"What I like is erotica," goes the old joke. "What you like is pornography." There is probably never going to be agreement on how to separate one from the other, and besides, the same people who object to one are often going to object as well to the other. In _Eroticism & Art_ (Oxford University Press), Alyce Mahon draws a distinction. "Pornography's sole intent is to stimulate sexually; it is an aid to sex or masturbation." It is, in her view, more strictly concerned with power rather than mere sex. Erotic art, however, "is about equality between members of the opposite and same sexes." Even so, within erotic art is always another intent, "a shocking means to express social, religious and political criticism or defy bourgeois taste." Not all of the art discussed and depicted here is shocking, but this is closely related to how long we have been looking at it. Manet's _Olympia_ of 1863 shows an alluring nude, a high-class prostitute, staring frankly at the viewer. It was controversial at the time, but it is hard to imagine anyone getting worked up over it now. But Manet borrowed the woman's classical pose from an even more respectable Titian, and has in turn been borrowed by Mel Ramos in 1973 to show a California blonde complete with tanning lines along the _Playboy_ archetype, and in 1988 by Yasumasa Morimura, a male homosexual Japanese artist who assaults the viewer by posing both as the courtesan and the black servant in the original. Mahon, a lecturer at the University of Cambridge, has drawn upon extensive sources (this is a book of mostly intellectual rather than sexual stimulation), and has concentrated upon Western art from the mid-nineteenth century to current times. She demonstrates that emphasis on the erotic in art is a constant and that it has profoundly affected not just art movements but also how humans understand themselves sexually.
One picture reproduced here is Courbet's _The Origin of the World_ of 1866. It is an audacious work that is still thrilling; it is simply a finely-rendered "lower portrait" of a woman, legs spread, dramatically foreshortened without showing arms or face. This was a decidedly male point of view, defiant and calling attention to "the dynamics and politics of desire" between artist, model, and viewer. Its dynamics and politics have been updated; two Yugoslav artists in 1997 made a video version. Instead of being a passive female exciting the male artist and viewer, the model stimulates herself in a feminist rendering of the same pose. Both artworks were shocking for their times, and certainly some would put the 1997 version in the category of pornography, but its deliberate intent to modify the message of the original clearly imbues it with the kind of political and social edge that Mahon finds as a universal characteristic of erotic works. Mahon examines the use of the erotic by the surrealists and even by the Nazis and fascists leading up to World War II. She has several chapters covering recent decades, including erotic, bizarre, or dangerous performance art.
Mahon maintains a detached "What can we learn from this?" tone throughout, appreciative of even the strangest sexual displays, and she analyzes them with elegance and sympathy. The subject is literally vital; one chapter after another shows images that might be titillating for some while simultaneously emetic for others. There are over a hundred, mostly color, pictures, all well-keyed to the text, although Mahon has discussed plenty of other unreproduced works that make it handy to have access to the Web to see what she is talking about. It is a handsome and glossy volume, with many pictures and ideas to provoke, uh, thought.