From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
- "Erotic" redirects here. For the art genre, see Erotica.
Eroticism is an aesthetic focus on sexual desire, especially the feelings of anticipation of sexual activity. It is not only the state of arousal and anticipation, but also the attempt through whatever means of representation to incite those feelings.
As French novelist Honoré de Balzac stated in The Physiology of Marriage, eroticism is dependent not just upon an individual's sexual morality, but also the culture and time in which an individual resides.
The word "eroticism" is derived from the name of the Greek god of love, Eros. It is conceived as sensual love or the human sex drive (libido). Philosophers and theologians discern three kinds of love: eros, philia, and agape. Of the three, eros is considered the most egocentric, focusing on care for the self.
History: The Classical World
'It might seem at first that eroticism is a virtually transhistorical notion, for the erotic has existed at all times and places known to us' (Lynn Hunt). For Western society, however, Ancient Greek philosophy’s overturning of mythology defines in many ways our understanding of the heightened aesthetic sense in eroticism and the question of sexuality. Eros was after all the primordial god of unhinged sexual desire in addition to heteroeroticism, which is the yearning of sexual desire from the opposite sex. In the Platonic ordered system of ideal forms, Eros corresponds to the subject's yearning for ideal beauty and finality. It is the harmonious unification not only between bodies, but between knowledge and pleasure. Eros takes an almost transcendent manifestation when the subject seeks to go beyond itself and form a communion with the objectival other: 'the true order of going...to the things of love, is to use the beauties of earth as steps...to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair actions, and from fair actions to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty' (Lynn Hunt).
Modernist notions: Bataille
Modern conceptions of eroticism can be traced to The Enlightenment, when 'in the eighteenth century, dictionaries defined the erotic as that which concerned love...eroticism was the intrusion into the public sphere of something that was at base private' (Hunt, ibid). The theme of intrusion or transgression was taken up in the twentieth century by the French philosopher Georges Bataille, who argued in an influential work of that name that eroticism performs a function of dissolving boundaries between human subjectivity and humanity, a transgression that dissolves the rational world but is always temporary. It is something disruptive and disorderly. (L'Erotisme) 'Desire in eroticism is the desire that triumphs over the taboo. It presupposes man in conflict with himself'(L'Erotisme). For Bataille, 'Eroticism, unlike simple sexual activity, is a psychological quest...eroticism is assenting to life even in death'(L'Erotisme).
Bataille's (dissident) twist on 'the surrealist...emphasis on eros - on love conceived in the broadest sense as life affirmation and creativity...erotic in the large sense or eros as opposed to thanatos' was to prove very influential for subsequent critical theory, with its 'revival of Bataille and the dissident surrealists among a host of French and American critics'. Thus for example 'the sinister eroticism of Georges Bataille...is in its turn not without influence on Lacan's views on female sexuality' - Lacan married Bataille's first wife, and 'indeed, reading Lacan's early seminars one often feels that they are written in continuous dialogue with Bataille'
'For Kristeva, the importance of Bataille is his awareness of the interdependency between systems of power and the limits of the body', which the erotic experience exposes.
An objection to eros and erotic representation is that it fosters a subject/object relationship in which the object of desire is a mere projection of the needs of the desiring subject, so that women 'were still more often the object of the artist's or writer's gaze than they were the subjects of their own representing processes' (Hunt, Eroticism and the Body Politic). Love as eros is considered more base than philia (friendship) or agape (self-sacrificing love). But female complicity in the male gaze cannot be ignored - 'some profound, masochistic will to self-objectification (evident, at a superficial level, in a woman's desire to make herself into a sex object)...doll-like affectations, narcissistic displays of isolated parts of the body, and the faked orgasm are just so many modalities of this essentially artificial sexuality'. Erotic engagement paradoxically individuates and de-individuates the desirer; and 'eroticism itself remains ambiguous: it is at once the domain of women's mastery by men and...the domain of women's mastery over men' (Hunt, ibid).
The third kind of love, physio, is directly related with the amount of sex drive that the brain feels upon encountering an erotic moment.
Problems of definition
Some believe defining eroticism may be difficult since perceptions of what is erotic fluctuate. For example, a voluptuous nude painting by Peter Paul Rubens could have been considered erotic when it was created for a private patron in the 17th century. Similarly in the United Kingdom and United States, and many other nations, D. H. Lawrence's sexually explicit novel Lady Chatterley's Lover was considered obscene and unfit for publication and circulation thirty years after it was completed in 1928, but may now be part of standard literary school texts in some areas. In a different context, a sculpture of a phallus in Africa may be considered a traditional symbol of potency though not overtly erotic. Such examples 'demonstrate the difficulty of drawing...a clear generic demarcation between the erotic and the pornographic': indeed arguably 'the history of the separation of pornography from eroticism...remains to be written'(Hunt, ibid).
- History of erotic depictions
- Erotic art
- Human sexuality
- Love magic
- Romantic love
- Sexual arousal
- Sexual fantasy