Tuesday, 14 September 2010

By viewing this post, you're breaking the law

That's if you're in Britain, that is. In other parts of the world, you may be OK - though probably not. It depends.

This rather worn print, by the early nineteenth century Japanese master Eisen, is currently being offered for sale by Fuji Arts with a starting price of $245. I wouldn't advise you to buy it, though - there might be a problem getting it through customs. Or else the police will knock on your door five minutes after the postman has dropped it through the letterbox.

Eisen is best known for his charming prints of elegant kimono-clad beauties, but in old Japan there was also a lively trade in exquisitely drawn but absolutely filthy pornography, coily known as Shunga ("spring pictures"). Almost all the major artists produced shunga, including the most famous of all, Hokusai, whose Dream of the Fisherman's Wife depicts a woman being groped and orally pleasured by two octopuses.

This one, by contrast, shows a woman trying to juggle the joint attentions of a man and her baby. Sociologically it raises some interesting questions. Were living conditions so cramped in pre-Meiji Edo (now Tokyo) that such scenes were commonplace? Is the woman a prostitute, or is the man her husband? Is the picture intended to be comic, or did Shunga-buyers get off on that sort of thing? (Another picture up for sale on the same site shows a woman receiving cunnilingus from a horse, which is certainly comic. And Hokusai's tentacle porn is just hilarious.) Perhaps there are deeper ideas at play: the baby may be there as a reminder of the possible consequences of the sexual act, or the picture may express male ambivalence about the dual role of woman as mother and lover, or male fear of being usurped by his offspring in the woman's affections. And why does he look so bored?

My purpose here, though, is to draw attention to the probable illegality of the picture under one of New Labour's recent laws. Section 62 of the portmanteau Coroners and Justice Act 2009 (which I discussed here) makes it a criminal offence to be in possession of a pornographic image of a child, however unrealistic, which "is grossly offensive, disgusting or otherwise of an obscene character - which porn is by definition, of course. Being "in possession" includes looking at something on the internet. The offence also (ss 7) covers depictions of "the performance by a person of an act of intercourse or oral sex with or in the presence of a child." That is certainly what is going on here. It's no defence that the work in question is artistic (as the Eisen might possibly be considered to be). "Pornographic" is defined as "produced solely or principally for the purpose of sexual arousal". Art historians agree that that was, indeed, the main purpose of Shunga.

This blog is not hosted in the UK, and I've deleted any versions of the image I may have had briefly on my hard-drive. So I'm safe, I think. But I'm sorry to say you're guilty. Go on, give yourself up. Read the rest of this article