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Sensual vs. explicit, erotic vs. porn

Updated on November 13, 2014
Sleeping Venus, by Giorgione
Sleeping Venus, by Giorgione | Source

There seems to be a huge confusion about these terms and their meanings, as well as the nature of images they represent. In special among the most conservative, fundamentalist religious folk (you can see this kind of thing in religious forums and comments by religious people on the net), they seem to not make any difference among the many types of nude imagery. Even among Catholics, there is condemnation of the nude, some extremists even claim that the Vatican should destroy Michelangelo's works!

There are also many explicit and porn images sold under the label "erotic" and "artistic nude". And there are nudes that, although artistic, are still (at least for religious morals) morally objectionable. But then, where to draw the line?
Let's think about the Victorians and general 19th century morals and art. The 19th century was an era of extreme prudishness and conservatism, in special in Victorian England. Some very strict Victorians would not tolerate the use of words like "legs" or "pants". Ladies showing their ankles were scandalous. When the crenoline was invented, liberating women from layers of heavy and hot petticoats, there was a serious technical problem: their ankles would be exposed when sitting or bowing. They solved this by abandoning the slippers and replacing them with boots.

Victorians hated the very idea of government intervention in work relationships. The bosses exploited their employees as they could, the hours were incredibly long for low pay, working conditions were appaling, employees would die or lose their limbs because of the lack of safety, and nobody cared. Yet, when the upper classes heard that some poor women were being forced by circumstances to work in jobs intended for men, wearing pants, reforms were made immediately! Women had no right to have legs!

"Hylas and the Nymphs", a Victorian painting by J. W. Waterhouse
"Hylas and the Nymphs", a Victorian painting by J. W. Waterhouse | Source

Victorians and contemporary society from other places always accepted the nude in art. However, it was not any kind of nude. There were certain rules to be followed.

When Manet exposed his work "Olympia", the scandal was so great that many people tried to destroy the painting, and it had to be placed out of the reach of the public. Why such different reaction?

The nude is able to communicate the very essence of human nature. It can symbolize our vulnerability, our miserable condition without God, and the very good qualities of man: beauty. In Christian theology man is the highest creation of God, made in His image, reflection, even trough imperfect and damaged by the Fall, of His glory. A sensual Venus symbolizes beauty and love, and other noble aspects of sensual pleasure. Sexuality is part of the human nature, and is not always used for sinful purposes. To the Victorians, the risk such a nude has to arouse impure toughts and desires was outweighted by the benefits from the good messages it could convey.

Now let's go back to "Olympia". The painting resembles in composition Botticcelli's "Venus". However, it does not portray Venus. It portrays a young woman, probably a prostitute, being served by a black slave or servant (indicating the contemporary setting), very far from the nobility of Classical Rome. No uplifting message, just some ugly fact of life.

"Olympia", by Manet
"Olympia", by Manet | Source
"Woman at Bathtub", by Degas
"Woman at Bathtub", by Degas

Other nudes, now not really considered vulgar, like the women at bathtubs by Degas, or the bathers by Renoir, were scandalous. This was because they did not fit Classical standards of beauty and settings. They portrayed real women: no perfect proportions, just natural, imperfect beauty, or no beauty at all, just intimate reflections (as in some by Degas), therefore were not considered "noble". It took time to the public to recognize the value of such representations.

Now, if the line between what may be considered "noble and uplifting" may be tenuous and what some people will see as such may not be seen the same way by others, that's what differentiate porn from erotic and sensual from vulgar. Porn merely shows the body as an object of desire, no messages behind it. Vulgarity uses nudity or scanty dressing with the sole or unnecessary purpose of arousing sexual desire.

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