I guess that my first exposure to Japanese prints would have been in the 1970’s. At that time there was little or no interest in Japanese art in England. There was however a publishing frenzy on the subject of erotica. Coffee table books by well regarded art historians such as Edward Lucie-Smith sold well and always contained a section devoted to Pillow Books by Utamaro and other eighteenth century woodblock artists. Feminism had not influenced critical art-theory at the time and writers such as Sir Kenneth Clarke were able to maintain the pre-eminence of the male view in art long after such ideas were being ridiculed in other fields.
Today in the United Kingdom, one might have been forgiven for thinking that there was a consensus about how society viewed the naked form, the sex act and so on, but if anything we seem to suffer from more and not less confusion on a subject which is pretty basic to our experience of the world. This month, a debate in the newspapers and in parliament has failed to decide how we should view online pornography. The outcome nonetheless is that from next year access to images of naked women or men will be restricted to those people who ‘opt-in’ to adult sites with their service providers. The concerns raised over internet pornography have led to a wider debate that will see sweeping changes affecting the display of certain magazine titles and the content of some newspaper features. It has further widened to include vocal debates that reframe the sexually explicit material within what appears to be a reactionary (and now rather discredited) feminist critique of a previous generation.
This national debate coincides with the British Museum’s equally well publicised blockbuster exhibition, Shunga – Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art. This is a big exhibition in every sense and has been universally praised by the British media. The work exhibited is as varied and in many cases as explicit as that which concerns so many campaigners who wish to restrict access to pornography in published and digital media. The irony of the two debates taking place simultaneously seems lost however on most commentators. Shunga, in common with all woodblock prints of Japan was not an art of the samurai, as some commentators have written, but a popular art form, with mass appeal and aimed at the urban population; designed (to paraphrase British Pop artist Richard Hamilton) to be: popular, transient, expendable, low cost, mass produced, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, big business. Hamilton’s 1957 definition of POP is as good a description of ukiyo-e as any other one could find. Shunga, therefore, is not the by-product of a loftier cultural ambition (the painting of a naked woman attending to the infant Christ) it has a direct equivalence to modern media – it happens that we now see it differently and rightly so, as a great and considered art form.
The confusion might be down to the very specific use of two words – synonyms, but with very different implications… pornography and erotica. The Cambridge dictionary defines erotica as: books, pictures etc. which produce sexual desire and pleasure. Pornography as: books, magazines, films etc. with no artistic value that describe or show sexual acts or naked people in a way that is intended to be sexually exciting. The consensus is that artistic value makes acceptability out of the unacceptable. One is left then, with the uncomfortable feeling that it is art historians who decide what it is that we can and cannot see… or when it is appropriate to feel guilt or pleasure, which most people I’m sure would find unacceptable. It would seem that in fact it is still Sir Kenneth Clarke who is defining for us the difference between the Naked and the Nude… and I don’t think that is good enough.
That said, there is little doubt that the shunga at the British Museum is delightful – in every sense. It is exuberant, guileless, sexy and joyful… above all though, it is devoid of guilt. Lack of guilt presumes innocence and therein partly lies the attraction: not only are these pictures a product of a relatively guilt-free society – certainly one without a history of religious proscription – but because they are considered erotic, it’s okay for us to look at them now, as the large crowds who have attended the show so far attest. The shunga at the B.M should shame us though… it should shame us that, sophisticated though we undoubtedly are, we are incapable of identifying our feelings about the most basic facts of our existence, our nakedness and the pleasure of having sex. Perhaps most shaming though is that the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, should miss an opportunity to discuss the wider implications of the exhibition, reverting to the archaic notion of tarts (as against virgins?), saying in a recent interview,
‘This is a finishing school for tarts, you can see all the skills that a successful tart has to know. It’s certainly an exhibition in which children all have to be accompanied by an adult.’
You have been warned.