Across the Oceans: For a New Vision of Contemporary Spiritual Erotica in Western Art (Part 1)

Part 1 of 2

            For quite some time, there has been a rather peculiar link in art and aesthetics between the heterogeneous world of mysticism, and that of eroticism. Both have in mind the aim towards the transgression of all limitations, and even that of the worldly itself. Both strike at the heart of two very basic and fundamental human experiences that intertwine at the deepest of metaphysical levels: that of sexuality, and that which we call the realm of the soul. Art has always been the mediating factor between the two, and the only human endeavour that can truly reveal these “limit” experiences (as Bataille called them) in their most vivid of transmissions. Through art and aesthetics, one can express what is really at the heart of all conjecture and meaning into such intimate alcoves of one’s very immortal soul – hence within the spiritual aesthetics of the various world religions, art and the erotic go hand in hand.

            However, as I will argue, the more eroticism became decoupled and eventually alienated from spirituality in the modern world, this base-level profanation has degraded the character of artistic erotica in general. Specifically, ‘erotica’ has now almost become commensurate with a more tasteful avenue of pornographic titillation, not a forceful medium for metaphysical and existential ecstasy that goes beyond the experience of mortal flesh. That is why in this essay, I shall run through the difference between art and pornography, and with the aid of various sources from both the East and the West (especially Bataille, Scruton and Francois Jullien), I shall propose a new aesthetics of spiritual eroticism for Western Civilization that can retain what was once transformative and sublime.

Figuring the Erotic: Know the Decline 

            Our souls certainly have suffered in the hypersexualized modern era for reasons that go beyond the explication of this essay; therefore there exists a basic tension in any work that proports to elevate the traditional and the metaphysical into the lives of those everyday people seeking meaning once more. This tension is derived from the need to raise that which is worthy of revival, to convey the utmost importance of retaining that which is positive about the past – the world of tradition – and on the other hand, to lay down ideas and concepts that can define a comportment for contemporary Man, reconciling the challenges presented to us by modernity, and adjusting traditional concepts accordingly.

            In works of contemporary erotica, we see a starvation of the spiritual, a profanation that has led into a celebration of the ghastly and the grotesque. Now, these things are warranted as topics of artistic exploration, and there are powerful ideas behind contemporary erotica, so this essay does not wish to cast aspersions. However, eroticism decoupled from the spiritual is still at a loss in terms of its power of transgression and ecstatic connectivity with the numinous. To truly know what is at stake, we must first address what the possible difference is between artistic erotica, and what is merely pornographic, we shall also examine a brief history of contemporary erotica that illustrates the difference between eroticism and what merely gives momentary and ersatz satiation to libidinal drives.

            One could come up with a poetic heuristic that differentiates between what is “tasteful” erotic art and what is merely pornographic. One analogy could be the ideation, the sense with which a piece of sexually charged media fills you. If a work merely gives you sexual stimuli, then it is (more or less) pornographic, but if a piece of art evokes in you a deep desire that goes beyond the mere physical (or what Bataille called the “genital[1]”) acts of sexual union, than this work is charged with the power of eroticism. A good definition of erotica versus porn is provided here:

            “Admittedly, the erotic might end up having the same effect [as pornography]. Still, the ideal behind erotica is to transcend its literally provocative subject – to add a third dimension, if you will. In aspiring to celebrate the varieties of sexual bliss, and the universal desire for carnal union (which, deep within, just might carry hints of the divine), the eroticist seeks to portray a vision of both human pulchritude and the potential ecstasy that humans – through sexually joining – can share. One that won’t grow old, or become stale over time (as pornographic images generally do). Also, with pornography, it’s basically sex for sale. Artists pursue eroticism, I think, as they pursue beauty.[2]

            Pornography is that which merely satiates the basic drives in a consumerist fashion, not aiming for transcendence, and furthermore, it is that which enslaves rather than frees the soul. Sexual obsession and carnal vice as a form of self-made bondage – “slaver of the soul” in other words – have been central to the writers of almost every wisdom tradition upon the earth, and especially important to the writings of St. Paul[3]. The article in Psychology Today further states the distinction:

            “What in general separates the erotic from the pornographic is an attitude toward sex and human sexuality that can be inferred from looking (dare I use the word objectively”) at the finished product. If the subjects are portrayed in a manner that focuses on their inner and outer radiance, their fleshy vitality, and the work itself seems to manifest a passionate and powerful affirmation of life and the pleasures of this world, then I think we’re talking erotic. If, however, the subjects seem reduced to so many body parts, if any beauty appears subordinate to the overriding purpose of arousal, if the sex depicted seems depersonalized, controlling, non-mutual, and devoid of fun or play (but rather seems about getting down to business” and getting off”) – and if the sex acts pictured contain not a hint of human caring or emotional connectedness to them [then we are dealing with the pornographic].”[4]

            Keep this distinction in mind for later in this essay: the distinction between mere worldly flesh, and “radiance”, energy, qi, or the power of the dharmic-soul body that catalyzes a loss of mortal subjectivity in the exposure to eroticism and the act of sexual union. The object of erotic desire in pornography and the more lurid forms of pornographic art are merely reduced to objects of satiation, not embodied persons or spirits that are capable of mutual ritualistic union and worship of carnality. Scruton says as much in Modern Culture, stating that tasteful erotica is the object of imagined desire, the ideal shape of beauty and divinity, not merely a surrogate image of lust – a fantastic and embodied desire in the realm of art, not merely a fetishized conduit. Artistic imaginary images are “informed” by reality, but then are embellished, beautified and brought to a state of interacting and determinative intensities, not merely an image of the consumable actual found in pornography[5].

            What is a fetish but mistaking a symbol of the real with the real itself, and not in an ideal or archetypal way. It is pure onanism – a lust-desire for the bodily – and to fetishize, in the root word, is to place a talisman or “token” upon reality[6]. Scruton, in seeming agreement with Bataille, further makes this genital / eroticism distinction, stating that the sexual surrogate is impersonal, machinic in its production, and there is a certain profanation and impersonal pliability to the mass-produced pornographic image that is absent from genuine artistic works of erotica. Sexual union is stripped of love and sentiment, it is merely the genital act of copulation and libidinal excitement that takes over as the focus of production[7]. Bataille’s concept of eroticism is intimately wed with his idea of the “accursed share” economy, those moments of mystical ecstasy where energy, intensities and channels of flows or “life-energy” is measured not in standing-reserve but in expenditure. The erotic is not simply sexual fulfillment but a furthering of mortal limits, aiming at life beyond death – in a word, immortality itself[8].

            The eroticism of Bataille hinges upon the distinction between what he called “discontinuous” and “continuous” being. Discontinuous being is the everydayness of existence, a kind of Sartrean “bad faith” where one is atomized, pressured by the limits of our being, a “Homo-Economicus”, operating on a utilitarian and rational basis. Discontinuous being calculates and stores energy between the realm of subjects and objects, distinct forms, whilst “continuous” being is a more primal state of energetic flows, unions, and dissolutions of boundaries within a free choice. It is not a more primal state, but rather a state of deeply human striving towards never-ending heights of ecstasy, fulfillment, and temporary suspensions of singular individual being[9]. This is very close to the idea of a “plane of immanance” in Deleuzian philosophy, where a being sloughs off stability and modular sedimentation to take on newer lines of flight and channels of energetic intensities that intersect with others. Discontinuous being is within the realm of finitude, and creates the possibility of ontological stability, whereas continuous being is the fading of selfhood, and pure chaos or discord[10]. A pertinent quote elaborates this distinction:

“The fact that this unique being, in its given beauty and uniqueness is a unique manifestation of life makes even more explicit the aspect of chance and absurdity that rules our existences: it makes explicit the constant movement of energies around the Earth that are chaotic and non-logical. The uniqueness of the lover shows that it is impossible to possess such a being, because the life of such a unique person is an ephemeral manifestation in an energetic life. And this life will kill her. When Bataille talks about this ‘torn’ aspect of limited beings, he means that our discontinuous life always comes with the sense of a continuity that we strive to escape: we tear ourselves out of the continuous existence. In eroticism, what happens is that we seek the place where we were torn apart, and we connect through these open wounds. ‘When love denies limited existences, it gives them in return an infinity of emptiness. It limits them to waiting for what they are not.’ Erotic love is the negation of limits, the transgression of seriousness and the openness to the emptiness of what lies beyond our limits: the emptiness of a meaningless chaos of energies”.[11]

            Eroticism is the transgression and violence done to the self in order to move beyond the self, to transcend mere flesh and become an energetic form of being, in a word, what the Tantric Hindus called the “Dharma-body”. In eroticism is a vulnerability, a breakdown of seriousness and an openness of limitations. Its connections to mysticism are apparent in this death-transcending and limitless state of being in flux[12]. As Bataille points out, in the various religious traditions around the world, even in Christianity, is an indifference and violence done to the body, a state of systematic transition from mere sensuality towards divinity and spirituality, which is paradoxically entangled with a kind of obscenity[13]. The distinction and similarities between the two are as follows:

“Religion coincides with the dream of a pure rational principle that orders the world. What eroticism and sacredness have in common is not the belief in salvation or in the immortality of the soul, but the experience of the continuity of the world as a manifestation of violent and exuberant energies – ‘For everything that lives is Holy’ (Blake 45). This is the vision that is associated with mysticism, and as such mysticism and eroticism share a similar structure: in the vision of objects that are part of the discontinuous existence, the mystic and the erotic person see a gate towards continuous existence.”[14]

            Here we can further see the lacuna widening between artistic eroticism and mere pornography, for porn is more attuned to the machinations of discontinuous being and its need to quantify pleasure, separate individuals, and objectify relations between and among the sexes. Continuous being is the striving of the mystical and the erotic, it is not alienating or detached from the energy of spirit, but is a divine alienation from the bodily, the utilitarian, and instrumental reason itself.

The Fall into the Pornographic

            Let us examine a brief and non-exhaustive history between the blurring of the lines between erotica and pornography in the modern world using some examples. To begin, let us look at some key distinctions using two of the greatest expressionists of the last few centuries, rather, the difference between them in their artistic styles: The works of Gustav Klimt, and his protégé Egon Schiele.

Arthur Danto, one of the foremost contemporary art critics, writes about the relation and eventual artistic separation between Klimt and Schiele, both being titans of eroticism and forerunners of German Expressionism. Klimt is described in the vein of a more “decretive” approach to sensual erotica, often evoking religious themes. Take, for example, his later-period opus Death and Life which depicts various stages of existence. There are lovers surrounded by a womb of foliage, happy sleeping and dreaming faces of beautiful mothers and their children, strong and upright men protecting the grouping of warm bodies touched by crimson and orange hues, while death, adorned with religious symbols, stalks them from the outside[15].
            While Klimt was known for expressing a thirst for a beatific vision of erotic transcendence, Schiele on the other hand was a purveyor of the most crushing social realism, and frequently attacked for his gritty depictions of deviant, outsider, and condemned sexuality. Often depicting prostitutes, gaunt and flesh-wrought women that have a supreme honesty and subtle grace to them; figures of the underclass, the marginalized whose appearances often graced the various lewd porno-cards traded around German art circles at this time. As Danto points out:

            “There is nevertheless something operatic about Klimt’s lovers, as if they were figures in a myth. Like Tristan and Isolde they are caught up in the sweep of passion as the music swells around them. Sex is somehow meant to be transfigurative, a way of transcending the sweaty realities of the flesh depicted. Schiele’s figures, by contrast, are raw, hairy and bony, their young bodies marked by erotic zones like maps of where to touch each other. Sex is what they live for, the essence of their lives. It is an end in itself, not a means for transfiguration. They can’t keep their hands to themselves when they are together, and they can’t keep their hands off themselves when they are alone. Masturbation is their default state.”[16]

            Both being influenced by Freudian psychoanalytic theory in Vienna at the time, we can see nonetheless the divergent nature between how Klimt and Schiele chose to depict the same subject in this example: the classic iconography of the mother and child.  Klimt’s mother and child form a section of the famed work Three Ages of Woman (1905), a painting that aims primarily to reveal a striving for immortality present in eroticism through the life-cycle of the archetypal woman. The mother and girl-child are together in each other’s arms dreaming – a more pleasant view of the unconscious life. This is a work of eroticism, but the prettied and sensual variety that was popular a century before, indicative of Klimt’s attention to both academic European art and his influences from Japanese ink painting[17]. There is clearly something “beyond” the careful figurative depiction of these images; the women are painted as glowing embodiments of divine beauty.

            With Schiele’s Mother and Child (1910)[18],we see an almost Oedipal image of youthful sexuality. The mother is a seductress, with saucy hips swaying, peering over her tightly grasped shoulders as if to invite the male gaze from behind her with one strangely repellant, yet invitingly seductive eye. This is where we can see the tinge of anguish and suffering in Schiele’s subjects; their flesh is sickly cream-colored, their tight and vascular muscles swirling on their skinny frames – the child clutching his mother’s waist with his head buried in her ribs like a lover’s vice, while the mother almost gives off an air of casual indifference. This is erotic art striving for realism by moving away from transcendence, and as Danto admits, Schiele’s erotic realism paved the way for what is now typical in our contemporary world – the blurred lines between the erotic and the pornographic, as implied by the popularity of ever-more lurid and transgressive erotic material[19].

            Late-modern and contemporary erotica (for instance, Danto makes the connection between Schiele and LGBT bondage photographer Robert Mapplethorpe), is purely a socio-cultural and materialist form of transgression. It appears, at least from my perspective as an artist and writer, that modern erotica is caught between two poles of profanation: on the one hand, we have a very hyper-politicized and materially transgressive form of eroticism, obsessions with representation of the physical body – a concoction of Critical Theory that, while warranted and dealing with valid and important issues in Western art, seem to be purposefully alienating or at the very least, not entirely concerned with any kind of spiritual transcendence.

            With a casual glance at contemporary erotic artists, we can note how much stress is placed upon the modern secular beatitudes of diversity, inclusivity, feminism, etc. in a purposeful attempt to subvert the male gaze. For example, the painter Kristen Liu-Wong[20] depicts masturbatory images of abstract spaces of intimacy, filled with neon vapor-wave graphics and detailed illustrations of multiracial and polysexual bodies engaging in self-pleasure, glitziness, murder, and shocking acts of limit-sexuality. In fact, a lot of contemporary erotic art features the sexual act itself, divorced of suggestion and concealment, but rather an overt display of sexuality from polyvocal perspectives not traditionally seen in Western erotic art[21]. This is not altogether negative, and some of it is quite positive, but the politics behind such works is a contention for a different essay entirely.

            The other pole of contemporary erotic alienation is simply crass wish-fulfillment and diving headlong into the male gaze and infantile commercialism. Such is the case of Jack Vettriano’s sultry and print-worthy kitsch eroticism, one of the most prolific and profitable living artists today. Dubbed “the Thomas Kinkade of erotica”, Vettriano is known mostly for his 1992 classic The Singing Butler, featuring two lovers dancing on a beach with a butler and a maid after a rainstorm. Vettriano freely admits to the marketable nature of his work, often depicting overtly idealised women and scenes from the 50s and 60s, celebrities, warm and soft lighting, and all-together very safe, Boomer-friendly depictions of passion[22]. Whilst not blatantly genital and shocking, this level of kitsch erotica is “pornographic” in the sense of its easily exploitable and commercial aesthetic; it is a cheap and sentimentalist romance designed to line the halls of dental offices and hotel rooms, a Rockwell-erotica, as if Hopper painted candy-coated pastiches of human beings instead of his very real and depressive figures. After considering these examples, one cannot help but ruminate: there must be a way to reconcile these concerns with modernity, and a recapitulation of an artistic eroticism that is not altogether vulgar, one that has transcendence as its primary focus and ascesis.


[1] Bataille, Georges. Eroticism, Death And Sensuality. (San Francisco: City lights Books, 1957, 1986): 230.

[2] Seltzer, Leon. F. “What Distinguishes Erotica from Pornography? Gazing or leering? The erotic versus pornographic”. Psychology Today. (Apr 06, 2011).  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self/201104/what-distinguishes-erotica-pornography

[3] Here is a pertinent clip of a Lecture from E. Michael Jones discussing his book “Libido Dominandi”, from a NobodyTM edit. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWM4bJNpch0&t=407s

[4] Seltzer, “Psychology Today”.

[5] Scruton, Roger. Modern Culture. (New York, London: Continuum Books, 1998, 2005): 58-59.

[6] Zero HP lovecraft: https://twitter.com/0x49fa98/status/1111279223136608261

[7] Scruton, “Modern Culture”, 63.

[8] Bataille, “Eroticism”, 249.

[9] Minguy, Thomas. “Erotic Exuberance: Bataille’s Notion Of Eroticism”. PhænEx, Vol. 12, no. 1 (spring/summer 2017): 35-36.

[10] Ibid, 37.

[11] Ibid, 44.

[12] Ibid, 45.

[13] Bataille, “Eroticism”, 247-249.

[14] Minguy, “Erotic Exuberance”, 47-48.

[15]https://gioscontentcorner.wordpress.com/2018/12/19/modern-art-madness-week-day-2-momento-mori-modern-anti-modernism-in-klimts-death-and-life/

[16] Danto, Arthur. C. “Live Flesh”. The Nation. Jan, 4, 2006. https://www.thenation.com/article/live-flesh/

[17] http://www.gustavklimt.net/mother-and-child/

[18] https://www.art.com/products/p12491224-sa-i1678814/egon-schiele-mother-and-child-1910.htm

[19] Danto, “Live Flesh”.

[20] https://www.vice.com/en_au/article/3dynkb/nsfw-what-does-erotic-art-look-like-in-2017

[21] https://www.glamour.com/gallery/9-women-instagrammers-making-ridiculously-sexy-erotic-art

[22] https://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2012/07/jack-vettriano-singing-butler-art

Author: Gio Pennacchietti

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