Driven by Desire

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The urge to represent sexual activity is as old as the artistic impulse itself. With the development of printing, the primeval power of the sex act was co-opted by publishers and pamphleteers to satirize and undermine the authority of the Church. This helped establish printing as a central player in the birth of democracy and the French and American revolutions. In seventeenth-century Japan, though, it had the opposite effect. Woodblock printing of illustrated guides to the brothels and those who worked in them became a thriving commercial enterprise. The flood of erotic material through this new medium did not lead to wrenching upheaval or moral collapse; rather, it exemplified the “safety valve” theory of pornography. Edo, the forerunner of Tokyo, became a city of bachelors, and the pleasures open to them spawned an industry that became an art form.