Interdisciplinary lessons and teamwork skills

To have worked on our TAD project – interlacing art, sexuality, and theories on perception – has taught me quite a few lessons on interdisciplinarity. These three domains, indeed, are by essence interdisciplinary by the fact that they intertwine cultural history, theology, sociology, but also psychology and the cognitive sciences; an accurate picture of the perception of sexuality in art at a certain time and place necessarily requiring an engagement with all and in-between all of these disciplinary fields.

This interdisciplinary requirement did not go without issues, to say the least: for a five minute presentation, we had to condense all of this varied material in a few disciplinarily intertwined ideas. This may be the biggest challenge of an interdisciplinary study and a Liberal Arts analysis in general – the one of juggling with this tsunami of information and having the eye to only select and keep the essential ideas or illustrations for your overall argument. This in turn, of course, pre-requires structure, focus and an understanding of what precisely is aimed to be argued.

On another note, to have worked with a group on that task was also deeply enriching. To the trans-disciplinarity of our study was, in a challenging way, added the trans-subjective perspectives that we each had on art (how to analyze it), sexuality (the extent of its freedom) and spectatorial subjectivity (is it absolutely relative or moderately relative in relation to a specific culture?). This invited us to open our minds, be flexible and make concessions – to put into question what previously seemed evident to us. This is a crucial vulnerability to accept, as in the working world, conceptual and intellectual diversity and adversity will always prevail and challenge our preconceptions.

The ultimate difficulty of working as a group, quite obviously, was also to coordinate, organize, and autonomously fulfill our self-made tasks and deadlines. We had to work as a team in making choices and thereafter make a plan as to how and when to get to certain goals. For instance, when we decided that we each had to find a particular case study at the beginning of the semester, before the next time we would meet. In this, the use of social media was very useful – WhatsApp, with its ability to mention specific members of the group or reply directly to messages (as well as send images, voice messages, documents) was a great tool with which we can undeniably work on a group project later on in the professional area. It was also a place in which questions could be asked and brainstormings could be made, without the necessity to meet in persons.

In conclusion, by interlacing teamwork with interdisciplinarity, this final Liberal Arts module clearly taught us two vital skills to use in professional life, both within the scope of our undergraduate teaching and extra to it, within the scope of social and organizational life.

Preliminary Plan of Presentation

This is the plan and backbone, for the moment, of our presentation for next Monday:


Title – Ways of Seeing: fragmented perceptions of sexuality in art through the ages



-> Start from Berger’s idea – what he says and what we do with it (let him introduce the work)

-> Perception is inherently fragmented in both subject and context (expanding on his argument)

—> Sexuality in particular: basic fact of human life, but governed by religious and moral codes

-> makes it particularly apt to be artistically represented in a fragmented manner (perception)


3 Objects: representative of their particular time and context

-> Contemporary Instagram as a concluding, contextualizing thought

Why these? – go well with Berger’s ideas of Nudity, Mystification and Reproduction (they exemplify them)

-> It’s also that they provide diversity: extra-European example of Japanese Shunga art (beyond Berger); at the end an example of contemporary representation insta of sexuality will also be provided 

—> Provides a fragmented approach


Then – jump strait to the case study 

-> touch beyond history – psychology, cognition

-> ideas and concepts that are beyond Berger’s Ways of Seeing

—> These ideas as a side note, to be eventually discussed during questions


Conclusion – present time internet

-> decentralization in space – static images that travel around the word

-> active engagement of the audience with works

-> making money on digital reproduction

—> Speaks to critical theory, gender studies 


Dress up? To decide at the end


A Bergerian analysis of Utamakura

In Berger’s view, artworks can only truly be understood and interpreted through their socio-historical context, which implies that to analyse a work of art one has to put himself in the shoes of the spectator at the time and place. What is needed is thus primordially a historical contextualization, even if drawing more universal ideas about artistic representation is as much important. 

Three Bergerian ideas can be interesting in analyzing the Shunga work of Utamakura: spectatorship bias, devaluation of copy and the female nude.

In John Berger’s view, ‘what we see is always influenced by a multitude of assumptions we hold about such things as beauty, form, class, taste, and gender’. In the same way, spectatorship of Kitagawa Utamaro’s Utamakura was influenced by a certain aesthetic of beauty – that of explicit nudity, sexual idealization, and, most interestingly, mutual pleasure; both man an woman enjoying their sexual intercourse as can be seen with their smiles and the fact that the woman character bits the cheek of her partner. Despite a strictly patriarchal society, this can be explained by an absence of judo-christian moral on female corruption (no equivalent shinto or buddhist myth of the original sin), but maybe also more simply, I would say, due to a stronger erotic effect of representation woman sexual pleasure – erotic arousal was at the basis of Shunga art and one of its objective.

Inspired by Walter Benjamin’s essay 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, John Berger argues that the aura of a work of art is devalued by mechanical reproduction. This applies well to Utamakura, or “Poem of the pillow”, which was part of a 12-pages printed illustrated book. Published in 1788, this book was thus copied multiple times and became, as for the book, a rather elitist object, and as one sole drawing itself, a more popular and democratized art work. This necessarily de-sacralized the initial drawing and transformed it to mere “copies”, even if in Japan there might have not been such a fetishism for the pure, “initial”, and original object. In Berger’s view, ‘ways of looking at art have been utterly changed by the development of mechanical means of producing and reproducing images’; this is the case for post-industrial and capitalistic Europe, but also certainly the case for Edo period Japan, in which ukiyo-e and shunga woodblock painting flourished in massively copying the initial woodblock inscription, becoming ‘commercial products’. 

Finally, however, the idea Bergerian idea of the passive female nude is questioned and challenged by Utamakura and shunga art in general, as the woman is most often portrayed as an active agent of her sexuality – in Utamakura as in others, the woman is portrayed as independent and assertive more than as an ‘object to please their male-oriented audience’. Pleasing the audience was for sure a goal of the painting, but this was not done so by the objectification of woman and its subordination of man – in fact, it sometimes appear to be that the man itself is submitted to giving pleasure to woman, as in famous Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s shunga painting of a woman having a sexual relation and seemingly deep pleasure with an octopus. Woman and her sexual pleasure may have been seen at the centre of sexual intercourse by spectators at the time.

In this way, John Berger’s analytical limit comes out through the study of Japanese Shunga art: he did not pay attention to extra-European and non-western artworks for his observations. In Japanese artworks, and eventually in various non-European ones, nakedness never seem ‘supine’ in a European way. While Berger’s achievement was to start a process of deeply questioning art works, I myself will attempt to question his spatio-temporal limitations and eventually marxist assumptions (as to mechanistic copying, which isn’t necessarily de-valutating). 

Perspective on sexuality is inherently fragmented, and what is important is to always keep in mind the different, sometimes contrary perceptions that a certain public and spectator may have had at the time of the work in regards to us – an outlook which ultimately transforms the piece as it is the spectator, not the author, who truly makes its meaning. 

Cited: Berger, John, Ways of Seeing, Penguin Books (1973).

Shunga erotic art Japanese Sexuality at the time of Edo

For the moment, my main argument goes on like this:

The artistic representation of Japanese sexuality in the Edo period, shunga, despite its illustration of liberated and de-complexed sexual mores that the Japanese urban culture experienced at that time, also suggests a certain fragmentation with the reality of the phenomenon, as it essentially was made in the purpose to entertain, excite and thus was more a fantasizing of sexual intercourses than a realist depiction of it.

To give some context, here is some of the research I have collected on the subject (mainly in Shunga – Erotic Art from Japan by Rosina Buckland (British Museum):

Society and Culture in the Tokugawa period: ‘With the dynastys rise to power after a century of civil warfare, a new era of peace and political stability created the conditions for economic and cultural development’ (17). There was three urban centers at the time, the “three capitals”: ‘Edo, the seat of government, Kyoto, the imperial capital, and Osaka, the trading centre’ (17). Shunga as depicting Chonin (townspeople) edonism: ‘the sophisticated urbanite was proud of his identity as an Edokko (“child of Edo”), a playboy who lived for pleasure, earning money to spend it heedless on tomorrow’ (21) – it was ‘Alternative to staid neo-Confucian order and morality’. (21)

Relations to sexuality that are historically profoundly rooted: ‘Phallic worship, with its veneration of the generative power of the penis, and the wider association with fertility and crop harvests, held an important place in the form of worship now known as Shinto, based on animist beliefs’ (12) – thus part of the ancient philosophy and religion of Japan. Confirmed by the arrival of Buddhism, when it came to Japan in the 6th Century: ‘the image of the sexual union was used to illustrate cosmic principles’. (12)

Escapist use of art: ‘Erotic pictures in Japan were used by both men and women across the social spectrum for sexual stimulation, as escapism, and as visions of sexual fantasies’ (13) – escape from reality and a fantasizing of it which is at the foundation of the art.

Another source that I use is Cartographies of Desire: Male – Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600-1950 by Gregory M. Pfulgfelder (1999); This one is more interesting in terms of gender relations that the Japanese middle class had in the Edo-period.

My case study will be Kitagawa Utamaro’s “poem of the pillow” or Utamakura, which depicts two lovers having mutual pleasure in their sexual intercourse. The painter is a famous artist of ukiyo-e paintings, or “floating-images” – the most famous art form depicting the growing middle-class and urban life of Edo period Japan, notably in woodblock paintings. It is part of a 12-page illustrated book published in 1788.

The subject is rather interdisciplinary, first of all because it concerns art, which necessarily is, but also because sexuality is something inherent to culture and as such to religion, philosophy and even politics, social norms, …

The challenge will be to narrow all of the content I can find on Japanese Edo-period culture and artistic content into a 5 minutes presentation – interdisciplinary, quite obviously, looses one in an even bigger ocean of information to which the selection becomes more difficult. Having an angle on sexuality will of course ease my case but I will necessarily need to cover the main points of the cultural mores that are behind it. For the moment they include religious morals, social norms, political laws and gender relations.

Project General Idea

After discussing between peers, we decided our general topic to be on the perception of sexuality through time and the ethics behind it, through artistic works.

In this way we come to define fragmentation as the division/contrast between the artistic representation and the historical reality of a certain time and place.

We are each divided into four different time-periods and geographical area: Ancient Greece, Japanese’ Edo period, European Middle Ages, post-internet America (from 2000s) – for the moment.

We will develop further with time.