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Erotic and Pornographic Art: Lesbian  
 
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Lesbians who want to produce erotic art for the enjoyment of other lesbians face a unique set of problems. Until very recently the world of European "high" art was the exclusive preserve of men, both as producers and consumers, and this was especially so for erotic imagery.

The exclusion of women artists and the lack of female patrons continue to shape the fine arts today, and lesbian erotic art in particular. For example, the continuing male domination of art schools means, simply, that there are fewer gifted lesbian artists. This may be one reason why lesbian erotic art is dominated by photography, where a set of technical skills may be easily mastered without admission to art school.

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The Mystery of Female Desire

For centuries, female sexuality in European culture was policed and repressed with extraordinary rigor. Inevitably the imagery, codes, and signifying systems of erotic art were developed by men (whatever their sexual preference) to arouse other men. One legacy of this repression is that far less is known about the history of female desire than about male desire; another is that women's desire remains relatively mysterious even today.

The commercial failure of soft porn magazines aimed at heterosexual women suggests that there is widespread ignorance about what arouses women, and a substantial body of sexological research suggests that this ignorance extends to women themselves.

Considering that lesbians are subject to even more severe sexual suppression than non-lesbian women, it is remarkable that so much lesbian erotica has been produced in so brief a time.

The Male Gaze

Many influential commentators follow John Berger in arguing that centuries of gender inequality in wealth, status, and sexual autonomy mean that while men are free to look, evaluate, and choose sexual partners, women's sexuality is restricted to narcissistic self-evaluation in order to attract men.

In the shorthand of cultural studies, "the gaze is male." This belief makes it difficult to conceive of pornography for anything other than a male audience, of whatever sexuality. Moreover, the routine use of girl-on-girl imagery for male titillation, whether in old master oil paintings of classical mythology or "lesbo" centerfolds in top-shelf men's magazines, makes it particularly difficult for lesbians to achieve a sense of ownership of sexually explicit lesbian art.

Before the development of photography only a minority of wealthy men had access to intentionally arousing images, but rapid developments in the reproduction and dissemination of visual material, especially via the internet, means that most individuals in industrialized nations will be familiar with the semiotic codes of male sexuality.

Lesbian erotic art, therefore, has to choose whether to adopt these codes or to construct some kind of alternative erotic language.

Production of Erotic Art by Lesbians for Lesbians

The production of erotic art by lesbians for lesbians is relatively recent, and depended on women achieving some kind of economic independence. The wealthy lesbians of the "Left Bank," for example, were only able to live as they chose because of their class privilege.

Although the conventions of the time meant that they produced little that may be thought of as erotica, the lesbian artists who flocked to Paris in the 1920s and 1930s did begin to develop an iconography that reflected their own sexual culture. The paintings and drawings of Romaine Brooks and Djuna Barnes' ink drawings in the style of Beardsley, for example, breathe a self-consciously "perverse" eroticism that fitted in well with contemporary notions of what it meant to be a lesbian.

Thirty years later the Argentine-born lesbian surrealist Leonor Fini painted a world from which men are excluded (although their body parts sometimes appear in parcels or glass cauldrons) and in which lesbian sex is presented with electric intensity. Hers are among the earliest images that may appropriately be termed lesbian erotic art and her 1966 painting of women making love in a train, Le Long du Chemin, remains probably the most widely known erotic image painted by a lesbian.

Lesbian Feminist Art

The "second wave" of feminism after World War II gave rise to a trenchant critique of the sexual objectification of women. Many lesbian artists went to great lengths to produce images that would celebrate the naked female body without recourse to the conventions of male pornography.

Monica Sjoo in England and Sudie Rakusin in the United States are in this tradition. Both celebrate lesbian identity by producing stylized images of female archetypes. Although some feminist critics argue that artistic ability is a patriarchal concept that should be ignored, the work produced by Sjoo and Rakusin is so weak aesthetically that it never made much of an impact outside small lesbian-feminist communities.

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