"Love in the Golden Age," Agustino Caracci

The Renaissance origin of porn: Inside "I Modi," the 16th-century sex manual masterpiece

Raphael’s official printmaker had a naughty side — he created the first mass-produced book of sexual titillation


Noah Charney
February 13, 2017 12:00AM (UTC)

“I know it when I see,” said Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, referring to pornography in the landmark 1964 case of Jacobellis v. Ohio. The film in question, "The Lovers" by Louis Malle (1958), did not qualify as hardcore porn in the judge’s eyes, and the obscenity conviction of an Ohio theater manager, indicted for screening the art film, was reversed. But this case, with its famous statement, raises a good question: Where is the line drawn between erotic art and pornography?

The dictionary definition is not particularly helpful: “printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate sexual excitement.” There must be explicit display with intent to stimulate sexual excitement. Nudity, even explicit, without intent to stimulate, passes the "is it art?" test. That means that Courbet’s 1866 "Origin of the World," is art, not porn (though it was certainly accused of obscenity by its contemporaries). A close-up of a lady’s hoo-ha was too realistic for Victorian society, even though it is decidedly un-sexy. It was intended to stimulate, of course  — discussion, not sexual excitement.

Nudity has always been acceptable in the art world, but this was largely with the unwritten requirement that the nudes be statue-like, idealized, scrubbed clean of overly realistic and close-to-home details, like pubic hair. These nudes were often intended to be stimulating, however. Excusing the art because it depicted Venus, rather than a real woman, gentlemen patrons sometimes kept these reclining nude paintings behind curtains, for their private enjoyment or to show off to male friends. Though such paintings seem lovely and tame from a sexual standpoint today, they must be considered in context. We live in a hyper-saturated society with sexual images available in abundance, everywhere, of the most graphic nature that one could hope to google (while careful to erase one’s “history” after). Back in the 16th century, a fellow might never have seen a naked lady before his wedding night, so sneaking a peak at Lucas Cranach’s rendition of "Reclining Venus" was pretty hot stuff. It was art, but it was also sex...

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Noah Charney

Noah Charney is a Salon arts columnist and professor specializing in art crime, and author of "The Art of Forgery" (Phaidon).

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