Art From 400 Years Ago Still Shocking Viewers

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Photo: Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images

The exhibition "Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art" at the British Museum in London displays works of shunga, or "spring pictures," that are up to 400 years old. According to the BBC, they remain absolutely shocking to innocent Western eyes. These paintings and prints of people kissing and having sex are “spellbinding, exhilarating and often eye-popping.”

So we must ask, in this delicate year of 2013, can we handle this stuff? Is this what porn is? Who can explain?

Timothy Clark, the exhibition's curator, took it upon himself to field these questions. His statement amounts to ugh, guys, grow up:

Today shunga gets treated like obscene pornography. People who haven’t seen shunga before will be surprised by how explicit it can be. But this is sexually explicit art, not pornography, produced to exactly the same technical perfection as art in other formats by the same people.

Between 1600 and 1900, many Japanese printmakers and painters created shunga, which is, indeed, erotic art. It wasn’t a huge deal. All sorts of people owned this stuff and other people didn't wither, die, or constantly encounter other people howling What the fuck is that shit? The careers of these artists weren't affected. People were like, fine, whatever, sex, cool, okay cool, what else do you got?

Clark says that all this modern shock is modern:

The division between art and obscene pornography is a Western conception. There was no sense in Japan that sex or sexual pleasure was sinful.

Stop putting your divisions on another society. Just act like adults, and stand next to each other at a museum and pretend that you don't think you're looking at porny filth-smut together.

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