On Wednesday, 30 November 2016, Café des Arts hosted their second event of the Michaelmas term – the Erotic Art in Culture seminar. While some artistic depictions or descriptions of nudity and/or sexual intimacy may originally have been intended as ‘erotic,’ others may be mislabelled on the basis of contemporary mindsets. The ‘Erotic Art in Culture’ seminar brought together both postgraduate researchers and faculty from Durham University in order to explore the interpretations of erotic artwork from both modern and historical perspectives.
The idea for the seminar arose from an ongoing discussion between the graduate students and faculty at Brandeis University. As a student of Classics and Archaeology, I spent a lot of time engaged in courses related to the archaeology of the Bay of Naples. As a result of this, I encountered some fascinating scholarly arguments on Roman wall painting. From the scenes of daily life to mythology, we have been given a narrow glimpse into the lives of Romans in the first century BCE and CE. The wall paintings that illustrated scenes of bathing, nudity, and sexual intimacy, however, were of interest particularly. While some of the images were certainly once considered ‘erotic,’ others have been – and may still be – mislabelled as such due to the way in which archaeological materials are analysed. The theme from the earlier dialogue was expanded upon to allow a wider culture discussion about such artwork from different periods and cultures throughout history.
The ‘Erotic Art’ in Culture seminar brought together several speakers from Durham University to talk about their academic forays into the erotic – Professor Elizabeth Archibald, Dr. William McKenzie, and Ms. Iris Ordean. Professor Elizabeth Archibald, from the Department of English Studies, discussed the popular practice of bathing throughout Western Europe in the later Middle Ages. While our previous scholarly knowledge on bathing has been taken from literature, poems, and archaeological materials, the artwork of the time period has given us one of the best forms of evidence for the popularity of the practise. As exemplified by Professor Archibald, the scenes of bathing are “remarkably frank” and nudity did not seem scandalous or controversial, even in biblical depictions.
Dr. William McKenzie, from the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, explored the more recent productions of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. The performance was originally published in the early seventeenth century, but some contemporary directors and set-designers have staged the play in a pornographic fashion. In his talk, Dr. McKenzie argued that Measure for Measure exposed the “liberated contemporary categories of the pornographic as catastrophically simplistic.” In addition, Measure for Measure brings together God, law, and sex in a way that “modern eroticism” cannot envision, illustrating “forms of passionate desire” that current cultures have forgotten and or have yet to discover.
Ms. Iris Ordean, a Durham Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar from the School of Modern Languages and Culture, discussed the history and cultural practice of shibari – Japanese Rope Bondage. The custom of shibari was originally intended as a method of torture, but has gradually transitioned into a form of erotic practice and performance over time. The nawashi, the “architect of the human installation,” ties and unties parts of a human body in order to keep a person in a constant state of movement. Ms. Ordean investigated the “spiritual experience” that the people involved in shibarishare and further inquired into the “performative nature” of the practice.
On behalf of Café des Arts, I would like to extend an appreciative thanks to the speakers who made the Erotic Art in Culture seminar possible – Professor Elizabeth Archibald, Dr. William McKenzie, and Ms. Iris Ordean. Some special thanks also to the other members of Café des Arts – James O’ Neill, Rafaella Brozou, and Nino Makasarashvili – as well as Jacqueline You, from the Ustinov Intercultural Forum, for the assistance provided during the Erotic Art in Culture seminar.