Deserves Got Nothing to Do with It: The Enlightened Morality of Wonder Woman

Note: the following essay contains spoilers.

Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, tells the story of Diana. Her story begins on the island of Themyscira, where her mother, Queen Hippolyta, rules over the Amazons. Queen Hippolyta has become cynical about the outside world, stating: “I used to want to save the world, this beautiful place. But the closer you get, the more you see the great darkness within.” Thus, she has enacted an isolationist policy to protect Themyscira. It is hard to fault her for this, especially with the First World War raging beyond the mystical shield that keeps Themyscira hidden. But nothing stays hidden forever. Steve Trevor, a spy trying to escape back to London in a stolen plane, ends up crashing in the waters off of the coast of the island. He essentially finds himself a refugee, washed up on the shore and in need of help. But Hippolyta does not wish to give it to him because of the danger that will undoubtedly follow him. And danger does indeed follow him, as a German fleet soon discovers Themyscira and attacks.

Diana, unlike her mother, and unlike many nations today, welcomes Steve Trevor. She rescues Steve before she even knows whether or not he is a danger, and in spite of whatever might be following him. She does this because she believes it is the right thing to do. Her personal morality is informed by a broader view of humanity — she values life above all else, as well as love and peace between people, regardless of country of origin or any other areas of difference. She sees the larger world beyond Themyscira and sees that she is a part of it. She cannot keep herself isolated on her mother’s island when she knows there is good and important work to be done abroad. So she decides to leave with Steve in order put an end to the war.

In the film, Diana’s morality is juxtaposed against the ideologies that govern men and their institutions. These ideologies take physical form in the person of Ares. Diana originally believes that Ares is corrupting the souls of men, whom she believes are inherently good. She is wrong about this, as she comes to see (and as Ares informs her while held by her lasso of truth). However, like any ideology that finds its way to vulnerable people in search of meaning, Ares is still a corrupting influence. He represents every ideology that keeps groups of people alienated from each other, distrustful of each other, and at war with each other. These ideologies are essentially religious in nature, which is why it makes sense to embody them in a god, and why the title of “Godkiller” should fall to Diana, whose most durable weapon is her aforementioned lasso of truth.

But the revelation about human nature leaves Diana in a difficult position. Should she continue to fight for humanity? We are not inherently good by most traditional moral standards. The concept of the “noble savage” is a blatant falsehood. We cannot escape our brutish natures, and yes, this might destine us to destroy each other. So perhaps we do not deserve Diana’s help, as her mother tells her before she departs Themyscira. Perhaps we do not deserve to be saved. But, as Diana learns from Steve Trevor, the “deserve” part does not really matter. When she witnesses Steve’s sacrifice, in which he gives up his own life to save others and end the war, she understands this. Thus, Diana does not abandon her morality; she simply strengthens it into one that is arguably more enlightened than archaic retributivism. She still sees the value in human life, and she decides to save as many lives as she can. Whether or not the people living these lives deserve her help, whether they are good or bad, is immaterial; she will fight for them regardless.

When Diana finally vanquishes Ares, it is a powerful, awe-inspiring moment. But it is also symbolic. She does not end the war, but she symbolically destroys the ideologies that fed the war. With Ares defeated, the men who were fighting against each other embrace, as if finally recognizing their shared humanity. It is a moment of relief. Their ideology might have given their lives meaning and given them a sense of purpose, but it was illusory – something that can be destroyed, as they witnessed. But love, peace, and understanding between people – these things are real (or at least Diana makes us believe that they are).

Throughout the course of the film, Diana fights against all manner of ideology. She challenges the isolationism of her own people, the Amazons, as well as the toxic nationalism prominently poisoning the world around her. And she has no patience for the deeply ingrained systems of oppression that hurt, limit, and ruin people, like the sexism that prevents women like her from having a say in Britain’s government, or the racism that negatively affected the lives of her companions, Sameer and Napi. She is not interested in any ideology that divides people and makes them see the world through a myopic “us and them” worldview.

Some have criticized Wonder Woman for not being patriotic enough, but that criticism misses the mark completely. Diana is not an American hero; she is an international hero. It is no accident that she knows all human languages, for language is one of the oldest barriers that can exist between two groups of people. Diana is here to destroy those barriers.

In this age of Trump and Brexit, of splintered coalitions and communities, Wonder Woman gives us a hero who offers a better way forward. Her message of love might strike some as too idealistic, but without it, we will forever be at each other’s throats.

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A. O. Scott and the Role of Free Will in Criticism

The following piece was completed on May 23, 2016. I do not recall why I chose not to post it at that time, but I am posting it now in its original state (aside from minor edits, like changing “last week” to “last year,” due to the delay in publication):

On March 11, 2016, I had the pleasure of seeing New York Times film critic A. O. Scott talk about his new book, Better Living Through Criticism, at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge (an event organized through the Harvard Book Store). During the Q&A portion of this event, Scott fielded not one, but two questions about the role of free will in film criticism. On hearing the second question, Scott even quipped about whether or not there was a Calvinist convention in town. What sticks with me, however, is not the answer Scott gave on this particular night at the Brattle (in which he responded that free will may, perhaps, have a role to play), but the answers that Scott gives in his book, a book in which Scott claims quite early that criticism—the act of passing judgment—is something that humans do out of necessity. As Scott writes: “We can’t help it.”

The free will debate, long relegated to the halls of academia, has been gaining much mainstream attention as of late. Sam Harris published a slim volume on the subject in 2011. More recently, James B. Miles published his thorough and carefully researched The Free Will Delusion. And just last year, in The Atlantic, we saw a piece entitled “There Is No Such Thing as Free Will.” So it’s not surprising, then, that people would be curious about whether free will can exist within the creative arts, despite the mounting scientific evidence to the contrary. And it’s not surprising that A. O. Scott would actively wrestle with the question in his work.

Early into his book, Scott discusses the job of art, which he sees as being “to free our minds.” The job of criticism, then, is “to figure out what to do with that freedom.” Scott even states that “we are each of us capable of thinking against our own prejudices.”

Can art truly free our minds and unshackle us from our prejudices, remove us from the chain of cause and effect to which we all belong? The answer is yes, maybe, if we are already predisposed and open to the possibility of art changing us. But art itself then simply enters the chain of cause and effect, becoming, in the process, something else to which our present state is beholden. A better wording might be that art does not free us so much as change us. And criticism is our attempt to account for the change (which occurs unconsciously) in rational, communicable terms.

The capacity for change, as well as the change itself (whatever it might be), is also predetermined by one’s taste—the acquisition of which we are also helpless to control. Of taste, Scott writes:

Taste, we assume, is innate, reflexive, immediate, involuntary, but we also speak of it as something to be acquired. It is a private, subjective matter, a badge of individual sovereignty, but at the same time a collectively held property, bundling us into clubs, cults, communities, and sociological stereotypes.

All of this, to my mind, is true. Taste is acquired but involuntary; it is subjective but collective. More specifically, it is predetermined. The circumstances of a person’s life (the previous art to which he or she has been exposed, the society in which he or she was raised, the education which he or she has been fortunate enough to receive, etc.) will determine the person’s taste.

But Scott seems to deny this. If taste were predetermined, he writes, it would be “a matter of prejudice and conditioning and therefore not really taste at all.” Scott fails to make clear, unfortunately, why taste would be devalued as taste if it were predetermined (which it is). But he does try to account for his own taste. He writes:

It would be foolish for me to deny the determining facts of my generation, class, education, and background. I don’t make the mistake of supposing that my feelings and perceptions are either uniquely mine or somehow untethered from influence and circumstance. Nobody floats above the common run of tastes, plucking only the most exquisite posies on the basis of pure intuition. It’s always contingent, always relative, always a matter of who and where you happen to be.

Thus, Scott does recognize the extent to which his tastes have been predetermined. However, he continues:

Of course, we’re all determined beings, made by circumstance beyond our control. But we’re also changeable creatures, highly susceptible to the influence of accident, free agents with the power to invent ourselves.

How can determined beings also be free agents? Here, Scott attempts to adapt a compatibilist view of free will, though it remains unconvincing. We can see this again as he continues:

Sometimes we react the way we do because of birth or conditioning, sometimes because of a more mysterious force, sometimes by the operation of our will.

I appreciate that Scott is trying to address the question of free will in his book, but I find it hard to look past the obfuscations (mysterious force?) and contradictions. For example, even though he brings up the “operation of our will” in the above passage, Scott once again, not many pages later, seems to find himself adopting the determinist position:

We can’t, after all, escape from the facts of language, geography, class, gender, and belief that condition what we see, any more than we can will ourselves into another time.

Because of statements like this, I cannot help but view Scott’s position as anything other than softly determinist, despite his compatibilist leanings. With that in mind, I think we can see that there is no actual role for free will in criticism.

To highlight an example, I will turn to Ratatouille, as Scott himself does at the end of his book. At the end of the film, when the food critic Anton Ego eats Remy’s titular dish, something happens to him. He is transported back to his childhood, where he would eat the same dish in his mother’s rustic kitchen. This singular moment from his childhood determines Ego’s reaction to Remy’s dish. Ego’s immediate judgment, therefore, is involuntary, subjective, and predetermined by his past. Free will plays no role in Ego’s judgment.

But what of his criticism—the measured, rational response that he writes much later, after his meal has already been digested? Can Ego distance himself enough from his immediate experience to offer up an impersonal and objective assessment of Remy’s ratatouille?

It is worth noting that Ego does not mention his involuntary transport back to his mother’s kitchen in his review of the dish and the restaurant. Why? Because criticism remains a post hoc attempt to account for something to which we have no control, to rationalize a response hitherto devoid of reason. Can free will play a role in these rationalizations?

Again, the answer is no. Because even our ability to craft criticism, our authorial voice, our skill with words, and our personal and creative motivations—these, too, have all been predetermined, bound to us by a past to which we remain forever, inescapably, and sometimes unfortunately, tethered.

Further reading:

Sublimation and Repression: Inside Out, Star Trek, The Incredible Hulk, and The Babadook

Inside Out

Note: the following essay includes spoilers for each of the works under discussion.

In his essay “Freud and Nietzsche on Sublimation” (The Journal of Nietzsche Studies, Issue 38, Autumn 2009, pp. 38-59), the philosopher Ken Gemes discusses the difference between the psychological concepts sublimation and repression. “Sublimations,” he writes, “involve integration and unification, while pathological symptoms [i.e., from repression] involve splitting off or disintegration.” Pete Docter’s Inside Out is an excellent illustration of these concepts as defined by Gemes. In the film, we see not only the dangers that repression (or the splitting off) of a specific emotion can present within an individual but also what happens when the goal of sublimation is reached: when all of a person’s emotions are integrated into a unified self and are working together toward the same goals. Though perhaps one of the best films yet to tackle these ideas within a narrative framework, Inside Out is not the first piece of art to do so. The Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within,” for example, examines quite literally what happens when the self is psychically split into two parts. And two works that take these ideas a step further by exploring what happens when repressed traumas cause the self to splinter and disintegrate are issue 377 of Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk and the Australian horror film The Babadook. Let us examine each of these works in turn.

Joy and Sadness

As hinted above, Inside Out is a narrative film which also happens to present a philosophy of mind that is both cogent and coherent. It envisions people as each governed by a group of five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger. These emotions take turns driving a person and coloring the person’s memories, which are then stored away to be recalled when needed (or eventually relegated to the subconscious). Some of these memories become the core memories, which power a person’s islands of personality. With this basic structure of the mind on display, the film offers a philosophically mature look at the self as a multifaceted and mutable concept. For the core memories and islands of personality are not permanent fixtures; they can be altered by other emotions or replaced as a person’s life experiences and interests change. And that is exactly what happens throughout the course of the film.

Our focus is on an eleven-year-old girl named Riley. In Riley’s mind, Joy is the dominant emotion. She gets nervous when the other emotions are in control of Riley for too long, and she thinks that the majority of Riley’s memories should be colored by her. Joy is particularly uncomfortable around Sadness. In one scene, Joy even tries to remove the influence of Sadness by drawing a chalk circle around her and telling her she must remain within it. She wants to deny that sadness is a part of Riley, a part of life. This is a typical model of repression. Gemes writes in his essay:

Repression is what happens when a drive is denied its immediate aim and is then split off from other drives in the sense that its aims are not integrated with the aims of other drives and it must battle, often unsuccessfully, for any opportunity to achieve expression.

This is the position that Sadness finds herself in at the start of the film; Joy rarely allows her an opportunity for expression.

Later in the film, after Riley’s life is turned upside down by a move from Minnesota to San Francisco, Joy and Sadness are both accidentally transported from the headquarters of Riley’s mind and must work together to find their way back. It is on this journey that Joy begins to see how Sadness can be valuable. For example, while comforting Riley’s long forgotten imaginary friend Bing Bong, Sadness demonstrates how she can connect with the pain of others through empathy. Also, she is the only one who can help Riley express the feelings of hopelessness and despair that are bound to crop up on occasion. At the end of the film, when Riley is literally running away from the things that are challenging her, Sadness is the emotion that helps her turn around to confront her parents with all that she is feeling.

This demonstration of the psychological importance of expressing sadness is consistent with the way in which we see the other emotions not as negative aspects of Riley’s personality, but as equally vital to her sense of self. Fear, for instance, keeps Riley safe. Anger helps her be an aggressive hockey player. And Disgust helps her with aesthetic choices and with navigating nuanced appearance-based social circles. Riley lives with parents who want her to be happy all the time. We, too, live in a culture that paints emotions such as sadness, fear, and anger in a negative light. Inside Out proves that all emotions, even joy, can have their downsides, but that does not make them negative, bad, or shameful things to be excised or repressed. They can be harnessed, sublimated, and used toward positive ends. Ideally, these emotions/drives will work together, creating (as they do at the end of the film) memories colored by input from each of them.

The Enemy Within

In the Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within” (Richard Matheson’s sole writing credit on the show), Captain Kirk finds himself in a situation that addresses the same issue of sublimation as Inside Out. At the beginning of the episode, after a planetary expedition, Captain Kirk beams aboard the Enterprise. However, there is a transporter malfunction. The Captain is seemingly OK, just a little lightheaded. But then, when the transporter room is unattended, another Captain Kirk beams aboard the ship. This version of the Captain appears maniacal and unhinged. While the first version of the Captain feels weak and returns to his quarters to rest, the second version immediately seeks brandy from sick bay and attempts to sexually assault Yeoman Rand. There is an obvious temptation to view the first version of Kirk as good and the second version as evil, but as the episode progresses, we see that it is not that simple. The following exchange between Spock and Dr. McCoy explains why:

SPOCK: We have here an unusual opportunity to appraise the human mind, or to examine, in Earth terms, the roles of good and evil in a man. His negative side, which you call hostility, lust, violence, and his positive side, which Earth people express as compassion, love, tenderness.

MCCOY: It’s the Captain’s guts you’re analyzing. Are you aware of that, Spock?

SPOCK: Yes, and what is it that makes one man an exceptional leader? We see indications that it’s his negative side which makes him strong, that his evil side, if you will, properly controlled and disciplined, is vital to his strength. Your negative side removed from you, the power of command begins to elude you.

Indeed, the first version of Kirk is weak, tired, unmotivated, and ineffectual as a leader. At his own admission, decisions are becoming more and more difficult to make. The second version of Kirk, while certainly impulsive, lustful, and aggressive, is also quite fearful and pathetic. In other words, neither version of Kirk is ideal on its own. As the first version of Kirk says when he first confronts his double: “Don’t you understand? I’m part of you. You need me. I need you.” Just as Joy realizes that Riley needs Sadness in Inside Out, we begin to see that Captain Kirk needs both sides of himself, even the part that seems on the surface solely negative and evil.  The lesson of both the Pixar film and the Star Trek episode is the opposite of the famous Christian idea of removing those parts of us that cause us to sin (“So if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away”). We cannot simply cut away those parts of us that we find unsavory, negative, or evil. Rather, as Spock says, and as Joy learns in regard to sharing Riley with Sadness and the other emotions, our dark sides and personal demons, “properly controlled and disciplined,” are essential to creating a whole and healthy psyche.

This exchange between Kirk and McCoy captures this message perfectly:

KIRK: I have to take him back inside myself. I can’t survive without him. I don’t want him back. He’s like an animal, a thoughtless, brutal animal, and yet it’s me. Me.

MCCOY: Jim, you’re no different than anyone else. We all have our darker side. We need it! It’s half of what we are. It’s not really ugly, it’s human.

At the end of the episode, with the transporter fixed, Kirk is able to integrate both sides of himself into a single entity again.

The Incredible Hulk 377

In issue 377 of Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk (written by Peter David and penciled by Dale Keown), Bruce Banner is psychically divided in a similar manner to that of Captain Kirk in “The Enemy Within.” As the issue begins, we see Banner’s therapist, the gamma-powered Doc Samson, sitting with Banner and two separate Hulks: the so-called grey Hulk and the green, savage Hulk (who amusingly refers to the grey hulk as “Fake Hulk”). Using post-hypnotic suggestion, Samson has gathered these three parts of Banner together in Banner’s mind for one purpose. Samson tells the two Hulks: “You’re going to have to come to terms with each other because you’re all tearing this man apart.” It seems, just as Kirk could not exist as only one side of himself, and just as Riley could not exist without all of her emotions working together, Banner is also going to be unable to exist as a whole, healthy person if he remains splintered in three parts, each trying to gain control by destroying the other two. But what is keeping these three parts separated?

As the issue progresses, we learn that there is a monster lurking in Banner’s subconscious, one that even the two Hulks cannot defeat on their own. This monster, we find out, is Banner’s abusive father, Brian. We see the monster attack and kill Banner’s mother, with Banner watching as a child, unable to save her. And then, in a scene that will feel particularly resonant in relation to Inside Out, we see Banner realize that his younger self never really came to terms with what happened on an emotional level—because he was taught that emotions were bad:

BANNER: Cry, show some emotion.

YOUNG BANNER: Emotion’s bad. It hurts people.

BANNER: Not all emotion. Cry, blast it. Cry big racking sobs.

After Banner finishes pleading with his younger self, the green Hulk is released. We see now what the Hulks represent to Banner: the unleashed emotional and passionate parts of himself that he has always denied proper expression. It took a gamma bomb to unleash them, and even then, Banner tried for years to “cure” himself of them, to cut them out of himself. The reason his psyche is so splintered is because he had repressed his sadness at the time of his mother’s death. Samson’s goal in this particular therapy session is to get the pieces working together, not against each other any longer. He tells Betty Ross: “If we integrate the personalities, as I hope to, what we will get is a whole Bruce Banner, for the first time in years.”

Later, in another scene in Banner’s subconscious, we see that he carried his denial of emotional expression through even his college years. Here, we see Banner with a young woman who wants nothing more than to make love to him, but Banner responds: “I just have work to do, that’s all. This is college, not a playpen.” In this instance, it was the grey Hulk whom Banner was repressing. To return to the Gemes essay once again, he writes:

Aggressive drives, which are not viewed as acceptable, typically because acting on them would exact a painful retribution, are repressed to the point that one does not even acknowledge that one has such drives.

Due to his traumatic past and the strong repression of all of his emotions and passions, this is the situation in which Banner has found himself and which ultimately proved fertile ground from which to birth his Hulk personae.

Finally, toward the end of the issue, Banner confronts the monster in his subconscious: “You got so mad and I saw what emotions did and I…I was so…af…afraid…of buh-being like you.” With this admission, the monster begins to shrink and take the shape of a man—Brian Banner—before finally disintegrating. Now, Banner’s mother appears in his place and tells the two Hulks: “He needs you now. No more fighting.” They are hesitant, just as the dark half of Kirk was hesitant to be put back together again. But in the end, they concede. When Banner comes out of his post-hypnotic state, he is unlike he ever was before: finally, with all parts integrated into one, with Banner no longer repressing his emotions and passions, Banner has become a new merged Hulk—a super being with the strengths of all three parts, including Banner’s intellect, working together.

The Babadook

In the film The Babadook (written and directed by Jennifer Kent), we are faced with a protagonist, much like Bruce Banner, who has repressed a past trauma to the point that it is tearing her apart. Amelia (Essie Davis) is the widowed mother of a six-year-old boy, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). We eventually learn that Amelia’s husband, Oskar, was killed in a car accident while driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth to Samuel. And we soon discover that Amelia has never truly come to terms with this trauma and has repressed it (indeed, she even keeps all of Oskar’s possessions locked in her basement). Samuel sees that there is something going on with his mother, something changing within her, which is why he spends time developing weapons to use against the “monster” that he keeps thinking is going to get them.

This tense home life is complicated by the fact that Samuel’s birthday is coming up, a day that Amelia looks at more as the day her husband died than the day her son was born. Samuel has never even been allowed to celebrate his birthday on the actual day. Amelia does not do well around this time of the year, as a neighbor points out. And as her sister reminds her: “As soon as anyone mentions Oskar, you can’t cope.” But Amelia tries to hide it. When a co-worker asks her how she is doing, she says she is fine. He replies: “You don’t have to be fine, you know.”

We have already looked at the importance of allowing yourself to grieve in both Inside Out and The Incredible Hulk, but Amelia’s repression seems to be too deep. And just as Banner’s repressed feelings eventually forced themselves out as the two Hulks, Amelia’s repressed grief finds its own outlet for expression: a children’s book called The Babadook that Samuel asks her to read to him.

In the book, the titular Babadook is a dark figure with long fingers, a long coat, and a creepy hat who knocks on the door to a house demanding to be let in. Samuel is rightfully frightened by the chilling imagery, which seems to hit too close to home for him. Amelia is also disturbed and tries to get rid of the book, first by hiding it, then by ripping it apart, then by burning it—but it keeps coming back.

Finally, while looking at it again, she reads the line: “You start to change when I get in, the Babadook growing right under your skin.” And the Babadook does get in and change her. She starts lashing out at Samuel and threatening him. When Samuel tries calling their neighbor for help, Amelia cuts the phone line. She even snaps their dog’s neck. At this point, the Babadook is in complete control. But Samuel is prepared: he fights the Babadook with the weapons and traps he has prepared and helps his mother expunge the monster. But when it finally seems to be gone, Samuel recalls another line from the book: “You can’t get rid of the Babadook.”

Amelia has a final showdown with the monster in which she faces it in the same way in which Banner faced his monster in his subconscious: recognizing it for what it is. Ultimately, she makes peace with it, allowing it to remain alive in her basement where she can visit it and feed it. Of this ending, Jennifer Kent has stated in an interview:

We had many people fight the ending. I had to really defend that ending. To be perfectly honest, if I had to have killed that thing I wouldn’t have made the film. You can’t kill the monster, you can only integrate it. Even with Amelia, she can’t ever forget that her husband was killed in a car crash, that will never go away. So yeah, it’s the most crucial thing, to keep that thing alive on some level.

Like the other works we have discussed, the goal for Amelia in the film has been to face her repressed trauma and grief and sublimate it, to make it an integral part of herself. She can actually learn a thing or two about this from Samuel. At one point in the film, he learns about his neighbor’s Parkinson’s disease when he inquires why her hands shake. His mother is upset that he would have pried about this, but the neighbor says, “He wanted to know, so we talked about it.” And at the end of the film, when Amelia is meeting with government employees about Samuel’s schooling, and Samuel tells them about his birthday being the same day his dad died, she says: “Sam’s just like his dad, always speaks his mind.” The lesson for Amelia, then, is to talk about things and speak what’s on her mind, not to repress her feelings and pretend that everything is fine when it is not.

In her essay “Hannibal: Bedelia’s Dream and the True Face of Lecter,” Priscilla Page uses a quote from Joseph Campbell that is equally relevant to our discussion of sublimation and repression:

In the Greek, the demon is that unconscious impulse that is the dynamic of your life and which comes to you in vision and in dream, but in the Christian interpretation, it is a devil—all that a devil is is a repressed demon: one who has not been recognized, one that has not been given its dues, who has not been allowed to play into your life and so becomes a violent threat.

We have seen in The Incredible Hulk and in The Babadook how repressed demons can indeed become violent threats if not recognized and integrated via sublimation, and we have seen in Inside Out and “The Enemy Within” how seemingly dark, negative aspects of a person’s mind, if successfully sublimated, become positive and essential. But more importantly, I think these works can teach us to recognize these sorts of things going on in our minds and the minds of others. With any luck, they will help us sublimate our own monsters and demons into energies that we can harness and put toward positive and healthy ends. Because, as we have seen, we can’t kill the monsters; in fact, we may actually need them.

Further reading:

Blurred Lines: On Art and Pornography

Venus of Urbino

In an article appearing in The Guardian this past December, actor Stellan Skarsgård defends Lars von Trier’s forthcoming Nymphomaniac against accusations of pornography:

Pornography has just one purpose, which is to arouse you. To make you wank, basically. But if you look at this film, it’s actually a really bad porn movie, even if you fast forward. And after a while you find you don’t even react to the explicit scenes. They become as natural as seeing someone eating a bowl of cereal.

Critics mounted similar defenses against charges of pornography when Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color was released earlier last year. For example, Julie Maroh, the author of the work on which the film was based, stated that the sex scenes amounted to “a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn.” But according to Andrew O’Hehir at Salon:

Those scenes were intended to be challenging and destined to be controversial, but they are woven into the film’s design, not the reasons for its existence.

It’s not 1953, people – if your goal is to see French girls get naked, it’s not like you need to sit through a three-hour art film to achieve that.

Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian gets right to the heart of the matter:

For what it’s worth I entirely disagree that Blue Is the Warmest Colour is porn. Of course that charge can be levelled against any explicit material, and “porn” is a charge routinely made against anything that looks good: “food porn”, “property porn”, etc. But the film’s sheer uncompromising explicitness took it beyond the level of exploitation or titillation, and what also took it away from porn was its treatment of the unsexy aftermath: the agony, the tears, the arguments, the gloom and the despair. This is the long goodbye – a very unporn goodbye. I didn’t giggle at the sex scenes: I found them sexy, passionate and moving, in that narrative order.

In sum, according to all of these defenses, art differs from porn because its portrayals of sex are not necessarily titillating. They’re not “to make you wank,” as Skarsgård puts it. However, the history of art tells a different story. In the past, sexual art was common and created by the great artists for the very purpose of titillation; it was indistinguishable from today’s pornography in its expressed intentions to arouse its viewers. For this reason, and for the fact that by their very definitions porn and art cannot easily be separated, I would like to argue that charges of pornography levied against sexual content in art is a subtle way of avoiding any real confrontation with what the sexual content might signify. Also, I do not think that titillating and erotic content need necessarily disqualify a work from being considered art.

Part I: The History of Sex in Art (or, How Sex Became a Vice)

Blue Is the Warmest Color and Nymphomaniac are certainly not the first art house films to display graphic sex. A feature titled “A History of Real Sex in Movies” cites nine examples. One of these is 9 Songs, directed by Michael Winterbottom. Of the strong criticism levied against his film by British Parliament, Winterbottom remarked:

You can show people eating and doing normal things, but you can’t show two people making love, the most natural of all things.

This is a valid point. Why can’t we simply depict sex in art as a natural act? Why does it automatically become controversial, or worse, “obscene,” and threaten a work’s art status? As I have already mentioned, this was not always the case.

Jonathan Jones, the art critic at The Guardian, has written a lot on this subject (and even penned a book about it):

Europe’s great artists were making pornography long before the invention of the camera, let alone the internet. In my new book The Loves of the Artists, I argue that sexual gratification – of both the viewers of art, and artists themselves – was a fundamental drive of high European culture in the age of the old masters. Paintings were used as sexual stimuli, as visual lovers’ guides, as aids to fantasy. This was considered one of the most serious uses of art by no less a thinker than Leonardo da Vinci, who claimed images are better than words because pictures can directly arouse the senses. He was proud that he once painted a Madonna so sexy the owner asked for all its religious trappings to be removed, out of shame for the inappropriate lust it inspired. His painting of St John the Baptist is similarly ambiguous.

The sexual content of these classic paintings—not to mention the fact that some were clearly used as one would use pornography today (i.e., to arouse and stimulate sexual appetites)—does not negate their worth as art objects. They still hang in museums; they are still studied and appreciated.

We can go back even further in time, to Ancient Rome. In a blog about the ancient art of Pompeii, Jones writes:

The villas and brothels of Pompeii were full of erotic paintings, sculptures and kinky artefacts.

[…] It is a huge contrast with the Christian society that grew out of the ruins of Rome and still in many ways – whatever our personal beliefs – shapes the culture of the west. That contrast is sharply shown by what happened to the erotic art of Pompeii when it started to be rediscovered by excavators in the 18th century. It was admired, but also considered deeply provocative.

The point that Jones is making is that sex today is marred by sin, whereas “the art of Pompeii reveals that uninhibited sex and unrepressed art were universal in this ancient culture.” As Jones points out, Christianity is largely responsible for this differing perception of sex. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about how this shift occurred in an aphorism titled “To think a thing evil means to make it evil” (Daybreak 76, trans. R. J. Hollingdale):

The passions become evil and malicious if they are regarded as evil and malicious. Thus Christianity has succeeded in transforming Eros and Aphrodite – great powers capable of idealization – into diabolical kobolds and phantoms by means of the torments it introduces into the consciences of believers whenever they are excited sexually. Is it not dreadful to make necessary and regularly recurring sensations into a source of inner misery, and in this way to want to make inner misery a necessary and regularly recurring phenomenon in every human being! In addition to which it remains a misery kept secret and thus more deeply rooted: for not everyone possesses the courage of Shakespeare to confess his Christian gloominess on this point in the way he did in his Sonnets. – Must everything that one has to combat, that one has to keep within bounds or on occasion banish totally from one’s mind, always have to be called evil! Is it not the way of common souls always to think an enemy must be evil! And ought one to call Eros an enemy?

To see this transformation in action (of Eros into an enemy, of love into sin), one need only look at the shunga art of ancient Japan. In an article for The Guardian, Charlotte Gibbons writes about a recent exhibit of shunga art at the British Museum:

Although shunga, meaning “spring picture” or “pillow picture”, was a mainstream artistic genre for several centuries, enjoyed by ordinary townspeople as well as aristocrats, it was suppressed in the 20th century when Japan opened up to the west and the country went through an accelerated “modernisation”.

At that point, instead of being regarded as a part of the texture of everyday life, presented to brides upon their marriages for instruction, arousal or amusement, shunga “was treated like pornography”, said [Tim] Clark [the show’s head curator].

Above all, said Clark, shunga is important because of its value as art. The greatest Japanese artists, such as Hokusai and Utamaro, made erotic images. Shunga invites us to question, he said, a western tradition that divided “great art” from “the obscene”. “That distinction simply does not exist in Japanese art of the period,” he said.

Thus, it was the western (Christian?) tradition of dividing “great art” from “the obscene” that turned Eros into an enemy, not only in the West, but across the entire globe. Still, the history of art and painting is full of works that embrace their erotic and sexual content. To return to Winterbottom’s complaint that he “can’t show two people making love, the most natural of all things,” I think we can now see why. It wouldn’t have been a problem in the pre-Christian world (e.g., Ancient Rome or Japan), where sexuality was celebrated and not seen as sinful. However, in our post-Christian world, we generally view sexuality in a negative light, as something shameful (or at least provocative). So, when today’s artists (e.g., Lars von Trier and Abdellatif Kechiche) attempt to depict graphic sexual content in their work, controversy inevitably follows, accompanied by charges of pornography. But what does this even mean?

Let us now look at definitions of pornography to see if it is in fact different from art.

Part II: The “Definitional Crossword” of Art and Pornography

In his article “Pornographic Art—A Case from Definitions” (British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 52, Number 3, July 2012, pp. 287-300), philosopher Simon Fokt attempts to determine, based on definitions of both art and pornography, whether there is enough to differentiate the two from each other. Fokt employs what he calls a “definitional crossword.” First, he lays out the most common definitions of pornography. Then, he sees how each one would fit within a particular theory or definition of art. (Since I have adopted an institutional theory of art on this blog, I will use that as an example.)

Fokt looks at five definitions of pornography. Aside from one definition that states that pornography features sexual content in which the participants are objectified, the other definitions focus on what they call pornography’s intention to sexually arouse its audience, or the fact that it at least comes with the expectation that its target audience will use it for sexual arousal. One definition claims that it is for this very reason (the focus on sexual arousal) that pornography cannot be appreciated aesthetically. If you are interested in the details that differentiate each definition, I urge you to seek out Fokt’s article; for the sake of simplicity, I will only work from my summary of the definitions described here.

The institutional definition of art employed by Fokt is the one formulated by George Dickie in Art and the Aesthetic:

A work of art in the classificatory sense is (1) an artifact (2) a set of the aspects of which has had conferred upon it the status of candidate for appreciation by some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld).

The first thing you will notice about this definition is that it contains no caveats about a work’s content. As Fokt writes, “[…] the work’s content is utterly irrelevant to its status.” Thus, the definition of pornography mentioned above that claims pornography features sexual content involving objectified participants (or any content-based definition of pornography) would not prevent pornography from being accepted as art.

Next, as Fokt writes, “[…] works can become art in the institutional sense irrespective of what they were intended to be in the first place.” Thus, it does not matter whether or not a work was intended to arouse its audience sexually, or even if the work is used for this purpose regardless of its creator’s intentions.

Of the idea that sexual arousal would prevent someone from appreciating a work aesthetically, Fokt concludes:

[…] it is unimportant for an institutionalist whether an object is appreciated aesthetically or artistically; in fact, Dickie argues that there is no such thing as aesthetic appreciation at all. In this light, [the abovementioned definition’s] claim that being aroused by pornography prevents one from appreciating it aesthetically or artistically is again irrelevant, as such appreciation is not required for the conferral of the status.

Fokt’s conclusion:

In sum, none of the claims made by exclusivists are even remotely relevant to what makes objects art in the institutional sense. On the contrary, it seems that some pornography can be, and some of it actually is, art. It is artefactual in the same way as art; it can have the art status conferred upon it; and it is not at all impossible that other institutions should overlap with the artworld. Clearly, such social institutions as the state or church can, so why not the porn-world? Thus such works as The Story of O can be treated as examples of works which are pornographic and yet also art, in virtue of the art status having been conferred upon them by members of the artworld.

For those interested, Fokt also examines historical and functional definitions of art, as well as cluster accounts, and he briefly touches on other definitions. Needless to say, he comes to a very similar conclusion in each case, namely that “some pornography can be and is art.”

Like Fokt, my purpose in taking on this subject is not to suggest that all pornography should be considered art (nor do I wish to diminish the valid ethical and feminist concerns about the depiction of women in typical pornographic media). In fact, I think that works of pornography, as produced and consumed today, are experienced quite differently and in completely different contexts from works more commonly understood as art. Moreover, I think that (unlike the video game industry or even the food and fashion industries), the pornography industry has no interest in making claims that its product is art. (As we saw in the last section, Christianity helped separate art and sex by making Eros into a villain. In doing so, it likely drove sex underground, which gave birth to the porn industry we know today, one that cares little for the art side of its product.) However, as Fokt helps illustrate, I think that all attempts to draw a clear line between art and pornography are doomed from the start. In cases where misguided moralizers attempt to diminish an artwork for its sexual content or because it may sexually arouse some viewers, it can and should be demonstrated that the “pornographic” content does not necessarily disqualify the work as art.

Part III: Of Dance and Lap Dance

In the last section, I state my belief that the porn industry has no interest in claiming that its product is art. However, if they are pushed, they will definitely make that claim, and I believe that they have every right to do so.

In October of 2012, the Huffington Post reported on a strip club in suburban Albany (Nite Moves) that had filed a lawsuit arguing that “fees for admission to strip club and for private dances are exempt from sales tax.” The article begins this way:

Lap dances are taxable because they don’t promote culture in a community the way ballet or other artistic endeavors do, New York’s highest court concluded Tuesday in a sharply divided ruling.

The court split 4-3, with the dissenting judges saying there’s no distinction in state law between “highbrow dance and lowbrow dance,” so the case raises “significant constitutional problems.”

The article later explains in more detail the viewpoint of the dissenting judges:

In the dissent, Judge Robert Smith wrote that it was a question of what the law and regulations actually say. The law defines a “dramatic or musical arts admission charge” for “a live dramatic, choreographic or musical performance,” he noted. Choreography means dance, and clearly the women at Nite Moves dance, he wrote.

Smith assesses, quite correctly, that the court decision amounts to judges defining, willy-nilly, what counts as “highbrow” art and what counts merely as “lowbrow” entertainment:

Smith added that while he finds this sort of dancing “unedifying – indeed, I am stuffy enough to find it distasteful,” discriminating on the basis of content such as imposing a tax on Hustler magazine and giving the New Yorker an exemption “would surely be unconstitutional. It is not clear to me why the discrimination that the majority approves in this case stands on any firmer constitutional footing.”

Thus, even if an act (such as a lap dance) meets the above-referenced law’s definition of art, which allows for “choreographic or musical performance,” the judges can apparently make a value judgment on the act for the purpose of excluding it from tax exempt status. Even though we have now seen how sexual content, historically, did not threaten a work’s art status, and that even by definition pornography should not be disqualified from being art, lawmakers are still fighting their hardest to keep art and sex separate.

Years earlier, a strip club in Idaho (Erotic City Strip Club) was faced with a city law passed in 2001 forbidding “complete nudity in public unless the display has ‘serious artistic merit.’” Just as with the Nite Moves case, the issue revolved around legislators’ attempts to define (arbitrarily) the moral and aesthetic values of their constituents. Luckily, Chris Teague, the owner of Erotic City Strip Club, saw the absurdity in the situation and used it to his advantage. According to a BBC report, he started charging patrons for a pad, a pencil, and dance performance. He called it “Art Club Night,” and as long as his patrons sketched the dancers, he met the law’s “serious artistic merit” exemption; his dancers were able to perform nude.

The absurdity of these cases illustrates perfectly how the line separating art and pornography is arbitrarily set by those whose values paint sexuality in a negative light. When this line is examined in both a historical and academic context, it blurs and fades away.

Conclusion

What I would like to suggest is that, in discussions of art, charges of pornography offer no useful commentary on a work’s artistic merits. Instead, the word “pornographic” serves only an outdated Christian function; it is meant to make sex shameful. However, I think that we should approach sex in art in a more value-neutral way. For example, a sex scene should not be seen as morally or aesthetically objectionable in itself. But what are the details and the circumstances of the scene in the context of the story and its characters? These should be the targets of our criticism (moral, aesthetic, or otherwise).

In sum, though I think that Stellan Skarsgård, Andrew O’Hehir, and Peter Bradshaw are right to defend the sexual content of Nymphomaniac and Blue Is the Warmest Color, I do not think they should have to trouble themselves with arguing why the sexual content is artistic and not pornographic. For even if the films were to meet any or all definitions of pornography, I do not think that this should disqualify them from being considered art.

Sex, as Michael Winterbottom suggests, is simply as natural a human faculty as eating. We do not see moral outrage over “foodie” films like Babette’s Feast, no matter how explicit the food or how hungry it makes the viewers. The same should be true for artworks featuring sex – graphic, unsimulated, or otherwise.

Further reading: