What Is Erotic Art?  

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"Thus, for Wollheim (1987, Painting as an Art), Ingres' history paintings, Bellotto's landscapes with buildings, and Poussin's landscapes with water are as substantially imbued with sexuality as Goya's Naked Maja or Titian's Venus of Urbino." --Jerrold Levinson, "What Is Erotic Art?" (1998)

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

"What Is Erotic Art?" (1998) is a text on the nature of erotic art by Jerrold Levinson first published as "Erotic Art" in The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998, 406-9) and re-published in Contemplating Art (2006).



Erotic art is art with a sexual content, which may be more or less overt. The presence of sexual content, however, is not sufficient for a work of art to be considered erotic. Although there is more than one sense in which a work can be said to be erotic, an erotic work of art must aim at and to some extent succeed in evoking sexual thoughts, feeling or desires in the spectator, in virtue of the nature of the sexual scene it represents and the manner in which it represents it. This aim, definitive of erotic art, may be a work’s principal aim, but need not be. Erotic art often tends to express the artist’s interest in and attitude towards sexuality; and whether or not it does, seeing it as expressing the artist’s sexuality is likely to contribute towards the spectator’s sexual arousal. An erotic work of art has an intended audience of a more or less specific kind, most frequently men. Erotic art is distinguished from pornography in at least two ways. First, pornography lacks any artistic intent. Second, its main aim is not only to stimulate the spectator sexually but to degrade, dominate and depersonalize its subject, usually women. This article is restricted in scope in at least two ways. First, it concerns exclusively the visual arts. Second, its focus is Western art, and primarily art from the Renaissance onwards.

Main questions

The concept of erotic art

Instrumentally erotic art and anti-erotic erotic art

Covertly erotic art

The relationality of erotic art

Social and political aspects of erotic art

  • "Recent writers on erotic art stress the way in which entrenched genres and conventions of representation embody dominant ideas and assumptions about the nature of men and women and their proper relationship. Paintings such as Delacroix's Death of Sardanapalus, Gerome's Oriental Slave Market, Ingres' The Turkish Bath or Jupiter and Thetis lend themselves readily to such analysis."
  • Voyeurism
  • Relationship erotic art and pornography: pornography is transparent; cites Courbet's Sleep, Schiele's Reclining Woman which Levinson considers art, not porn: " though the images in question are starkly arousing, even exploitative, the technique of their construction, the style in which they are rendered, the preceding art history they encapsulate, and the access they afford into their makers' psyches, are at least as absorbing as what those images flatly represent, and conspire to redeem them as art." The key word here is redeem, see utterly without redeeming social importance.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "What Is Erotic Art?" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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