Art does not exist in a vacuum; art stripped of its social and political context is stripped of much, if not all, of its meaning. Pressing this thesis, together with arguing the case for the “transformative powers” of transgressive, erotic art, are the principle tasks Alyce Mahon set herself in writing Eroticism & Art. And Mahon, University Senior Lecturer in the History of Art at the University of Cambridge, does both with a passion and flair that in no way detract from her exemplary scholarship.
Ultimately, this book is testimony to the futility, the foolishness or the deceit of any attempt to divorce art and its “formal concerns” from the sociopolitical context of its time, as the modern Western discipline of art criticism has “tended” to do. It is, as the author states categorically, “an impossible divide” – and we have modernist “representations of the erotic body” to thank for making this clear.
Mahon locates the work at hand – that is, modern Western art since the mid-nineteenth century – in wider historical and cultural contexts, and she cogently maps a developing
willingness to engage with erotic themes and ever more transgressive subject matter. For example: “As the twentieth century began, sexual transgression in art became an increasingly common motif. Artists turned to the erotic body as a means of addressing a whole gamut of personal and political questions… A burgeoning avantgarde defied bourgeois conservatism in Europe between the two World Wars by using sexual obscenity as a metaphor for political obscenity.” Immediately after World War Two, the Surrealists “continued to call for sexual and political revolution through the erotic”, and in the 1960s “the explicit body was used as a symbol for and an agent of political dissent”.
Presenting her narrative chronologically – so as not to lose “the sense of the historical and political trajectory and agency of the erotic in art” – Mahon then effortlessly carries her study through postmodernism and into the early twenty-first century. The result is a flowing treatise entirely congruous with her argument that “eroticism has not been marginal but central to the history of art as a whole”, and that the erotic body in particular is “a disputed
terrain that allows artists to ask some of the most difficult questions at critical moments in our history”. This also enables us to see that “erotic art reveals the tensions between the individual’s artistic and sexual freedom on the one hand, and the ambitions and anxieties of society on the other”.
In treating these themes, Mahon places great significance on the “battle” between Eros, the life drive, as represented by the erotic, and its opposite, Thanatos, the death drive, as represented by the dark side of desire. This is an important element in her theoretical structure – and she is by no means venturing onto a limb, as art critic and historian Michèle Cone sums up a consensus: “scholars...seem to concur that with modernity, death becomes inseparable from eroticism”.1
Such subject matter could easily prove intolerably dense in the hands of an insensitive academic – alas, as is too often the case – but Alyce Mahon is that rare specimen inhabiting the academy: one who can write well. She has produced a book that, precisely because it is lucid and a joy to read, fascinates as it educates. The narrative moves all but seamlessly from one