This week I’ve been enjoying an e-mail exchange with Hawksley, an artist who wrote asking for my thoughts about where one draws the line bewteen art versus pornography.

As a photographer who occasionally does fine art nudes, I am wondering where and how the line is drawn between porn and erotic fine art.   Yes, I know – depends on the audience.  But there must be some informal rules – what galleries are willing to display and what crosses the arbitrary line defining what is considered ‘respectable’ art for public display and that considered ‘indecent’.

As I told Hawksley, I’m a fan of both fine art and porn but have nothing resembling authority on either subject. It’s hard for me to speak to what distinctions fine art society does and/or should make. But I can tell you what I think. So this post may include some small sprig of knowledge but that’s just garnish for the main course – a generous portion of Nadine And Her Random Opinions About Stuff.

Regarding pornographic  film, the Ontario Film Board defines pornography or “adult sex films” as a film that has, as its main object, the depiction of explicit sexual activity. Those films are distributed with a special porn identification sticker. And that, gentle readers, is the extent of my knowledge about what defines porn. Time to get opinionated!

Maybe I can draw a similar line between fine art and pornographic images. Porn are explicit photos of people engaged in sexual activity. Full frontal boners, lubricated fingers in places…and so on. Meanwhile artistic images are more discreet. Nudity but no erections or penetration. There may be implications but in reality there’s no actual sex happening during the shoot.

Hmmm….

But I don’t love that distinction. Like I said, I know nothing of photography or art. But I do know I’ve seen what I’d consider artfully realized pornographic film. And while I accept the practicality of a film board rating to restrict age and alert the consumer to the content – it also irks me that a well crafted movie forfeits inclusion as part of “art ” because it shows people having actual sex.  Similarly it seems kind of sex-negative to define a photograph as porn-not-art simply because the subjects are getting it on.  So in the words of Winnie The Pooh…

Think, think, think.

Perhaps a distinction based on skill. But I’ve been lucky enough to work with some pretty kick-ass photographers.  I imagine most of them could take a picture of two people engaged in explicitly sexy things that would be a hundred times more artful than any photo I might snap of a more modest scene. In fact Hawksley himself sent me a beautiful photo of a woman performing fellatio. We opted not to post it at the model’s request, but it was a striking image. It was also reasonably modest, with only the subjects’ hair and limbs visible.

Yeah, but…

Separating art from pornography by saying the former requires skill, still kind of implies that the latter is inherently less good and less valuable. I fully concede that porn is not something that everyone enjoys or wants to see. But so are some of the world’s great works of art. No, I don’t think that porn becomes art simply by virtue of being provocative and controversial. But where I’m landing on this question right now, is that there is no line…for me.  This gal’s opinion is that pornographic images, like any other creative endevour run the gamut from mindless dreck to artistic genius. As for which works fall into what category, there will probably never be consensus. With art there almost never is. I for one am happy to include the type of porn that I find beautiful in my everywoman definition of fine art.

Now…enough of my opinion! I know some of you picture takin’, art makin’ probably know a lot more about this subject than I do. Is there a line between porn and erotic art? Where do you think it lies? Whether you’re a respository of knowledge, chock full of opinions or bothI’m eager to hear what you think!

 

Comments

  1. Jon Fingas says:

    Short answer: is it intended to primarily to arouse, or to make you think? It’s porn if the former, art if the latter. You can have work that does both, but it’s usually clear which way the creator is leaning. The tricky bit is regulating it — you’d almost need a BBFC-style inspector to make that call, and that’s not ideal.

  2. Catelli says:

    I reject the premise that art and pornography are mutually exclusive. A Gala apple is a fruit and a type of apple. Being one doesn’t mean it is not the other.

    Art can be high-brow, low-brow, mass appealing, thoughtful, enraging, arousing, disgusting and hundreds of other distinctions. The one thing it is not is exclusively intellectual. For that matter, those distinctions can equally apply to porn as well.

    So if I happen to spend time thinking about it, I don’t ask “is it or is it not art?” rather I consider what kind of art it is, and then enjoy it or reject it for what it is and how it appeals to me. That applies to porn, photography, paintings, architecture and the end of year performance put on by my son’s kindergarten class.

  3. Amanda Earl says:

    Alan Moore wrote a great article about pornography & erotica entitled “BOG VENUS VERSUS NAZI COCK-RING: Some Thoughts Concerning Pornography”. here’s a wee, hopefully relevant quote:
    “Pornography, if it could be expressed artistically in such a way, might welcome our sexual imagination in from the cold, into the reassuring warmth of socio-political acceptability. The power of art is that it lets us see, in someone else’s work, an idea that we dimly formed but lacked the skill to realise or convey, and in this way makes us feel less alone. Pornography as we conceive of it today, however, does the opposite. It isn’t art, cannot be openly admired or discussed, serves only to convince us of our isolation, to increase our sense that we are in our secret and most intimate desires alone save for the reeking company of other sweaty, masturbating perverts and social inadequates.

    If we could redefine erotica, restore it to the venerated place in art that it was once accustomed to, this might defuse a number of our personal and social tensions with regard to sex in much the way it seems to have done at the dawn of western civilization. Realised properly, pornography could offer us a safe arena in which to discuss or air ideas that otherwise would go unspoken and could only stale and fester in our individual dark. Our sexual imagination is and always has been central to our lives, as individuals or as a species, and our culture might be much enriched, or at least more relaxed, if it acknowledged this. There’d be no more divine pornography by any future William Blake incinerated after his demise, no future Aubrey Beardsley on his deathbed, frightened, coughing for his finest work to be destroyed. No frilly decadent or bearded Beat compelled either to cower behind a pseudonym or add to the prolific oeuvre of ‘Anonymous’.

    Ennobled thus, pornography could take its place once more as a revered and almost sacred totem in society, could be brought full circle to its origins in the pneumatic pinhead babe of Willendorf. It seems we only have two choices in the way that we regard our own erotic dreams: either we can accept them and restore Bog Venus to her natural and proper place in culture; or we can reject them and attempt to stigmatise them, can attach arousal to so much conditioned shame and guilt and pain that in effect we have contained our sexuality within a spiky 19th century German cock-ring.

    In the end, it’s in the hands of individual people, individual artists, writers, film-makers or poets. If they have the nerve to plant their flags in this despised and dangerous terrain despite its uninviting nature, then in time the dismal wilderness might be transformed into a scented garden of enduring value. The erotic might be elevated from her current status as a hooker everyone keeps chained up in their cellar but nobody talks about, unmentionable but available, back to her previous position as a goddess.”

    • Hawksley says:

      Re Amanda’s comments on redefining erotica… Amanda, this is exactly the sentiment that led me to question the boundary. Local galleries seem to be indulging a more sex-positive attitude lately; there have been a plethora of ‘naked’ or other sexual-themed exhibitions over the last few years. Is this a reflection of changing mores within our society, or a concerted desire to attempt to drag Ottawans (kicking and screaming) pell-mell down that road? My fellatio image that Nadine referred to was overtly (blatantly) sexual, yet the focus was on the lines, forms and muscle tone of the participants while participating in a sexual act. I was looking to portray the physicality and sensuality of sex – examine the relationships between two people engaged in sexual acts through the way they use their bodies – while avoiding having the work be considered porn. This led to the question of whether any gallery would be willing to show this work; hence the question of art vs oorn and what is acceptable. While taboos regarding the showing of sex in galleries have been broken many years ago (anyone see the Pop exhibit, or any of Mapplethorpe’s work?), it was my impression that this seemed to be discouraged in Ottawa. Has this changed? Are curators following or leading here? Does it matter?

      Nadine’s initial instinct – art is skillful interpretation where porn is mundane, common (yes, I know I’m paraphrasing her – Nadine, sorry for simplifying your argument!) reminds me of an incident a few months ago. I was in a pub showing some of my photographic work to friends. After reviewing some of the work that I personally felt was interesting and creative, we came to the end and found pictures of some kittens that I had shot and mistakenly left on the same USB stick. A waitress walked by, glanced at a photo of a ubercute kitten (aren’t they all?) and exclaimed “that’s the most beautiful photograph I have ever seen!!!!!!!” I’m sure Edward Weston, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans all collectively rolled in their graves. While the art community would be dismissive of such work, this average shot of an attractive yet common, mundane subject inspired a strong emotion. Yes, kittens have been shot a hundred zillion times. There is nothing particularly new there. Yet the emotional response was no weaker for it – for that waitress, that kitten photo had great value. Even at its basest level, porn still inspires great emotion. Is the invocation of lust of less value than, say, loneliness? sadness? joy? The latter are all well represented in gallery collections. Why is the former not as well represented?
      I know I’m rambling here, but I’m planting my flag.

  4. Deejay says:

    Also the one above… heehee. Thanks! Love your column…

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