essential flavor of something successfully in a mode that is not where that essence (normally) lies or can be experienced is a distinct achievement. And it seems to me to be a worthwhile endeavor for a number of reasons: artists can help people share, and realize they share, certain common (wonderful) emotions and experiences. Such sharing can be a good experience in itself. Artists can demonstrate that a certain experience is perhaps a possible and worthy goal to someone who may never have sought it or even thought about it before; in this way art may create new possibilities for someone. Some of these may be of great benefit and value. Capturing an experience in an eduring art medium helps keep that experience alive in memory, and helps us revive or relive the pleasantness and wonder of the experience each time the work of art jogs and brings alive our memory.
Further, there is something magnificent and wondrous about creating or even coming across a work of art that captures the essence of an experience of great personal significance. And I am not sure whether this is related to sharing the joy of such experiences or not; intuition says it is something different from that, something involving the joy of expression or depiction of something important to a person. Finding or creating a well-done erotic movie or photograph or story that captures the way you feel about sex or love or a romantic and passionate time together is, I suspect, like finding or creating a well-wrought poem or quotation that perfectly spells out how you feel about anything. It is like a litte treasure that portrays or depicts exactly how you feel about something that is important to you and that may be important for you to be able to express. This is particularly true if you have wanted to express your feelings about this but have been unable to find the right words or the right ideas to do it.
And finally, creation of any good art is a worthwhile endeavor for the artist. There is a satisfaction or joy, not only in having made something that is good, something that was fabricated essentially from nothing, or from an idea alone, but there is a joy and satisfaction in being totally involved and lost in the concentration of the creating process itself, even before you know what the result exactly will be, even before you know whether it will be good or not, and even before you know whether it will be like you want it to be or not.
Non-artistic Value of Erotic Art (and Even Pornography)
Finally, I would like to comment about the non-artistic value of erotic art, even that which does not primarily give a message or capture something admirable or otherwise important of the human spirit or condition, but which primarily or only succeeds in causing sexual arousal, and is intentionally that way -- pornographic art. Apart from all the bad things pornography may do or cause, there are some good things it does that I never see stated anywhere in discussions of pornography. Some people would never learn much about sex at all, except from trial and error (if they learn from their errors) if it were not for pornography. Of course then, the better the pornography, or pornographic art, they learn from, the better things they learn, and conversely, the worse the pornography either as art or as sexual interaction, the worse the value of what is taught. Cold, clinical, scientific sex education is often not as inspiring or as educationally meaningful as artistic presentations of sexual material.
Also, pornographic art, and even pornography, can get you out of a bored, lethargic state sometimes; sexual arousal is at least one sort of passion that gets the spirits moving, even in areas unrelated to sex, and this is sometimes preferable to dispirited dejection or to having no energy at all for anything. Arousing pornographic art can sometimes stir you out of a languorous or indolent state even if the sexual excitement is temporary and even if it, as it sometimes does, simply leads you to excitement and industriousness in good areas totally unrelated to sex. I have found pornography to be just such an effective impetus to "higher" level motivation when nothing else as readily available seemed to work. I have become better motivated to worthwhile nonsexual activity even by watching totally boring, terribly done pornographic movies. I get so incensed at their stupidity and waste and at myself for having wasted time finding them and beginning to watch them that I then have the previously missing drive to do something of worth, if for no other reason than to try to redeem the lost and wasted time.
Erotic art also can serve as a harmless release for sexual desire. If one can satisfy one's urges for sex or sexual arousal through erotic art produced by someone very happy to pose for it rather than through having to seduce or take advantage of someone that one is really not otherwise interested in, is that not a better method! I would think a case could be made that erotic art could cut down the amount of psychologically damaging sex of a number of sorts by serving as a less harmful surrogate or outlet. Surely people become horny for no reason at all and at times that are inconvenient and unwanted. Is it not better for them to be able to get over that state through erotic art rather than through seduction or meaningless and potentially harmful casual sex. Even repulsive pornography can serve this function, since it often effectively eradicates an unwanted state of horniness in its own way; it is difficult to feel arousal and repugnance at the same time. Of course, it might be better if there were more constructive ways to do this than pornography or even erotic art (for example, sometimes horniness is confused for loneliness and a good telephone conversation with a friend will relieve both), but constructive ways are not always available.
A Philosophy of Erotic Visual Art
An analytic, philosophical essay about the aesthetic question: What are the elements that make good erotic art good art and also erotic? - by Rick Garlikov