Your guide to sexuality in art

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Sexuality, gender, and reproductive rights affect vast parts of our lives, so it’s no wonder that they feature so heavily in the art we consume. Whether in movies, music, photography, or literature, sexuality has always been among the most familiar artists’ muses. Regardless of the type of art you enjoy, sex and sexuality likely come up more often than you even notice. From Beat culture to Sarah Bahbah, we’re going to delve into how art brings sexuality into pop culture.

We’ve spoken to Bawdy Intimate founder, Sylwia Wiesenberg, to find out who her favorite artists are and how their work tackles sexuality. As well as unpacking what sexuality is and why it’s essential to artists the world over. 

What is the link between art and sexuality?

“The entire MET Museum is proof of artists’ obsession with human bodies and human sexuality. From Picasso to Jeff Koons and David LaChapelle,” Sylwia tells us. Indeed, artists have depicted human bodies and sex acts pretty much since the dawn of time. Literally. One of the oldest pieces of art that are thought to represent sex is over 11,000 years old. 

Why the obsession with the subject? That’s probably more of a philosophical issue than anything else. The saying’ art reflects life’ may be relevant here. However, the Freudian school of thought would likely point toward the prevalence of unresolved trauma among artists. Whatever the reason, the facts show that sexuality is one of the most common topics depicted in art.

Which ancient cultures celebrated the beauty of the human body and sexuality in their erotic art?

Many cultures throughout history have celebrated sexuality in art. In Indian art, for example, the body and sexuality were the focus of many ancient artists. In fact, this interest in sexuality even influenced language: “Sanskrit has more than a hundred words and phrases to describe beauty, loveliness and attraction, a large proportion of which are connected with sexuality. The centrality of body‑based imagery in inscriptions and literary texts is overwhelming,” William Dalrymple told the Guardian.

Sexuality and eroticism were also the focus of many ancient Greek artists - to the extent that some described the era as the ‘reign of the Phallus.’ Classics professor Eva C. Keuls explained, “the phallus was pictured everywhere in ancient Athens: painted on vases, sculpted in marble, held aloft in gigantic form in public processions, and shown in stage comedies.”

How does sexuality show through in the art we consume every day?

One of the art forms we come across every day is music. “Music plays a huge part in our culture how we view sex, body parts and how we feel about each other,” Sylwia told us. Research has shown that almost three-quarters of all music videos contain some kind of sexual content or explicit lyrics. Seriously. Sexuality in art is all around us, from music videos to adverts. The reality is that sex sells.

Brands often use sexual imagery to sell their products and think American Apparel or Dior’s J’adore adverts. Researchers estimate that 20% of adverts feature sexual imagery. “Sex sells because it attracts attention. People are hardwired to notice sexually relevant information, so ads with sexual content get noticed,” Tom Reichert, head of the UGA Department of Advertising and Public Relations, told Business News Daily.

What about sexuality and art in contemporary times?

From Kerouak’s On The Road, written in the 50s, to O’Keffee’s suggestive flowers painted in the early 1900s, sexuality has been a cornerstone in many celebrated artists’ work. In current times, we come across art and sexuality every day, both online and offline. The reality is, that whenever you scroll through social media, chances are you will come across posts that are exploring the links between art and sexuality.

One of the artists at the forefront of exploring sexuality in art online is photographer Sarah Bahbah. Her photo series Sex & Takeout features some of the most popular pictures on Instagram and Pinterest, including a portrait of a woman laying naked on a bed holding a piece of pizza. In turn, filmmaker Gaspar Noé’s Love and Climax explore modern relationships and the role sex plays within those relationships. 

Who’s work should you explore if you want to learn more about sexuality in art?

We asked Sylwia for her favorite artists who explore topics of sexuality. Here are her top three picks:

  • Pedro Almodovar - Law of Desire, film (1987). TimeOut says, “Film director Pablo (Poncela) meets a young man named Antonio (Banderas) and takes him home. The sex, Antonio’s first time with a man, is a lighthearted affair that sets in motion a much tenser series of events.”
  • Paul Verhoeven - Benedetta, film (2021). The New York Times says of the piece: “Verhoeven takes us to a nunnery where faith, eroticism and the Black Death make for an unholy good time.”
  • Picasso - Blue Nude, painting (1902). Blue Nude was painted in 1902 after one of his friends tragically passed away. He mourned his friend’s death for a long time, during which he went through a depressive episode. The picture depicts a silhouette, painted from behind, with textured shadows depicting inner turmoil.