Carissa Ray  /  MSNBC.com
At the Seattle Erotic Art Festival in mid-March, Josh Robertson studies the photograph "Stockings" by artist Nick Chapman.
By msnbc.com contributor
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/3/2007 6:22:50 PM ET 2007-04-03T22:22:50

Forty years ago, a key Supreme Court case with a Kafka-esque name, United States v. Ten Erotic Paintings, put works of some of the great modern artists of Europe on trial. Seventeen years ago, an exhibit of the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe in Cincinnati wound up getting a museum curator arrested on obscenity charges. He was later acquitted. Five years ago, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft failed to see the irony of covering seminude art deco statues in the Justice Department — “Spirit of Justice” and “Majesty of Law” — with giant blue drapes reminiscent of burkas as American troops were fighting against the Taliban.

Now, though, more and more Americans are voting with their feet and their dollars to say they appreciate a painting that may at first look like fresh cherries but when you stare long enough, becomes an image of kinky sex.

Just such a painting was part of the Seattle Erotic Art Festival, considered the top such festival in the country, in March and one of a growing list of erotic art fairs, festivals, galleries and exhibitions spreading throughout the United States and abroad.   

The Seattle event followed Detroit's Dirty Show in February. Recent exhibits have been held in seemingly unlikely places such as Tulsa, Okla. A 5-year-old New York gallery, Art at Large, that features erotic art is doing “astonishing” business, claims co-owner Pet Silvia. In two weeks, starting April 13, the Second Annual Kinsey Institute Juried Erotic Art Show will open at the Kinsey Institute on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington, and run through July 20. Other erotic art shows, exhibits and fairs are scheduled all spring and summer in the U.S. and Europe.

“The trend is upward now,” says Catherine Johnson-Roehr, curator of the Kinsey gallery. “It is something that, judging from our visitors, is becoming more acceptable and a thing that appeals to a wider range of people.” Despite very little advertising, “we were kind of amazed at the response to our show.”     

Not only is the audience growing, but the range of artists making the works is growing, too. Johnson-Roehr says the gallery “had a huge number of submissions,” so organizers had to double the number of pieces to display and expand the space into the hallway outside the main gallery.

More mainstream appeal
According to Allena Gabosch, a director of the Seattle festival, some 2,500 people attended the three-day event, held in a large nightclub called Fenix. Many paid an admission fee ranging from $5 to $20, or $40 to attend the auction night. There, works sold for upwards of $1,600.

“Sunday afternoon, people looked like they just came from church,” Gabosch recalls. “That was great. When we first started, the tendency was to be overly fetish, to appeal to those groups. Now we have gone out of our way to create an atmosphere with themes like ‘Gods and Goddesses of Eros,’ or this year’s ‘Art Noir.’ We had people showing up in suits from the 1940s! We had some zoot suits!”

The fact is, erotic visual arts are now mainstream enthusiasms. You could argue they have always been so.

Erotic art was one of mankind’s first handicrafts. Sexually charged works like the famed "Venus of Willendorf" date from the Paleolithic period. The sexually explicit carvings on the Shiva temple in central Katmandu are the city’s most popular tourist attraction. Lately (in historical terms), though, we’ve spent an awful lot of time arguing about sexy art.

“Edward Manet’s ‘Olympia’ was the porn of its day,” argues Silvia of Manet’s 1863 oil painting of a reclining nude. Now it hangs in the Louvre and is considered a transformational masterpiece, but at the time of its first showing, it created a scandal.

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Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Grey Line with Black, Blue and Yellow,” an abstract painting that looks very much like a close-up of female genitalia, could be considered more erotic than any image in a skin magazine. 

Art or obscenity?
Nobody can say exactly what erotic art is. Some works can be brutally explicit, some fadingly subtle. Silvia says many artists actually reject the label for that reason and because “erotic art” can carry kitschy undertones. “We call it ‘art that excites.’ It touches our groin in some fashion.”

Touching the groin is exactly what the Supreme Court feared when it tried to define obscenity — it still hasn’t found a workable definition — in the 1957 decision Roth v. United States. “Obscene material is material which deals with sex in a manner appealing to prurient interest — i. e., material having a tendency to excite lustful thoughts,” wrote Justice William J. Brennan, Jr.

“Look,” Gabosch says, “a peach with dew on it can be erotic. Just because it’s naked does not make it erotic. Every year we have jury, and every year [the works] are different.”

For Genevive Zacconi, a young artist in Philadelphia, “erotic” is a problematic description.

“I do not fall neatly into a genre," she says. "Some of my work is erotic and people say, ‘Oh, there’s a hot girl.’ But I mean to make you think about the psychology behind sex. You are meant to talk about the chemistry between men and women, the social games we play. So yes, I have been called an erotic artist and that is true, but I am not always making paintings that are supposed to get you turned on. I want to get you thinking.”

Silvia believes a new crop of young people like Zacconi are the first generation since the 1800s to be utterly fearless in making erotic art based on low-brow culture and what they glean from pop culture. It’s paid off for Zacconi, a former stripper. In addition to selling works for as much as $5,000, she also co-owns the Trinity Gallery in Philadelphia.

“Everything has avalanched in the past few years,” she says. So much so she plans to cut back her time in the gallery. “I just can’t produce paintings as fast as I am selling them.”

Brian Alexander, a California-based freelance writer and contributing editor for Glamour magazine, is working on a new book about sex for Harmony, an imprint of Crown Publishing.

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