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  • Simon Vine

The erotic, sex, and images.

Updated: Jun 8


Visit any social media site and you will see posts centred around issues associated with sexuality and gender. It is a politically charged area, with any individual or group claiming a not conventionally recognized identity based on sexual preference and/or a gender-defining linguistic designator, being up in arms over the possibility that they aren't getting a fair shake of the bag. All well and good, especially if you are a female living in the Arab world, and also even if you are a disaffected adolescent from Briton who identifies as a brightly coloured school of fish 24 km off the coast of the southern-most canary island.

So what's it to me? Why is a 45-year-old heterosexual man even interested? Although it's difficult to discuss the subtleties of what shapes a person's identity, there are certain physical realities and certain imperatives. But primarily I am a visual artist, and anything to do with the body does eventually become of interest to a representational painter. Firstly because it is about the body, how we see our own bodies and the bodies of others, and how we want to be seen. And secondly, it is about the extent to which the checks and balances of media outlets should be involved in legislating around what is and isn't depicted photographically, and furthermore in the new public spaces of social media sites. And thirdly, because body politics are also about how we consume images, representations of the human form. The human body remains the most evocative, and provocative symbol in art; we remain at the centre of our environment. Things have changed, this is part of the reason for this new discourse. When I was an adolescent there was still a great deal of mystery about sex and the body. What could be termed as erotica had found a place in print culture, but images that approached the explicit images freely available today within the new digital media were not so readily available. There is something to be said for the mystery that existed then, certainly, there was a greater sense of innocence. Childhood was preserved, in the sense that the pressures driving young minds towards the tropes of adulthood didn't include a profusion of pornography. And what did exist still had the feel of images of natural physical desire being acted out in the wake of sixties sexual exploration. There was a conceit that these images were created post an era of a redefining of gender roles with the end of releasing everyone from the idea that we should feel guilty or ashamed of our bodies, and of our desires. I am suggesting also that the sense of urgency this discourse has is a by-product of the increased accessibility of adult content. It must be overwhelming for an adolescent.

To this end I am all for the idea that some representations of the human form be erotic, it is inevitable certainly. I mean to say that we cannot live in a kind of encyclopedia world, where everything is simply illustrative and informative, and of course, at the same time, representations of the human body needn't always be two quick steps away from explicit, visible, sexual intimacy; People can simply be naked. So how could we define erotic as a classification now? The erotic can play a game of being always artistic, the word is used as a cloak to perhaps relax certain nervous folks. A photograph it seems can be in this way a 'well-intentioned nude'. We are for example invited by the photographer, and by the model (and they may now be the same person) to gaze at a splendid instantiation of a woman's posterior, all the while remaining in the high minded realm of aesthetic appreciation. Like the 19th century collector of tasteful mythological scenes our motivations are within an accepted, agreed upon, aesthetic value system. Some contemporary erotica takes another step; you are being perverse in contemplating this leather-clad seducer, but your perversion has been permitted under the rules of a sub-culture to which you allow your desire to ascribe; you are interested in the aesthetic of this club.

The thing that lies for me at the centre of this world of representation, and of the marketing, presentation, and consumption of images, is the idea of mutual participation. This is the age of consent, and all images should be produced with the genuine participation and consent of all parties concerned. Is it that simple? Of course not. But within this idea is the key to building an aesthetic around the production and appreciation of erotic images.

I am referring here to the proliferation of images, the sheer quantity over quality, and the obvious fact that sexual desire plays a big role in the aesthetics surrounding the nude. Reality then is not a place of clear democratic ends and artistic elevation. What needs to be asked is 'what does or doesn't constitute a free act? What could be perceived as a personally actualized sense of self-image can come to us, in a weak moment, from the cultural pools we are swimming in. If there was not some truth to this idea then there would be no point to advertising, humans are susceptible to persuasion and influence. If we weren't then the influence of visual systems and cultural codes would always be manageable. And people would buy things because they fit the needs of their personally constructed, and reflected upon, world-view. People would always associate a particular sense of unease or unrest with its actual cause. We would always be aware of things as a whole, and not beguiled by one particular aspect of life, or of an object, to the detriment of ourselves and others.

The proliferation of images on the internet, and of digitally generated facsimiles of reality, has been described as a digital renaissance. But in order for there to be a digital renaissance, there would have to have been some great high point of digital culture in the past; something for there to be a re-birth of. Provided this obsessive digital record-making and mimicry survives, the term digital renaissance could be applied in the future, but not now. What may be true right now is that this has all been thought and discussed before, just not by millions of monkeys at millions of keyboards.

The new cannot exist without the old. Contemporary discussion surrounding individual rights, and gender politics needs to be seen as part of the continuum of these discussions, and the new media as another factor, not a new reality unto itself.

Painting a picture is one way of making sense of this new bombardment of code. A way for decoding and recoding the images and symbols that have significance to our psyches. It's a one-off investment in something that will remain stationary, and that can be contemplated at leisure. It's a chance for the brain to upwind and maybe enjoy the possibility that sometimes things move at the pace ascribed by time and space.

The current heated debate around gender identity politics seems to me to be the opposite of thoughtful contemplation and discussion of what it means to be human. And the worst thing about it is not that it is a confused side-tracking of an important discussion about gender, human rights, and freedom of expression, but that it muddies the waters for young people who are learning about these things, and about themselves.


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