A Natural History of Erotic Art


A pair of lifeless eyes reflect coldly in the night vision camera. A creature sits motionless before us, seemingly unafraid, certainly uninterested in our presence. A male has mounted her from behind and is going about his methodical business in silence. After a series of dull, mechanical manoeuvres, the joyless coupling is complete. This mating ritual is devoid of emotion, and less arousing than an apathetic shop dummy despoiling a dead pig.

‘But’ I think to myself, ‘Is it art?’

Ah yes, the age-old conundrum. Some draw the distinction that pornography is created to inspire sexual pleasure whereas art is not; I concluded that the stale sex flick of dead-eyed, cum-dumpster Paris Hilton qualified as neither.

But what is erotic? What is art and what is pornography?

Now I, for one, do not hold with this nonsense that performing real sex in a mainstream film is art. They’re actors aren’t they? Why can’t they just act like they’re having intercourse? Why should I have to witness arcing gouts of semen throb forth from Stephen Gruecock (of BBC Children’s Television’s seminal Gruey) in Winterbottom’s 9 Songs? If the movie business has dispensed with acting then The Bourne Trilogy reveals itself as a dark catharsis for Matt Damon’s infamous, pathological hatred for supporting artists. And imagine Jody Foster’s surprise when she turned up for the casting of The Accused.

An entry in an 1857 dictionary defines pornography as ‘writing about prostitutes’ – under which description the Houses of Parliament newsletter, and the papers that dedicate swathes of newsprint to the vacuous meta-fame of those in the public eye may consider themselves obscene publications.

Depictions of erotic scenes have been found throughout history, from Paleolithic cave paintings to the frescoes and statues of ancient Pompeii – featuring our old friend Priapus, brandishing his stick of forced rhubarb, and an overly excited Mr Tumnus. Later came Shunga, the erotic painting of 13th century Japanese art, a well-known example of which is Hokusai’s block print The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife showing a giant octopus clamped about the lower half of said lady, tweaking a nipple with a tentacle and apparently performing oral sex – an unpleasant prospect when one considers the octopus’s parrot-like beak.

As is well documented, oral pleasure is the favoured sexual practice of the octopus, both giving and receiving. The species prefers it to the lethal aftermath of intercourse – the genetically programmed death that inevitably follows reproduction. Indeed, the threat of certain death after reproducing would focus the minds of some of the more irresponsibly fecund members of human society. There are only so many Windsors the country can support.

So the octopus has garnered itself an understandable reputation as a mollusk with commitment issues, but blaming them for the rise of the ‘tentacle rape fetish’, shokushu goukan, is perhaps a little unfair.

Shokushu goukan is a staple of hentai – sexually explicit comics and animation – but our octopod chums are merely the pawns in a clever ploy to circumvent Japanese laws that forbid the showing of a penis. Rape is fine, but it has to be the right kind. To a Japanese schoolgirl the sight of Bill Nighy’s writhing mug in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ is comparable to finding oneself locked in a room at the Grosvenor House Hotel with a feral pack of Premiership footballers.

The distinction between erotic art and pornography remains subjective, and any perceived obscenity depends upon the standards of the society in which it is displayed.

A bronze version of Rodin’s The Kiss was sent to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where the sculpture’s eroticism rendered it unsuitable for general display. Today, most of us would find this ridiculous. What’s in a kiss? Kissing is merely a means of assessing a possible partner. Men prefer a big, slavering kiss to collect oestrogen from the woman’s mouth, and thus assess at what stage of the menstrual cycle she is with a view to deciding whether to put in the effort to mate with her. And women can decide whether they’d like to mate with a man with a penchant for pickled eggs and cheese balls. Rodin’s risqué bronze was secreted in an inner chamber at the exhibition with admission only by personal application – a progenitor of today’s Sex Offenders Register.

One chap who has some right to feel aggrieved at his entry into said register is Colin Stewart – whom you may know better by his superhero alter ego ‘Bike-Sex Man’. Now poor old Colin was minding his own business in his room at the hostel when cleaners marched in, without so much as a by-your-leave, to find him “…wearing only a white t-shirt, naked from the waist down…holding the bike and moving his hips back and forth as if to simulate sex.” Police were called and Colin ended up a notorious curio. His entry onto the register may seem harsh, but I imagine the judge had doubts as to whether the bike went willingly into Colin’s room – perhaps under the honest intention of having its nuts tightened. The question also remains as to how Colin was able to sneak the bicycle into his room. One can only conclude that it was a folding specimen, the obvious culprit being the Brompton – the whore of bicycles, which is often seen being ridden mercilessly by red-face businessmen in a rush to get home to their wives and families.

So is obscenity merely in the eye of the beholder? Egon Schiele served time in jail and had several works destroyed for offending the sensibilities of Austrian authorities with certain of his depictions of nude young girls – the turn-of-the-century equivalent of being caught with questionable images on one’s hard drive. Like the Australian chap who was fined for possessing images of men bothering octopi – perhaps seeking retribution for, or perhaps simply misinterpreting the term, ‘tentacle rape’. His collection also boasted images of pony, snake, tiger and dog porn.

There seems to be no depravity off limits. In my day we had good, old-fashioned titillation. We had to use our imagination – even if we were lucky enough to find a discarded jazz mag down by the railway tracks. These days it’s all monstrous flesh-logs pounding buttery sinkholes. Nothing is left to fantasy. It’s theSkinsgeneration, and I feel sorry for them. In my day we had Grange Hill, and I don’t mind telling you that when Benny Green had his new school blazer stolen I was choking with terror. His mother was going to kill him. And I nearly puked when they snuck into a rival school to steal it back. Nowadays it’s all STIs and daisy-chaining. Everywhere you look there’s a cock in Jaime Winstone’s mouth.

But what effect is this highly sexualised environment having? A recent study found that when men looked at images of women’s bodies it activated the part of their brain associated with using power tools. The pictures shifted men’s view of women to that of objects; something to be used. They also found that the part of the brain associated with empathy shuts down. Indeed, after viewing images of Katie Price tottering about in heels and a short skirt, most of the men genuinely wouldn’t have minded if she slipped and broke her neck. Most of the men also reported feeling ‘detached’ and ‘sexually confused’ after watching several episodes of Challenge Tommy Walsh.

And even more curious, the men in the study remembered pictures of semi-clad, headless women most accurately – which may explain why boys rip the heads off Barbie dolls, and backs up my assertion that Jeffery Dahmer was just a regular guy.

So what does the future hold? Well, Penthouse is promising us a 3D HD TV channel at any moment. But is it remotely erotic to be sitting on your sofa swatting at pubic hair as it springs out from the screen? Or wincing as Winstone’s bulging cheek threatens to have your eye out?

We are all the progeny of rutting beasts. Sexual reproduction is the key to our existence, so our continuing obsession with it is no surprise. But what makes an ancient fresco from Pompeii depicting a threesome any different from Paris Hilton’s Rut of the Living Dead? That, I suppose, is up to you and I and history to decide.

Dr Ryegold is the author of several best-selling books based on his many years experience as a healer, research scientist and polymath and is currently working closely with Studio Ghibli on a feature-length animation recounting the tumultuous sexploits of his hilarious creation Tako the Headless Octopus.

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