Across the Oceans: For a New Vision of Contemporary Spiritual Erotica in Western Art (Part 2)

For a New Eroticism, East and West

            There are a plethora of discourses related to nudity and the nature of erotica in art, ranging from the usual topics that occupy Critical Theory, such as the marginalization of certain bodies and socio-economic classes, the “male gaze”, the globalization and commercialization of pornographic erotica, the exoticism present in so many Western artists of the erotic (chief among them being the erotic primitivism and cultural appropriations of Gauguin and Picasso). There certainly are a lot of issues that are legitimately of concern, but politics are only tangentially related to the path that eroticism could potentially take in order to revive its verve.

            We have now entered a period of the grotesque, the pornographic, the exploitative on another level, for only now have the exploitations and objectifications of sexuality taken on a more “inclusive” and “diverse” scope. Whilst one form of domination is truncated and an affront to current sensibilities, more subtle discourses of domination take hold, such is the reality with the total profanation of all things related to art and sexuality. As Scruton notes: “Every avenue to the spirit is sentimentalised, less it should appear to make demands on us. And a cold-hearted cynicism begins to take hold of human speech. Art itself turns against the vestiges of culture, and morbid fantasies occupy the foreground of thought.”[1] Thus, we live in the age of great cynicism that pervades aesthetics and sexuality, be it as merely a means of sexual escapism, or the expression of perverse fantasies that only serve to alienate, rather than uplift the human soul.

            Perhaps a new eroticism in the Western world can borrow certain concepts from both its own canon, and from other cultures (whilst avoiding the reification and appropriation of such cultures), in a spirit of respect and admiration. Of course, our understanding of erotica must be fundamentally transformed if it is to survive the metaphysical sickness of the culture industry, the trendiness of the politicized grotesque, the mass global marketing forces of pornography, etc. One should keep this in mind whilst we examine a place where there is little to no history of artistic eroticism and nudity, but a spiritual eroticism of an entirely different kind: in Chinese art and spiritual aesthetics, overt nudity is quite the anathema to good taste.

            In his seminal book The Impossible Nude: Chinese Art and Western Aesthetics, Francois Jullien, the foremost philosophically trained sinologist of France, compares the very different attitudes on the relation between art, spirituality and the nude body in both Western and Eastern aesthetics. The Impossible Nude‘s thesis is crafted around Chinese art and Chinese philosophic-aesthetic understandings of the body as a source of interplaying energy, revealing, concealing, as inexhaustible as the Tao itself, and therefore the “Full Presence” of nude art in the West is too limited, atomizing and cut off from vitality for Chinese artistic sensibilities[2]. Understanding this reorients our entire understanding of the body in art as not a unique object among other objects, but as a dynamic source of vibrancy, a network of pathways and intensities of energy, rather than a stultified and calculable whole.

            Jullien points out that in the West, as in the East, the body in erotic art becomes a venue of access to the heights of intimacy, and the longing of the spirit. However, in the West, the female nude is the objective platonic form of beauty, correctly proportionate, and depicted in detail down to the fleshy sinews and muscle structures – fully present, and fully rendered[3]. In Chinese spiritual aesthetics however, the body is an organic whole with its surroundings, it is just as formless and inexhaustible, often rendered as the landscape is, with sparseness, sketching-suggestion and translucency of ink layers, swaying in and out of the painting with the dilution of tones and semi-tones – the nude is thus never separated from the haecceities and interplay of intensities and vitality between Heaven and Earth[4].

            A new eroticism in art should move beyond objectification, late-capitalist consumerism and exploitation, whilst keeping both the positive aspects of Eastern and Western aesthetic forms. A few important lessons are to be learned from Chinese Taoist aesthetics: predicating worth on the inexhaustible over Full Presence, and that of the revealing / concealment relationship present in transcendent forms of eroticism, the relation between the interiority and exteriority of the world and self – thus creating what Jullien refers to as the “inexhaustible image” in reference to the Tao Te Ching’s verse on the “great image” being formless[5]. We are speaking in this sense not in a dialectical and reified fashion, but as an interplay of forces that creates increasing levels of intensities and relational interlinkages within the communion of continuous being. A bold comparison would be between the “impossible nude” of Chinese aesthetics and Bataille’s chief example of sacred eroticism, Bernini’s statue of St. Theresa’s spiritual ecstasy.

            St. Theresa is depicted in Bernini’s work as being pierced with a sharp and hot spear from an angel, the throes of ecstasy written upon her face, an unearthly bliss made bodily that many mystics, as Bataille points out, undergo during such peak experiences[6]. What catches Bataille’s attention about one of the most famous examples of sacred erotic art is the phrase used by St. Theresa: “I die because I cannot die.” The woman’s erotic involvement is swept up in the union with a Divine other – “Le Petite Mort” – a temporary suspension of discontinuous life in the utter abandonment and violence done to the physical body in the act of bliss. Furthermore, what is depicted in the statue is an act of intense eroticism in concealment, as St. Theresa’s clothes, those perfectly carved and smoothed out folds and creases, melt into her, quivering with the spiritualized erotic body. Here a saint wishes to die, but in doing so to truly live, to move beyond death, to live while dying in the highest form of artistic and spiritual eroticism, her body in a languishing pose, and in this act, she conquers the little death[7]. The erotic image is free of overt nudity or even sexual suggestion, as in Chinese figurative painting, the body is treated, as Jullien notes, with deliberative abstraction, almost alien-like vague and indiscreet figures, kept out of the focal point of the painting, and often submerged in nature. In Chinese aesthetics, this is what Jullien calls the characteristic of “Pregnance”, to fill an image with imperceptibility, becomings, and the potentiality / possibility of the infinite by not sticking to the rigidity of realism and materialistic forms[8].

            To move towards a new eroticism in the West, we must integrate global aesthetics whilst keeping regionalist considerations in mind; empty appropriations of trends and bastardizations from other cultures should be avoided for a variety of reasons. However, as the above comparison shows, there are venerable seeds in Western art as well that honor this quality of the imperceptible, the suggested, the concealing-revealing act within an aesthetic of spiritualized eroticism. A new artistic eroticism must not anachronistically bring about past iterations and trends “whole-cloth”, but must learn from the past, mine it of significance, and bring these values and concepts up to date with the modern reality. Let us use our current geist of post-modern appropriations to slip traditional art, aesthetics and notions of the divine-erotic through the back door of our diseased and id-driven western culture. There are already trends within outsider art that could potentially bring about such fusions of potentiality. Take for instance, the growth of what is now called “visionary art”, using traditional and digital mediums of expression.

            The foremost popularizer of such New Age aesthetics is Alex Grey, with his characteristic melting-pot of figurative realism, Eastern symbology, and anatomical clarity. There is a commitment to realism, high realism, but one that is imbued with the depictions of the sacred, rather than just rendering reality (i.e. photo-realism) complete on canvas. Unlike the modern art world that scoffs at religiosity in art, painters like Grey make the connections between sexuality, eroticism, art and the sacred. This is “outsider” art because it defies classification and academic pseudo-sophistication of other, more lurid and profane styles of erotica which serve to degrade the sexual act, rather than affirm its higher purpose[9].

            Such works as Pregnancy (1988), and Kiss of the Muse (2013) are hyper-real depictions of anatomically accurate beings wrapped in the divine energies of love, neither modern, nor post-modern, instead resembling and honoring pre-modern schools of art and forgotten forms of mysticism, but never fully integrated into any exiting style or art movement. There are issues of course with these perennialist appropriations and New-Ageism in art, but these are stepping stones towards a reinvigoration of the spiritual in aesthetic eroticism. Even in the realm of contemporary art, there are hints of some works with the same philosophic, spiritual and erotic potentiality.

            For example, the painter of “divergent” bodies – that is, otherized and purposely disproportioned bodies – is Jenny Saville. Neither conforming to the chic minimalism and post-modern conceptualism of the “Young British Artists” with whom she is associated, her nudes are neither genital or pornographic. They are works imbued with the politics of representation of course, but executed with artistic skill and candour. One work, entitled One Out of Two (Symposium) (2016), is a confrontational mass of bodies in chiaroscuro, converging with one another, wrapped in a chaotic energy of erotic ecstasy represented by red swirls around them. Her work of course defies conventional beauty standards, but here the female body is plastic, a channel or polymorphic avenue for thoughts and emotions, rather than just mounds of well-painted flesh[10].

            The title of the work is of course in reference to the Platonic middle work The Symposium, in which Socrates contemplates with other thinkers the meaning of love. Here Socrates does not give a direct answer but defers his answer by telling about a meeting he had with the wise woman Diotima, who gives an answer that Eros, divine love is within us, enabling us to love good and beautiful things. Beauty and love are not end-points in themselves, but exist to guide us towards higher things such as wisdom and the good. Diotima then says love is a kind of pregnancy, linked with immortality (since it is the only immortality mortals can have). It is a love and beauty which is at the highest when loving wisdom, being impregnated with the potentiality of thought, ordering cities, families and the harmony of nature – thus love is a kind of longing, or what Diotima describes as a “poverty” that longs for immortality[11].

            Like the “Pregnance” of Chinese figurative art, the erotic is imbued with a longing for the immortal in concealing and revealing, the exchanges of energetic forces, such as those chaotic movements of bodies striving for connection (and therefore divinity) in Saville’s painting. A new eroticism transgresses the mere physical body, moving along lines of deterritorialized poly-vocality of forces[12], lovers becoming indistinguishable and imperceptible with one another in the work of art, blending together emotions, spirt, and the bliss of divine ecstasy. There are seeds of potentiality for an inexhaustible new form of spiritual eroticism in the East and West. Diotima reference the archetypal concept of the “sea of beauty”, an analogy denoting the nirvanic state, kenosis in Eastern Orthodoxy, a total submerging with the reality of spirit via beauty, the good, the infinite. A new eroticism must aim for this subversive and transgressive union with the infinite.

[1] Scruton, “Modern Culture”, 67.

[2] Jullien, Francois. The Impossible Nude, Chinese Art And Western Aesthetics. (Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press, 2000):59.

[3] Ibid, 23, 30.

[4] Ibid, 34, 60-61.

[5] Ibid, 79-80.

[6] Bataille, “Eroticism”, 224

[7] Nast, Heidi. J, and Pile, Steve. Places Through The Body. (London, New York: Routledge, 1998): 285-288.

[8] Jullien, ‘The Impossible Nude”, 80-81.

[9] Zap, Jonathan. “A spiraling Eye-Encrusted Overview of the Art of Alex Grey”, Reality Sandwich. March, 2013.


[11] Plato, Ed. Rouse, W.H.D. The Great Dialogues Of Plato: The Symposium”. (New York: Signet Classics, Penguin, 2008): 110-113, 206b-210b.



Author: Gio Pennacchietti

1 thought on “Across the Oceans: For a New Vision of Contemporary Spiritual Erotica in Western Art (Part 2)

  1. I am glad you mention the notion of kenosis at the end, but in this series I wish you had discussed Eastern Christianity, with its rich history of explicit representation of theosis, in more detail, since it would seem to preclude any form of the erotic, as a cultural counterpoint to both the spiritual-erotic of the Chinese and the physical erotic of Western art. Yet the modern abstract aesthetic has a great deal in common with the abstractions of iconography. Cf. Fr. Silouan Justiniano’s writing at Orthodox Arts Journal.

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