an examination of the strange connection between the Asian Art Museum's "Seduction" and 50 Shades of Grey

By Iris Han

This Movie is not Great

People want to be good or at least people want other people to think that they're good. The desire to be moral is caught up with the opposite desire to get away with something. And so good and bad are not only on a continuum, but also mirror images of each other. Nowhere is this clearer than the appearance of two seemingly opposite cultural experiences: the highbrow art show "Seduction" at the Asian Museum in San Francisco and the lowbrow/highbrow movie version of the million upon millions of sold novel, 50 Shades of Grey. Both of them are about sexual encounters that are supposedly bad and both of them work, overtime, to make those encounters good, or at least okay to look at. Sexual content is weird. People view sex as private and yet nothing makes them happier than when the private becomes public. We don't want people, or even dogs, to have sex in public, but we’re always looking for ways to bring sexual content into the public sphere: movies, magazines, books and museum shows. In other words, we want to see what we supposedly don’t want to see. So 50 Shades and “Seduction” at the Asian Art Museum are calculated attempts to bridge the gap between what we want and our desire to be good. That they happen on two sides of the cultural divide is, of course, beside the point.

I had never heard of 50 Shades of Grey until I accidentally saw the trailer and it peaked my curiosity. The original book has sold more than twenty million copies worldwide and, as silly as that sounds, it made me want to see the movie, even eagerly anticipate it. There’s strength in numbers, I guess. Of course, I wasn’t the only one looking forward to it. Apparently, most American Women over forty and a good deal of them under forty and the rest world were looking forward to it, too. That is, if we can judge by the box office numbers. The issue, the selling point, is sex, and not just sex, but crazy, secret, bad sex. The key to all this is that the movie wasn’t opening in some dingy porn theater, but in nice clean multi-plexes where families go to see Pixar movies. This made it both much anticipated and accessible. In fact, that’s the point: the two go together, the forbidden and the easy to get to.

Enough to make a theater scream!
I have also heard that some people were only interesting in seeing how bad it was and it is really bad. I anticipated seeing something hard-core, but the movie wasn’t much rougher than the trailer. Also the tone of the movie was ambiguous. Sometimes it was like a rom-com and other times a porno. The audience reaction was fascinating and crazy. Most were women with a few couples thrown in. When Christian Grey took off his shirt, the entire theater screamed. They also screamed when he took her out on a luxurious date. So, there was a lot of screaming, at everything.

The infamous red room of Christian Grey
He’s perfect, except . . . for his, should we say, rather unique sexual practices. After the movie one of my friends said, “With perfection like that she’d give the red room a try, too.” I was surprised to hear a little later that there is now a business (?), a service (?), a whatever (?) that woman can buy called the “Antasia.” It’s only $12,397. You get a helicopter ride, dinner and probably something more. Now I’m going to tell you something shocking: in the case of 50 Shades, quality does not matter at all. Whether it’s good or bad is beside the point. The films, the novels, the packaged tours, they can all can be lousy. What matters is that this story, and it is the story of sex, is packaged in a way that people can feel they are getting access to a secret world without feeling dirty. So the key to 50 shades isn’t quality, but to let you see what you want while telling you that it’s good and okay, even though it’s really, really bad.

On the other side of the cultural divide is a show at the Asian Art Museum called, seductively, “Seduction”. I was surprised that a museum would so obviously use sex as a selling point. The fact that they are deliberately courting the 50 Shades crowd piqued my interest, not to mention the picture of the courtesan on the poster. The poster seemed to be saying, or whispering, “Come see ‘Seduction’ and you can enter the a secret Japan that you never imagine.” So my roommate and I went.

The beginning of seduction
“Seduction” is about the pleasure quarter (think Las Vegas), Yoshiwara, in the mid-1600s. Like Las Vegas, it provided luxury, drinking and prostitution. After seeing and thinking about 50 Shades, I immediately knew what the curators of “Seduction” were after—big box office and a place where average, respectable people can go and look at pornography. In the final part of the show there is a book called, “Yoshiwara Pillow Pictures” on display. This is the real draw of “Seduction”. As we waited to take a look, three women were rather delightfully engaged with the digital version of the book, where you could get a good long look at its contents. Although the women in front of us were putting on their best “I’m at a museum” look, they were eagerly looking through the book and giggling at its contents. It took a good ten minutes for us to take a look. So what was in it? Well, do you really need to know? Was it good or bad? By now you should know that it doesn’t matter.

Well, for your edification, I will say that even in a museum I was a bit shocked, way more shocked than anything I saw in 50 Shades. As my roommate and I got a good look at the perversity of 16th Century Japan, an old couple jumped in front of us. Usually I hate getting cut, but like the screaming women in 50 Shades, this couple’s reaction to the “Yoshiware Pillow Pictures” was priceless. The old lady kept on saying things like, “Oh my God” and “Oh Sweet Jesus” and I realized she was holding my arm as I was turning the digital pages. I hadn’t quite expected this when we decided to go and didn’t know whether I should echo her thoughts.

The pornography of 16th Century Japan
Here’s the point, though, she kept on looking and with intense interest. At one point she asked her husband, “What’s he doing?” and he explained, “Well, ah, I believe he is masturbating, ha, ha, ha.” Sure that old lady was funny in her shock, but everyone was looking and seemingly happy to be doing so and to think it was all under the guise of going to the museum, high culture and education. Yet, I realized that’s what people want. They want their pornography to be bad, to be told it’s bad, but that it be readily accessible in culturally approved venues.

Las Vegas is the contemporary version of the Yoshiwara. People satisfy their sexual desires, drink and pretend that they’re there for the shows. The only difference between Las Vegas and Yoshiwara is 400 years of history and more of the same. But I wonder what the 16th century Japanese equivalent of 50 Shades and “Seduction” at the Asian Art Museum. Whatever the case, whether it’s lost to history or not, we know that somehow people always will want to get a good long look at what they think is bad and they’ll want it to be safe. Going to see 50 Shades at a multi-plex with friends is safe and going to see Japanese 16th century porn at the Asian Art Museum is even safer, even though it was much more graphic. So, as I said in the beginning, good or bad, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you get to say it’s bad while you get a good look.

Don't make me look!

©Iris Han and the CCA Arts Review

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