Driven by Desire


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.