Art Vs. Pornography
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.
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.
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).
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.
Maybe it's time we brushed up on our art history knowledge; it can reveal a lot about our current culture.
I also think it is important to hear from the perspective of those in these photographs and paintings as it reveals yet another side of the debate.
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.