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Art that excites: despite controversy and censorship, today's artists continue to explore erotic themes in their work. (Erotic Art).

Ever since artists began creating art, they have incorporated sexual themes into their work. As early as 23,000 B.C., Paleolithic artists across Europe were creating Venus figurines, female sculptures and bas-reliefs with distinct, exaggerated sexual characteristics that many archeologists believe were associated with fertility rituals and beliefs. Ancient civilizations, such as various Indian cultures throughout southeast Asia, were replete with sexual or erotic imagery. Viewed through the lens of modern Western culture, the exact intent and context of these art works is often difficult or impossible to surmise, but their explicit relationship to sex and the human body is clear. Whatever specific purpose these works fulfilled in their respective cultures, it appears to have been a central, fundamental one, fully accepted and recognized.

In more recent periods in Western history, artists dealing with sexual themes or imagery have worked in much muddier waters. The Brooklyn Museum of Art's current exhibit, "Exposed: The Victorian Nude," is a perfect example of Western unease with the artistic portrayal of the human form. Though the 19th-century British works are tame by modern-day standards, at the time of their creation they incited heated moral debate and controversy.

This debate has yet to be resolved. Examples of persecution and censorship abound throughout the 20th century, from Austrian painter Egon Schiele, who was briefly imprisoned in 1912 and charged with sexually abusing children (these charges were subsequently dropped) after his erotic drawings were discovered and confiscated by the police, to the now-infamous 1989 Robert Mapplethorpe photography exhibit, "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment," cancelled by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., after Sen. Jesse Helms decried the more graphic sexual images as pornographic. The show was then picked up by the Washington Project for the Arts, where it promptly became its most profitable exhibition ever. The extreme reactions garnered by the show, both in favor and against, served to highlight society's continuing ambivalence toward sexuality.

As 2002 draws to a close, artists and the government continue to clash on the subject of art vs. pornography. The latest artist to venture into the fray is New York photographer Barbara Nitke, the chief plaintiff in Barbara Nitke and the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom versus John Ashcroft and the U.S. Government. The lawsuit, fried in December 2001, claims the Communications Decency Act, which lets local communities determine their own standards for obscenity, limits adult exploration of sexual issues on the Internet. The government moved to dismiss the case, and, at press time, the plaintiffs are seeking a temporary injunction against the Act in New York's federal court.

A warm woman who is quick to laugh, Nitke is horrified by the idea that the standards in one community could determine what qualifies as obscene for all Internet users, particularly as her photographs depict consenting adults involved in a loving relationship.

"It just makes me so deeply angry that anyone should be made to feel ashamed of their sexuality," said Nitke, who, since 1994, has photographed the sexual lives of sadomasochistic couples, capturing the gentleness and romance of what she sees as an extremely misunderstood subculture.

For Nitke, who began her career as a still photographer on the sets of pornography movies, the appeal of photographing sex has less to do with capturing the act itself than with what it reveals about the participants' emotional lives. But she is under no illusions of her subject matter's propensity to overshadow her craft.

"The problem with doing this work is you want to be judged on the work's merit, but you're always running into a brick wall because of people's reactions to the subject matter," she explained, adding, "that's what was so powerful about Mapplethorpe--he was able to do sexually-based work and be taken seriously"

Erotic Art on White Walls

Nitke noted that fear of being labeled as an erotic gallery has led certain galleries to refuse to show work they admire, because it deals with sexually explicit themes. This is particularly true of galleries or museums who receive any sort of funding.

But according to Grady Turner, art critic and executive curator of the newly opened Museum of Sex in New York, an increasing number of galleries are indeed exhibiting work that addresses sex and sexuality. "Particularly among emerging artists--those who grew up in a world that was much more open in terms of gay rights, gender issues and so on. It's not so didactic, it comes from a reality in which pornography is not something strictly associated with Times Square," he said. "The shock of the new has kind of worn off a bit, which is great."

While erotic art is a harder sell than most other genres, Nitke believes the market for this work is growing and is optimistic about the next decade. "It's definitely gaining acceptability. More and more people feel they can hang this work--at least in their bedrooms," she said,

Pet Silvia, artist and co-owner of Art @ Large, echoes Nitke's optimistic outlook. The New York gallery, which opened about a year ago, is advertised as housing a `fine arts erotica collection' (though Silvia, along with Nitke and many others, is not particularly fond of the term `erotica'--seeing it as a vague and unnecessary adjective) and represents such artists as Charles Gatewood, Michael Rosen and Nitke. Silvia was also largely responsible for bringing the Los Angeles-based Tom of Finland Foundation's Annual Erotic Art Fair to New York. The foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting and preserving erotic art.

Increasingly, said Silvia, "We're getting collectors who are looking beyond the subject matter and beginning to see the academic qualities of the work. We're not getting rich by any means, but we are hanging in there."

Silvia said there is no particular profile for the collectors he sees. Many are first-time art buyers, but others are seasoned collectors "who really take the responsibility of building an art collection seriously.

Chris Schuster, marketing director for New York publisher Behr-Thyssen, agreed. "For first-time collectors, there is a sense of the risque involved in it," said Schuster. "It's always exciting to acquire a piece of art, and there is that much more excietment with something that is pushing the limit a little bit."

Behr-Thyssen represents the Spanish artist Lombarte, whose lush prints sensuously depict the female form.

"There is definitely a large and growing market for erotic art, as the general public becomes more receptive to different types of sensuality," continued Schuster, adding that the real trick is knowing which customers to approach with which works. "It's up to us, as the publishers, to make that match happen," she explained. "Some of our customers had a very difficult time dealing with Lombarte's depictions of lesbians, while others were thrilled."

The hesitancy with which collectors approach works by contemporary artists dealing with sexual themes is perfectly understandable to Silvia, who said this has always been the case. He points to such works as Edouard Manet's "Olympia." Now considered a classic, the sensuous 1863 painting of a nude prostitute caused considerable outrage among viewers and critics alike when it was first shown in Paris in 1865.

However, Silvia does fault the mainstream art world, particularly curators and the art press, for failing to pay enough attention to the quality work that is being done, instead of simply dismissing it all as pornographic--a word he says is "about as unclassifiable as the word art" (Indeed, the much-discussed argument as to whether or not a work is art or pornography holds little interest for most artists and curators, who view the debate as too subjective and vague.)

Instead of gallery discrimination, Turner believes the reason so many artists working with sexual themes are being ignored is that, quite simply, they are creating uninteresting art. "Artists sometimes seem to think that if they're showing a nude body they're doing something extraordinary, but there is a whole tradition of that," he said. "I've seen a lot of very bad work about sex, because it's a topic that anyone can consider themselves an expert at--but sex is only as interesting as how you portray it."

The Shock of the New

When Charles Gatewood took his camera to the streets in 1964, the shock of the new was just beginning. Not only were explicitly sexual themes dismissed as marginal (or even criminal), photography itself was not taken seriously as a viable art form.

Gatewood is one of six artists represented in the Museum of Sex's inaugural exhibit, "NYC Sex: How New York City Transformed Sex in America" and is largely viewed as a pioneer in erotic photography. Though Gatewood says that most of the erotic photographers he knows are still being hassled in some form or another, the landscape has changed considerably since the repressive years leading up to the 1960s.

He pointed to the Metropolitan Museum's recent show on Surrealism, "Surrealism: Desire Unbound," as proof of the genres acceptance: "I walked in and there was a Man Ray blow job on the wall of the Met. If it's artfully done, erotic work can be anywhere."

Gatewood, who now lives in California, began shooting in the documentary tradition, drawn to the cultural explosion of the `60s in New York. He continues to be intrigued by various American subcultures, capturing such disparate worlds as Wall Street investment banking and fetish sexuality. Photographing sexual images, he said, is "a doubly exciting hit. I get the creative thrill and the physical stimulation--I strongly disagree with eroticism not being meant to turn people on."

Art That Excites

This sentiment is echoed by many artists, who find the belief that art should not seek to arouse prudish. Yuroz, an Armenian-born artist who escaped to the United States in 1985 after an eight-year struggle with the communist police, the KGB, lived on the streets of Hollywood for a short time, during which he observed, first-hand, the lives of homeless people, prostitutes and erotic dancers. From his experiences, he painted a series of works called "Hollywood at Midnight" and eventually created a line of erotic works for Los Angeles-based Stygian Publishing. His works, said the artist, are explicitly intended to arouse sexual feelings.

Excitement, be it sexual or not, is a word that comes up a lot when speaking with gallery owners and publishers who deal in erotic imagery. In 1999, when Marilyn Reyes opened what she bills as the Midwest's first commercial erotic art gallery, the Feitico Gallery in Chicago, she was interested in presenting art with an energy that she feels is"missing from a lot of contemporary art. It has no soul."

Silvia agreed, pronouncing that "the current post-modern period will probably go down as one of the longest, most boring periods in art history. In the last 20 years, it has been difficult to see anything original ... but the work we're showing here is, in addition to being a celebration of the body, a celebration of individuality."


* Art @ Large Gallery, (212) 957-8371

* Behr-Thyssen (212) 431-7459

* Barbara Nitke,

* Feitico Gallery, (773) 384-0586

* Carol Morgan, (202) 564-7856

* Museum of Sex, (212) 689-6337

* Stygian Publishing, (213) 622-6416

* Tom of Finland Foundation, (213) 250-1685
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Author:La Rocco, Claudia
Publication:Art Business News
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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