lust and beyond

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Sex is not an unchanging natural phenomenon. What does that Roman bronze phallus with bells on it actually mean? And when a woman in a Renaissance picture collects phalluses in a basket, is this about “sex” or witchcraft? Mapplethorpe‘s photographs are a crucial exhibit because they can be viewed as anthropological documents that record a very specific subculture, the same one, as it happens, that attracted the French philosopher Michel Foucault. “You meet men there who are to you as you are to them,” Foucault said of his discovery of the American 1970s gay S&M scene. “Nothing but a body with which combinations and productions of pleasure are possible.”
Foucault came to believe that if consenting men in 1970s California could invent a new sexuality from nowhere, sex must therefore be neither an unchanging historical constant nor a primordial drive fighting free of “repression”, but something cultures make and unmake. This is the argument of his book The History of Sexuality. In European culture since the rise of Christianity, there is no image of sex from which pain and guilt are wholly excluded – the Christian terror is visibly there in illustrations to 18th-century editions of De Sade. Serious post-classical European art has never produced anything quite like the pure, comment-free eroticism of this show’s bright Indian illustrations of lovers demonstrating a series of spectacular positions, or Japan’s art of the floating world.
Seventeenth-century Japan saw the rise of a new secular culture in the great cities of Edo (modern Tokyo), Osaka and Kyoto. Religious Noh theatre gave way to kabuki theatre with its everyday scenes, and the cities had pleasure districts whose community of the senses was named after the Buddhist term ukiyo, meaning “floating world”. Woodblock prints, with their gorgeous colours, record, or rather invent and mythify, this floating world: lovers are suspended far from workaday worries in their own reality of silk and skin. A man pleasures a woman after they have gorged on oysters; the artist enjoys drawing a visual analogy between oyster and vulva. I cannot think of a European equivalent, and it has to do with what art is in different cultures, as much as what sex is >>.

an insightful yet relaxed review by jonathan jones. seduced is at the barbican gallery until 27.01.08. img: frame from andy warhol’s ‘blow job

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