It is a complex matter to address the theme of sexuality in contemporary art and its approval or rejection, acceptance or censure. But why is it so difficult? In the final analysis, it rests on the fact that sex is one of the fundamental primal impulses and a dominant element in the animal part of human nature. “Exuberant sexuality indicates in us”—according to Georges Bataille—“the persistence of animal life”. This animal part tends to be denied and hidden, which also gives the theme an excessive intimacy, an intimacy that ultimately becomes an indecent secret. The dirty little secret that prostituted a natural function and turned it into a lascivious mystery, instead of being a process as instinctive and natural as eating and drinking. “All in all, the sexual organ” – again according to Bataille – “is a thing, just like the foot is”.
Instead, sexuality has been experienced within some kind of mythology of blame, where sexual pleasure in general and women’s enjoyment above all have been persecuted by almost all religions, from hiding and denying the body to female genital mutilation. In contrast, free enjoyment of sexuality makes women and men powerful and happy beings that are more difficult to control.
Where does this taboo come from? What shocks us so much about sexual love and experiencing the beautiful?
There is, of course, a history of sexuality. Simone de Beauvoir taught us to distrust biology and to recognize that all sexual behaviour is cultural behaviour. Michel Foucault, for his part, showed how recommendations about hygiene and health, what we know about the body, ended up imposing a form of control on those same bodies—the proscription of homosexuality, for example, or the establishment of heterosexuality as normalized sexuality, which ended up imposing its norm on all other forms of sexuality. But has eroticism itself really changed so much? Is there in fact a history of eroticism? Bataille suggests that eroticism, whether in its expression or its repression, cannot be considered apart from religious experience.
For the Spanish word “sexualidad”, the Real Academia’s dictionary distinguishes between: 1. “the totality of anatomical and physiological conditions characterizing each sex”, and 2. “sexual appetite, propensity for bodily pleasure”. For “erotismo” (eroticism), it gives the following definitions: 1. “sensual love”, 2. “the characteristics of what excites sensual love”, and 3. “the exaltation of physical love in art”.
It is possible that this distinction between anatomy and physiology, characterizing sexuality, and the exaltation of physical love in art, belonging to eroticism, touches on the difference between nature and art that we would like to focus on. Sexuality is nature and physiology. Eroticism is the artistic treatment of the same.
The nude was very uncommon in seventeenth-century Spanish art and was officially advised against. Both the painting and public exhibition of a sensual nude, meaning in general terms a mythological nude, were considered mortal sins. Even so, within intellectual and aristocratic circles, they were viewed as artistic objects, with the question of their morality put to one side.
For what reasons should erotic art be persecuted, suppressed, hidden or censored? To cite some immediate examples: Why can male erections still not be shown in films? Why do we consider it immoral for children to be portrayed nude? Why is there a taboo on seeing the sex life of those with disability or the elderly? It is not easy to find television series about incest or polygamy. Publishing nude photographs on social networks is still banned. And even some of the artists in Éros c’est la vie have told us that a profound fear of the nude and of skin remains in evidence. For various motives and on different pretexts, many of their works have been removed from a variety of exhibitions.
We cannot bear how high the intensity of the nude is—we do not know how to deal with its natural simplicity, so its purity burns. Its goodness and cleanness are wild. Nudity is connected with non-conflict, with truth, with being available. We hide our body to recreate the artifice that hides truth, whereas painting or drawing invoke the strength of nudity.
Leonardo’s drawing of Vitruvian man is a naked human being. Eight extremities and a head. He is placed in the centre of a circle and also within a square. He speaks to us of the complete integration of the human in the cosmos: “the genitals,” writes Leonardo, “rise at the halfway point of the man”. Thus the centre of the man and the centre of the cosmos are both found at the genitals. The nude represents the true. The simple and true are the genitals and the cosmic powers that emanate from them. The productive and reproductive forces.
Freud affirms this in Civilization and Its Discontents: “sexual love gives us our most intense experience of an overwhelming pleasurable sensation and so furnishes a prototype for our strivings after happiness”. As the prototype for happiness, sexual love is invoked in eroticism, aiming to satisfy our ambition for a full life. Indeed, Freud indicates further on: “the interesting case that happiness in life is sought first and foremost in the enjoyment of beauty”. Thus erotic art may well be the most complete of all artistic genres precisely because it is subtly full of lights, charms, impulses, shadows, revelations and hidden paths of sexuality, bodily expression in its thousand forms and fantasies. Ideal satisfaction of a life fulfilled.
Arturo Prins, Sofía Fernández, Miguel Cereceda