A sudden thought, not fully thought through…
In the 1890s-1900s, the yôga (洋画、”Western-style painting”) movement gained strength. The concept of the nude as an aesthetic, artistic subject was introduced into Japan after a number of artists including Kuroda Seiki and Yamamoto Hôsui returned from studying painting in Paris. As Penelope Mason states in her History of Japanese Art (2nd ed; 2005, p374), “it was considered pornographic – a frontal female nude having never before been a subject for public display.”
Is this not the same thing, happening in reverse, today, as various voices speak out against certain works of Japanese contemporary art, and against manga & anime in general?
RIGHT: “Morning Toilette”, 1893, by Kuroda Seiki. Exhibited in 1895, it was one of the first nudes to be publicly displayed in this way. It was highly controversial, and was called pornography.
Certainly, there is more to it. There is the fact that some manga/anime do portray very overtly pornographic, sexual, scenes, sometimes involving rape, sometimes involving young children…. and the fact that many who speak out against manga & anime fail to recognize that not all manga/anime are like this, just as not all live-action films produced in America are pornos.
And there is the element, which I tend to mention often, but which I may be perhaps making too much of, of differing attitudes towards the appropriateness of showing pubic hair. The Japanese omit it, on account of they consider the overt depiction of pubic hair to be too sexual, too explicit – in short, inappropriate. In fact, I think they may even have laws against depicting it. These images are then seen in the West, where the absence of pubic hair – intentionally absent to make the image “cleaner”, more appropriate, less sexually explicit – is seen as an indication that the figures are pre-pubescent, at which point the work is decried as child pornography.
Not to mention the whole phenomenon of the craze for “cute” in Japan today, something which did not factor in the nudes of ‘classical’ painting traditions.
But, coming back to the original thought – the nude has been accepted in Western art as an aesthetic theme for thousands of years. Certainly, there were long spans of time when there were shifts in attitudes, and ancient Greek & Roman statues were irrevocably damaged in the name of propriety. But, by the turn of the 20th century, and certainly by today, people in the West are perfectly comfortable with the idea of a nude as a set theme in “high” art, and as an aesthetic and non-sexual (in certain contexts) form. The Japanese had trouble adjusting to this idea – they saw nudes and considered them scandalous and pornographic. Then they adapted to the Western view, and from there drifted off again into their own artistic trends and modes, producing works which, to my eye, are often far cleaner, more innocent, than almost anything we see in Western art, yet which are decried as child pornography. Perhaps we, in the West, are simply the ones who are now behind the times, superstitious, and unable or unwilling to see art, that is, asexual aesthetics, as it is intended.