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This is an unusual book, far removed from the writings of conventional art historians whom the author dubs 'patriarchal'. She is anxious to make clear that hers is not a survey history but rather 'an attempt to understand a constellation of discourses on aesthetics, representation, femininity, and class, and the ways they impact and are impacted by technologies of vision'. This formulation at once points to Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, and feminist theorists as the inspiration for her radical ideas, though she does not use these sources uncritically.
At the outset philosophical debates about art in antiquity are presented, and the story is told of young men (more than) touching a statue of Aphrodite. This introduces the theme of the impulse to touch erotic sculpture. Similarly, libidinous responses are evoked subtly by erotic art and crudely by porn. Wisely, she does not try to formally define either.
As regards Renaissance art, the author relates how Mark Twain called Titian's Venus of Urbino obscene, since he saw her as masturbating, a view with which some art historians came to agree a century later -- though the matter still remains controversial. Dennis shows how geometric perspective and the grid devised by Dürer affected the representation of Renaissance nudes. During the Enlightenment erotic art which stimulates the imagination flourished, particularly in France, and she exemplifies this with 'The Swing' a painting by Fragonard, in which a woman is pushed from behind by ha figure she calls the husband; at the same time her genitals are exposed to her lover hiding in the bushes in front. That is what later in photography became known as the 'beaver shot'.
According to Dennis, the invention of photography in mid-19th century produced a transformation, by extending the market for pictures from elites to the bourgeoisie and beyond, though photography was not initially accepted as art. It also saw the rise of porn photography, with models who were usually working class women. She might have made the point that it is surely no accident that the use of the term 'pornography' dates back to the same period. A number of such images are reproduced, and some have curious features, such as a model's clearly visible blackish soles from the dirty floor. The consumers were mainly bourgeois males, who were anxious to protect their women from such sights. This attitude lasted a long time, as shown by an experience of this reviewer at Pompey in the 1960s, before most of the exhibits had been removed to a museum. One building housed 'obscene' pictures, and a colleague was not allowed to enter in spite of her furious protests.
In the 20th century the scene moves to USA where Playboy was eclipsed by Hustler in the frankness of its pictorial content, and reactions of liberals, feminists, and others to such issues are discussed. Then came porn on the internet, widely accepted across society. In a recent expenses scandal at the British Parliament, it emerged that one woman Member had claimed expenses for the hire of a porn
video! The author shows how internet porn has itself produced new forms of art, and in a last chapter she critically discusses the New York Museum of Sex. This latter part, being more narrowly localized, tends to be less instructive.
The writing is densely packed, but not obscure. The work sparkles with fresh ideas, many of them admittedly speculative; and the overall drift of the argument is readily accessible to non-specialists. Moreover, it is lavishly illustrated and can be recommended to anyone interested in the historical context of the fuzzy boundary between erotic art and pornography.
© 2010 Gustav Jahoda
Gustav Jahoda, Ph.D. is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. His main fields of interest are cross-cultural and social psychology, especially the development of social cognition. He is the author of A History of Social Psychology (Cambridge University Press).