The tedium of artporn

I’ve been experimenting with blog titles to see what makes people click. I thought I’d try a vaguely sex-based one. I expect this will earn me a lot more spam comments offering the latest news on Christian singles in my area.

A few weeks ago Hannah and I went to see the Shunga exhibition at the British Museum. I don’t go to a lot of exhibitions on account of my chronic ‘museum feet’ condition (a painful sensation in the soles of my feet that also tends to flare up in shopping centres and airports). This one, however, promised much. The Independent said it offered ‘the most explicit and brilliant pictures of pleasure ever produced’. Other reviews were also highly complimentary. And there was the usual pontificating about whether was on show was pornographic or art.


A typical shunga drawing. It’s all fairly NSFW stuff.

There were a couple of striking things about the exhibition as a whole. First, there were considerably fewer men in attendance than women. I wasn’t sure what to make of that. A more mature attitude to sex amongst women? Something about the generally empowering messages of shunga art? That Tate Britain was doing an FHM retrospective that same weekend? I don’t know.

Kelly Brook FHM

I could do a whole post on this cover, picked at random from Google. I’ll restrict myself to three things: 1) Why is Kelly wearing two pairs of pants?, 2) My money is on the desert winning, and 3) Phil – it’s gone way beyond sorry I’m afraid.

The second thing was the studied lack of reaction to the material from almost all of the attendees. Other than one animated conversation we overheard about the plusses and minuses of pubic hair, most people shuffled round respectfully, in full library mode. That seemed a shame, because shunga was clearly intended to be funny by the artists. Even the curators were bringing the comedy. Perhaps I’m highly immature (well, there’s no perhaps about it), but if growing up means not laughing out loud at a tapestry caption in a respected institution that describes – and I’m quoting here – a ‘merry fart battle’ that takes place in amongst the orgiastic fun, then I’m afraid I have no intention of growing up.

Merry fart battle

A section of the merry fart battle scroll, with an unlucky cat copping a direct blast.

Unfortunately the exhibition itself was a bit of a disappointment. That’s partly because the story thread running through the pieces was unusually lifeless. The British Museum usually arranges these galleries with a deft genius, drawing you in to the period with stories and well-judged personal touches. Shunga seemed to miss that, leaving lots of questions unanswered. In particular, I wanted to know whether the translation of the artists’ excellent captions used our modern sexual slang for convenience’s sake, or whether words like (I’m sorry) ‘pumped’ meant then as they do now, in impolite conversation.

But my main problem with Shunga was that it all felt a little one-note. There really is a limit – for me at least – to how many vulvas and baguette-like penises one can mentally absorb on an autumnal Sunday afternoon; only so many times one can nod and hmm thoughtfully at mingled silk gowns and ivory ‘widow-comforters’. And while it is undoubtedly beautiful art, filling three rooms full of it accidentally gives it the same repetitive quality as pornography. The guy never fixes the fridge does he?


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