Above: The Cock (Kiss), 2002, chromogenic development print, Wolfgang Tillmans (b. 1968), Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Where does the line fall between erotic art and pornography? It's a question that has never been easy to answer. Today, work that we consider chocolate-box pretty, like a nude by Edgar Degas, was berated as obscene in the artist's day. What would his detractors have made of, say, a photograph by Wolfgang Tillmans, like The Cock (Kiss) from 2002, in which two young men suck face? Or anything by Tom of Finland?
Tommies Bathing, 1918, watercolor and graphite on white wove paper, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Both Tillmans and Tom of Finland are included in The Art of the Erotic, a ravishing new book from Phaidon that celebrates the long line of artists who have understood that sensuality is to art as salt is to eggs. Yet for much of that history the male form had to be appreciated by stealth, often in religious paintings and tableaux that fetishized the musculature of saints. It's only in the past 100 years that you could find a work like Paul Cadmus's Jerry (1931), in which the American artist portrays his lover (and fellow American painter) Jared French lying tantalizingly in bed. (The inclusion in the painting of Ulysses by James Joyce is deliberate--the book was banned in the U.S. at the time for its sexual content).
Querelle, c. 1982, silkscreen inks on paper, Andy Warhol (1928-1987), private collection
But even Cadmus could not be entirely open. Of the circle of gay artists he mixed with, he once said, "The word 'homosexual' was never used; they just said, 'He's an artist.' And artists were forgiven a lot." Cadmus would go on to influence other gay artists of the 20th century, including Robert Mapplethorpe and David Hockney, who were free to be more pointed about their sexual orientation. Of all artists, Mapplethorpe perhaps comes closest to blurring the line between the erotic and the pornographic, but although suffused with sex, his images have an emotional resonance that takes readers outside of the frame.
Jerry, 1931, oil on canvas, by Paul Cadmus (1904-1999), Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio
To quote Rowan Pelling, from his introduction, "Eroticism is as much about what we do not see or know, as what we do. It prompts us to wonder about the dynamic between the creator and the subject, the finished work and the viewer who stands and gazes at its revelations and is very probably aroused by it. In other words, erotic art engages the imagination; it teases and seduces the viewer with all manner of mystery."