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Art Vs. Pornography

Updated on December 15, 2017

Imagine yourself walking through an art gallery. You pass a number of paintings depicting various flowers and landscapes, not really thinking too much about it until you stop at one picture in particular. It’s a photograph of a man and a woman having sex. You are now faced with a question that’s been asked again and again throughout human history; is this picture artistic or pornographic? Before you answer, let’s look at the definition of each word.

Art is defined as “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.” (Source: Dictionary.com)

Pornography is defined as “obscene writings, drawings, photographs, or the like, especially those having little or no artistic merit” (Source: Dictionary.com). Or, according to the world English dictionary “writings, pictures, films, etc, designed to stimulate sexual excitement.”

I find it funny that Dictionary.com’s definition states that it has no artistic merit, when art is in the eye of the beholder. So that photograph of the couple having sex might be art to you, but it might be porn to the person behind you. So, what is the point of this article if art is subjective? The point is that it’s not entirely subjective and there are, in fact, variables that can change one’s perception. I can’t say I know all the variables, but I’ve identified three that are fairly universal.

Depicted here is the 6th bay of Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo. It's a timeless piece of religious artwork that, by today's censorship standards, is inappropriate.
Depicted here is the 6th bay of Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo. It's a timeless piece of religious artwork that, by today's censorship standards, is inappropriate. | Source

Age: How old is it?

Age is a big factor in determining whether something is art. It’s kind of like how old books are often thought to be well written just because they’re old and we don’t understand all of the language in them. These are all things you’re probably familiar with; the Statue of David, the Venus de Milo and the Sistine Chapel. These are all classic pieces, universally agreed upon that they are, in fact, art. They also have something else in common; they all depict nudity. Now imagine that all of these pieces of art were re-created today, by modern artists, and placed in a public place. Suddenly it goes from being a classical sculpture by a famous artist, to stone boobs in a park. The evidence is in modern day censorship. You can show these statues and paintings in school text books, on television and on legitimate websites, but if you re-create that picture or sculpture, with a real-life model and take a picture of her or him, then that same exact image is no longer appropriate.

On the left is a stock photo of a woman in a bikini. On the right is the same image made to look artistic using a few Photoshop effects. Which one would be easier to make an argument for as art?
On the left is a stock photo of a woman in a bikini. On the right is the same image made to look artistic using a few Photoshop effects. Which one would be easier to make an argument for as art?

Medium: What is it made out of?

Generally when you think of art, you think of painting, drawing and sculpture, among other hands-on, dirty crafting materials. All of these seem to get a free pass when it comes to consideration into the art club. It’s true that one can still think a drawn image is pornographic, but imagine the following images side by side; both are a naked woman, but one is drawn and the other is a color photograph. It is hard to deny that the art argument is easier to make for the drawn woman over the photographed one. This is an unfortunate side effect of nude magazines and pornographic movies. If it is a picture of a real man/woman, it is going to have a lot working against it right out of the gate. It’s a shame because photography is a valuable art form, but never will you see a photograph of a naked person in a public building, and I find it rarer in art galleries than illustrated nudes (at least, in the art galleries I’ve visited).

I've enlisted the help of Victoria, a morph-able 3D model, to illustrate my point. Just by making subtle modifications to body shape, the image becomes progressively more inappropriate. Sorry, curvy ladies, but you were born offensive.
I've enlisted the help of Victoria, a morph-able 3D model, to illustrate my point. Just by making subtle modifications to body shape, the image becomes progressively more inappropriate. Sorry, curvy ladies, but you were born offensive.

Degree of Sexuality: What are they doing?

Regardless of medium or age, the largest factor for the art versus pornography argument is the degree of sexuality. The most obvious being; a naked person standing alone is more likely to be considered art than two naked people having sex. But there are more factors than that. A woman with large breasts, over a woman with small ones, is going to be considered more sexual. There was a commercial a while ago produced by Lane Bryant where a plus sized model was depicted in lingerie. The commercial was, at first, deemed too inappropriate to be aired, even though skinnier women have been getting away with it in Victoria Secret commercials for decades. I’m not sure if this is a result of the divide between fashion models and porn stars (fashion models are all twigs) or if we’re all just too afraid to admit that curvaceous, full figured women turn us on more. On the flip side, male nudity is acceptable as art, only when the man doesn’t have an erection. As soon as that one body part moves ninety degrees, it is suddenly the most offensive thing we’ve ever seen. I’m assuming the reasoning behind this is that it represents sexual arousal, which is the second definition of pornography I listed above. But, sexual arousal is a part of the human experience; beautiful and natural, which fits in with the definition of art.

I’ve gone back and forth about this a lot recently. I wrote an article about America’s Fear of Sex and Nudity, examining our weird standards of appropriateness, and I wrote an article about Manufactured Controversy which looks into shock and awe, and how it’s just another tool of advertising. But after all of this I still haven’t come up with a definitive answer to the question; what is art and what is pornography. But I think that’s the point. I’ve said in the past that everything has the capacity to be art, but what separates our concept of ‘art’ from our concept of ‘pornography’ is really just our superego. What we’ve been taught and how we wish to be perceived by those around us. I believe that if one looks hard enough, they can find art in everything.

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    • M. T. Dremer profile image
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      M. T. Dremer 3 years ago from United States

      Kingslayercrow - It's definitely taught by modern society. Obviously tribal communities, that don't wear clothing, have no problems with the offensiveness of nudity. While it might be difficult to pin-point the turn, I suspect it was helped along by certain religious ideologies that, while in the majority, spread their beliefs about nudity to distant lands. It's certainly a deeper topic than I could cover here. Thank you for the comment!

    • profile image

      Kingslayercrow 3 years ago

      hidden under clothing.

    • profile image

      Kingslayercrow 3 years ago

      I think the human body is a work of art, and sexuality is part of who we are as human beings. People are offended by nudity because society teaches us at a young age that our bodies are something to be ashamed of and hidden under clothinh.

    • M. T. Dremer profile image
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      M. T. Dremer 6 years ago from United States

      modgirlok - There are definitely different ways that nudity and the human body can be displayed that will make it more sexual. As I said above, the more curves a woman has, the more sexually she will be perceived. But other things play a role too like pose, facial expression, type of clothing (if depicted) and what the camera is focused on. But I do think it is possible for something that is sexual, or something representing human sexuality, to be artistic, as it is yet another part of the human experience and is beautiful in its own way. Thanks for the comment!

    • modgirlok profile image

      modgirlok 6 years ago from Oklahoma

      I think nudity can be artful. The human body is a fascinating and beautiful thing, and I believe it is only sexual when viewed in a sexual manner or with sexual desire.

    • M. T. Dremer profile image
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      M. T. Dremer 6 years ago from United States

      TtfnJohn - Every time I see blurbs from modeling reality shows, it's obvious that the clothing industry favors the rake thin models you were talking about. In my mind this is happening because these girls most closely resemble a coat rack. That isn't meant to insult them, but rather point out that they are showcasing clothing, something that is normally hung on a rack of some sort, but a rack can't move. So you get the next closest thing. Plus, the more fabric one uses, the more it costs to produce, so they want girls who can fit into any crazy small outfit they can whip together. So despite their reputation as 'models', these women aren't necessarily the standard for sexy. Which, as you pointed out, porn stars tend to have more curves and these are the women people watch for sexual arousal.

      I find it very interesting that you brought up how porn was something only rich people could afford at one point and that lower class churches then demonized it. There is definitely a tendency to paint the wealthy as the villains. Whether it's because of jealousy or rebellion against their power in society, doesn't really matter. It's always that guy in a tower with hundreds of henchmen who tries to kill our hero. I suppose the roots of sexual censorship are much deeper and far spread than I first thought. Thanks for the comment!

    • profile image

      TtfnJohn 6 years ago

      We need to rethink what is "traditional". As I said earlier it was at the beginning of western culture's rejection of sexuality being portrayed in art that the Vatican took it upon themselves to "decorate" art and statues with things like fig leaves. Before that no one seemed all that concerned.

      You are right about strange standards, at times, about what is and isn't acceptable. Ads for places like Victoria's Secrets with rake thin fashion models are accepted whereas plus sized models in the same lingerie are rejected. You've noted that perhaps a woman being voluptuous is considered more pornographic than a woman who is rake thin. Thing is if you look at paintings up to the 20th Century they feature voluptuous women in various states of dress, not skinny ones. Certainly female porn stars have more "meat" on them than do fashion models. Equally the Victorian era notion of heavy censorship of sexuality seems class based in many ways. The upper classes or the rich could get pornography very easily. The poor or working classes hardly, if ever, at all. Churches serving the wealthy and upper crust seem to have not made a fuss of it if preserved sermons mean anything while churches serving the poor or working class often seem to have focused on nothing but porn and the evils of the enjoyment of human sexuality.

      Yes, it's subjective and the line between a "tasteful" nude and one that's pornographic seems blurry. After all scent ads on tv veer close to depictions of sex even if the actors/models are fully dressed or not.

      You're right in that most people we consider socially conservatives have a very low tolerance of depictions of the human body while liberals are more accepting. But even there the lines get blurred. One person's porn is another person's tasteful nude is another's porn. Quite the circle we get to draw outselves here!

    • M. T. Dremer profile image
      Author

      M. T. Dremer 6 years ago from United States

      Curiad - There definitely is a line that is different for each person. People who tend to be more conservative in their views, have a very low tolerance for nudity in any form, where as people with more liberal views might see things that are traditionally offensive as artistic. Since it is subjective, there will probably never be a consensus on any of it. Thanks for the comment!

    • Curiad profile image

      Mark G Weller 6 years ago from Lake Charles, LA.

      As you stated M.T. Dreamer, this is a very subjective question. I feel that nudity can be are and can be very beautiful. On the other hand, it can be considered pornography by some and the line that determines that is variable.

    • M. T. Dremer profile image
      Author

      M. T. Dremer 6 years ago from United States

      No - I would have to disagree, I believe that nudity can be tasteful. In my mind, it all depends on how it is presented. An image that depicts and celebrates the human body is artistic, whether there is nudity in it or not; clothes are not the deciding factor for art. An argument could be made for other kinds of nudity as well, but that's an entirely different debate. Thanks for your thoughts on the matter.

    • profile image

      No 6 years ago

      Nudity cannot be tasteful. Nudity is nudity, and if the definition of porn requires sexuality, then then nudity may not be porn, it is still distasteful though.

    • M. T. Dremer profile image
      Author

      M. T. Dremer 6 years ago from United States

      IntimatEvolution - Thank you; I'll have to keep an eye out for that hub. I enjoy discussing the intricacies of this topic. Thanks for the comment!

    • IntimatEvolution profile image

      Julie Grimes 6 years ago from Columbia, MO USA

      Great hub writer. I think you would enjoy RKHenry's hub Nipples, Pubic hair or art. I think that's the title of it. Anyways, it falls along the same lines as this one does. Very thought provoking.

    • M. T. Dremer profile image
      Author

      M. T. Dremer 6 years ago from United States

      Rusty - Thanks for the compliment and the comment!

      TtfnJohn - It's interesting to see how dictionary definitions of the same word vary depending on the edition. I didn't realize that the word pornography was derived from writings about prostitutes. It's fascinating stuff. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

    • profile image

      TtfnJohn 6 years ago

      The world English dictionary appears to have borrowed the OED definition: "printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate sexual excitement."

      The OED adds the following:

      "Origin:

      mid 19th century: from Greek pornographos 'writing about prostitutes', from porn? 'prostitute' + graphein 'write' "

      The word seems to have arisen from the anxiety concerning sex that arose in the Victorian era and has dominated Englsh speaking culture till recently though I'd agrue in current popular use the sexual aspect is being degreaded.

      It seems that art also changed as a result of that what with the covering of genetalia in the Vatican later in that period just in case it might be pornographic a concept and interpretation that wouldn't have been made about a figure study before.

    • Rusty C. Adore profile image

      C Levrow 6 years ago from Michigan

      This is actually a really interesting hub. I've always wondered where the line between art and porn is drawn in the sand...

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