Eros, porn, art and mass media – The Ayzad interview

erotic art
Art: Keith P Rein

I am occasionally quoted in graduation theses touching the topic of alternative sexualities, or which are entirely focused on that subject. Usually it’s just simple excerpts from my books, but sometimes I am asked specific questions or get a full interview. In these days for example I’ve been contacted by Valeria, a near-graduate from the Macerata Fine Arts Academy who’s writing a thesis about erotic art and illustration. Her questions concerned the relationship between eroticism, pornography and mass media – an interesting theme for this website readers too, so with her permission I thought of republishing the whole interview. Comments are always open, so let me know your thoughts!

 

  • I asked myself the eternal question of what is the difference between erotic art and pornography. That’s not in the more or less explicit material. In The origin of the world Courbet presents the work with the most explicit iconography possible, yet it isn’t considered pornographic. Porn (according to Marco Menicocci in Mass pornography) isnt’ defined by its content. So is there any difference between erotic art and pornography, given that various artists don’t shy anyway from blurring the two by assuming porn as their language (Jeff Koons, Made in Heaven)? Or is it just a matter of tall-sounding names and intellectual hypocrisy?

Pointing out beforehand that it is impossible to give a definitive answer to a question debated for centuries, my humble opinion is that we need to view each production in the historical and social context it has been created in. In fact, the classic distinction between “works focusing on genitals in action” and “works where the sex acts are left to imagination” is a bit too simplistic, and it is maybe better to think about the concept of ‘obscene’ in its literal etymology of ‘off (or on) the scene’ – meant as what is visible in our daily lives, a concept that varies wildly with time.
For example today we consider obscene, pornographic and criminal a 35-years old man fondling or penetrating a thirteen years old girl against her will: yet this was a rather normal marriage arrangement to our grand-grand-grandparents. On the other hand, in the West of 2015 it is normal to talk about oral and anal sex as standard elements of a sexual encounter, while in the same countries just a couple of generations ago you could end up in a jail of madhouse for these acts – which are still illegal after all in some parts of the USA.
When all is said and done, I believe the most reasonable definition to be that all the art about sexuality is erotic, but it becomes pornographic when it undermines conventions.

 

  • Would you say that an élite is dismissing of whatever it defines pornographic while it considers “acceptable”, or even proudly endorsable, what it sees as erotic art – while conversely the people benevolently condones porn and despises erotic art, which it sees as an useless obscenity?

Frankly, I am under the impression that this vaguely Marxist dichotomy doesn’t apply anymore to our current society – where using porn is blatantly endemic anyway.

 

  • Pornography has permeated mass culture and what was once clandestine and shameful has even become an housewives’ topic: home sex toys demo parties, mainstream magazines articles, romance novels whitewashed in eroticism and sold everywhere. At first sight it would seem that sexuality isn’t censorship material anymore, yet all of this exists shoulder to shoulder with fierce oppositions to the mere hypothesis (which is just that, at least in Italy!) of sex education in schools. In which occasions sexuality is sanctioned, happy and “reassuring”, and which make torches and pitchforks go up?

Without mixing up porn and sexuality, it’s important to understand how the groups most aggressively against a sex-positive culture are often holding on to such clearly anti-historic and illogical positions mostly to justify their own very existence on a political scene that made them obsolete. In other words theirs is a populistic manipulation that’s completely disconnected from objective reality, and that is pointless to reply to with rational arguments.
Some people simplify this issue maintaining that a sexually happy population is much harder to manipulate, because it is less neurotic and intrinsically trained to exercise critical thinking and acceptance of diversity.

 

  • I can remember the first time I was exposed to alternative sexualities, with the coverage of the Soter Mulè case in 2011. On that occasion they put on a pillory not the single incident, but extreme sex in general (and BDSM in particular) as the cause of that tragedy. A great number of very shallow analysis articles about BDSM popped up everywhere, all with an ironically detached tone and ending with a reinforcement of negative prejudices. The women’s magazine Donna moderna published an article by Antonella Boralevi with the exhaustive title of Between bondage and extreme sex, is anyone still making love?  Well, on the other hand the second exposition wave, driven by the publication of the Fifty shades series, was comically enthusiastic. The very same magazines that had laughed at BDSM or condemned it as a form of violence against women, inhumanity and emotional anesthesia are now still celebrating it as a way to romantically explore sex within the couple. Do you think that in the few intervening years the world has changed, or is it still the same and in the future the media circus might turn back to hostility?

When analyizing media phenomena we must always remember that the media are an industry, and as such their driving interests are more financial than cultural. In my book I love BDSM I wrote:

The answer should be sought in how the news media work, for they must balance appealing topics with the less controversial approach possible to keep their advertisers happy, since their survival depends on them. In order not to alienate the mythical “average Italian” raised among Catholic guilt, television sexism and institutionalized ignorance its perfectly acceptable to cover massacres, murders, wars, mothers killing their own infants, teachers raping disabled people, shameless politicians, corruption and every sort of abuse. But talking positively about sex is an absolute taboo. It scares the housewives. It makes the ratings drop. It undercuts revenues.

The only possible solution then is to treat this topics condescendingly and with a touch of disdain. So you can satisfy the public’s morbid curiosity, but you don’t force it to question their convinctions, no matter how wrong they can be.  

The huge success of 50 Shades of Grey is instead largely depending on a global marketing effort that collectively moved billions of dollars of investment by the largest publishing groups in every nation where the trilogy was published. It would be naïve to think that the news outlets of those very same groups could negatively portray it, compromising the whole financial enterprise.

 

  • Talking about women and BDSM: in that same Boralevi article Nobuyoshi Araki was represented as a merciless chauvinist due to his bondage photos, and defined “unfortunately great”. In your opinion, what causes the lingering idea that bondage and domination games are a form of male abuse over women, or a way to reinforce the submissive female prejudice? Isn’t acknowledged enough that the dominant and submissive roles are gender-indifferent, and that one person (male or female) can experience both?

Not only that, but it has been widely proved that the largest part of the revenues in the BDSM market indeed comes from femdom (where women dominate men) products and services. Real gender bullying happens in very different contexts than extreme eroticism, which is based on rules, techniques and a whole culture founded on the utmost mutual respect between partners. Those who think or write differently clearly don’t know their subject – or are trying to exploit old prejudices.

 

  • In the Fifty Shades series BDSM is somewhat accepted within the couple’s sexuality, but essentially represents an expression of the protagonist’s traumas (the only one he has to get free of, while his disturbing paternalism toward her is treated as a funny trait) and his escape from feelings and emotions. Extreme sex always appears as a “stuck” relation opposed to “traditional” sex, described as a tool to gain a relationship. Why is it so hard to see alternative sexualities associated to feelings, relationships and emotions instead of opposed to them?

This is partly due to the religiously influenced dichotomy that sees sexuality as an aberration of daily existence, a totally separated world from “normal” life – and I believe this is a dangerous idea that is amplified whenever uncommon sexuality comes up. Every emotional narration also distills concepts and pushes them to the extreme, so art – no matter how good or bad the work is – inevitably tends to favor the drama of paraphilic disorders before serenely experienced paraphilia. It’s simply more interesting for the public, yet out of the mainstream you can find lots of examples of alternative sexualities represented in a positive light.

 

  • Playboy recently decided to tame its publications (no more full nudity), claiming it cannot face the competition from online hardcore. Is it really so?

I read several analysis of that news which, as a reformed journalist myself, sound pretty sensible. Looking at the Playboy group revenues, the brand itself is much more valuable than the contents it is traditionally associated with. In other words, glossy eroticism is still a good seller, but not as good as the t-shirts, the caps or the restaurants with the bunny logo.
Since Chinese law hardly tolerates companies that operate in the field of pornography, getting rid of “the naked ladies” was the only possible strategy to stay in the largest and most lucrative market on the global board. Hence, even in this case we can see how moralism has much less influence than the media make it look.

 

  • What are the artists you consider more inspired by or inspiring for BDSM? Not necessarily those whose work is more explicitly oriented, like Trevor Brown or Araki.

Artists apply a technique to elicit emotions, and nothing arouses a stronger emotional response than archetypes – such as those (Domination, Submission, Pain, Humiliation, Power, Surrender…) upon which BDSM is based. Seen from this perspective, there are naturally countless artists who integrated the iconography of extreme eroticism in their works and I could never list them. Some of them surely use these elements more constantly and gracefully than others, with a restraint that elevates them from the mass of those simply looking for a gut reaction. Talking about Italy, the first name springing to my mind is for example Saturno Buttò.

 

  • Fetish is a very successful erotic illustration genre. Do you attribute this to its refined aesthetic, to an unexpectedly large number of enthusiasts, or to some other reason?

Again, archetypes surely are somewhat responsible – just like the infinite possibilities of creating hypersexualized bodies allowed by fetish compared to the relatively limited range of representation allowed by a nude figure, in my opinion.

 

  • Can BDSM be considered more a mind thing than a physical one, or talking about sexuality is the disconnection between mind and body too subtle to be quantified?

In my experience over 90% of any kind of healthy sexuality involves the mind and the soul instead of pure physicality. The latter is undoubtedly pretty important itself, but if it regularly becomes the focus it just devalues the most wonderful experience we can ever have as homo sapiens sapiens.

Line
Line