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:

2 thoughts on “Blurred Lines: On Art and Pornography

  1. The sexual (if/although not the reproductive/procreative) urge is fundamental to the individual human animal’s functioning within its group. Both the shaming and celebrating of sex become, when taken to extremes, problematic to the perceived health of the body politic, just like eating disorders or tendencies toward extreme aggression or extreme passivity. Loathing or lust: does abstinence make the heart grow fonder, or will fondling do the trick? Why dichomotize?

    Two of my favorite sex scenes from “mainstream” (or at least widely distributed) Hollywood films are simultaneously arousing (“pornographic”) and response-provoking (“artistic”) in their portrayals of intensely erotic interactions between characters to further the narrative plot. The seduction of
    17-year-old Christian Slater by 22-year-old Valentina Vargas in 1986’s “The Name of the Rose” and the borderline rape of Maria Bello by Viggo Mortensen in 2005’s “A History of Violence” can both be viewed as provocatively erotic or titillating, and yet each serves as an essential plot point to develop the characters and further the story. By deliberately arousing the audience, the directors and artists force the audience to recognize our complicity in these (radically different) sexual behaviors and encounters. Our arousal reveals our connectedness, our shared humanity.

    And of course it goes without saying that any work of art can be used as pornography (by the proper fetishist), and any work of pornography can be used as artwork (by the proper artist). One may not automatically *be* the other, but both can be*come* both.

    Perhaps one of the most inspirational examples of the incorporation of a frank, pre/post-Christian (and pre/post-pubescent) sexuality in a work of art is Gary Snyder’s 1974 poem “The Bath” (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177248), with its incantatory repetition of the [rhetorical] question: “Is this our body?”

    • Both art and porn also expect/demand the audience’s complicity in our reactions. Both are meant to provoke, to stimulate, to be received into / embodied by us in order to work changes within us (whether physiological, socio-intellectual, and/or emotional). Boring art is just as taboo as boring porn, although neither are as taboo (or as desirable) as revolutionary art or porn. If Michael Bay produces vanilla missionary sex through his camera lens, Miles Davis wrote the Kama Sutra (that famous classical work of art on… sex…) with his trumpet. Result? More people have vanilla missionary sex and watch Michael Bay movies, but Miles and the Kama Sutra rocked more worlds.

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