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Distinctions Between Art and Pornography

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Critically examine whether it is possible to distinguish convincingly between art and pornography

Introduction

The distinctions between art and pornography is one that the law has struggled with. There have been many attempts of defining the two by many art critics and authors. While there are indeed standard distinctions between art and pornography, there are still limitations behind these arguments. There is still an inevitable overlap between art and pornography that makes it difficult to easily distinguish between art and pornography.

Classic distinctions between art and pornography

Firstly, it may seem like it is possible to distinguish convincingly between art and pornography by relying on the classic distinctions. One of the main obvious differences is that pornography is explicit and objectifies people while art is subjective and relies on opinions from the viewer. This is supported by views from academics like Ann Eaton who posits that to enjoy porn, you have to objectify women (at least temporarily),[1] and one is unable to do this while simultaneously contemplating its artistic value.[2] This means that viewers of pornographic pictures will typically focus on the body parts involved in pornography while viewers of artwork will take the art piece as a whole and not to simply accept it at face value.

Another classic distinction would depend on the response invoked from the viewer. If a work seems to be solely designed to arouse sexual response, then it is viewed as pornography. Art invites the viewer to appreciate the work and it is more than just a physiological response. Jerrold Levinson has mentioned that art is centrally aimed at aesthetic experience while pornography is solely aimed at sexual arousal.[3] He feels that the two are incompatible. In other words, the different response invoked by the viewer is what determines whether something is art or pornography.

People generally perceive art as possessing an element of beauty and pornography as one that is non-aesthetic. Freud has once mentioned that ‘the genitals themselves, the sight of which is always exciting, are hardly ever regarded as beautiful.’[4] Critics like Roger Scruton has also said ‘the pornographic image is like a magic wand that turns subjects into objects, people into things – and thereby disenchants them, destroying the source of their beauty.’[5] George P. Elliot has defined pornography as ‘the representation of directly or indirectly erotic arts with an intrusive vividness which offends decency without aesthetic justification.’[6] This shows how some art critics feel strongly about pornography being strictly non-aesthetic as compared to art where its beauty is to be appreciated. Lynda Nead sees art as a sign of ‘cleanliness and licit morality’, where on the other hand pornography ‘symbolizes filth and the illicit’.[7] She is of the strong opinion that art reflects high social values where pornography reflects the other spectrum of the society which is one that is rotten. Hans Mae is of the similar view of Lynda Nead as he mentions that ‘art is concerned with beauty, while pornography is non-aesthetic and “smutty”’. [8] This shows how pornography is stereotypically viewed as non-aesthetic pleasing and this is distinguished when comparing the beauty of art.

Another difference between them is that there is the possibility of contemplation when looking at art and this is absent when viewing pornography. Schopenhauer has said that nudes prevent aesthetic contemplation as it inevitably excites lust and thus runs counter to the proper goals of art like aesthetic appreciation.[9] Kenneth Clark has mentioned to the Lord Longford committee on pornography that ‘art exists in the realm of contemplating, and is bound by some sort of imaginative transposition. The moment art becomes an incentive to action it loses its true character.’[10] This means that art requires one to enter the sphere of contemplation, if this is not possible, a subject cannot be deemed as art.

Limitations of these classic distinctions

However, while these classic distinctions may assist one in distinguishing between art and pornography, they are not without flaws.

One can argue that there are inherent flaws in the arguments of the classic distinctions. It may be possible to objectify people while thinking about whether it is art simultaneously. An example of this would be the artwork “Arsewoman in Wonderland” by Fiona Banner. The gallery blurb states that Banner has ‘used pornographic film to explore sexuality and the extreme limits of written communication’.[11] This is one way where women are objectified and one can think about whether it is art at the same time.

Ultimately, the age old adage where beauty is in the eye of the beholder can be applied to distinguishing art and pornography in terms of aesthetics. What could be considered as aesthetic pleasing to one may not be viewed as aesthetic pleasing to another. An example of this is the replica of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” which consists of a standard urinal that is laid flat on its back. This certainly may not be viewed as aesthetically pleasing to some but it remains as one of his most famous artworks. This shows that this certain distinction may not always be effective in distinguishing the two.

Other factors like culture play an important role in limiting or expanding the definition of both art and pornography. Previously, in September 2009, a photograph of 10 year old actress Brooke Shields, that consisted of her fully made up and naked was removed from Tate Modern’s exhibition at the time called “Pop Life”. However, now Art exhibitions like the Shunga exhibition[12] in the British Museum in 2014 portrays pornographic art pictures done by Japanese artists show how modern culture is becoming more accepting and liberal, thus expanding the informal definition of pornography. This shows how culture has evolved over the years in line with modern values and changes in perception. This means that it is challenging for there to be a fixed definition of pornography globally and the ever changing global culture makes it difficult to define ‘pornographic content’ in society. [13] The problem with art is that it is sometimes not seen as great until it is looked at decades in advance. If art is classified as pornography immediately on its creation as is censored, one might not know how great art is. With the lack of a definition, it is inevitable that pornography and art inherently overlap in certain aspects.

Instances where art and pornography inherently overlap

Furthermore, while the distinctions may help to clarify the inherent differences between certain examples of art and pornography, it does not serve to show that pornography and art are fundamentally incompatible. The arguments set forth by the aforementioned academics do not show that art and pornography are mutually exclusive. Many artworks fall in the overlap between art and pornography. There are many works of pornography that possess features which supposedly disqualify pornography from the realm of art. If we use these classic distinctions exclusively, many art works may fall on the side of pornography.

An example of a middle ground of art and pornography is pornographic art. This shows how the overlap of art and pornography is not necessarily a bad thing. Without this overlap. Many major works of art and literature may be lost due to its inability to be classified as art. For example, Lucian Fred’s highly explicit portraits of his nude subjects may be seen as pornography, but they are at the same time highly expressive.[14] Many of Rodein’s pornographic nude drawings like Hands on Her Sex or Naked Woman with Legs Apart which show drawings of female nudes masturbating has additional elements of it which can be perceived as expressive. In the case of literature, the novel Vox by Nicholson Baker has a pornographic stance but the intended sexual arousal gleaned from the reader is further enhanced by the literary features of the novel. This is an example of a novel that aims to be appreciated as pornographic art. [15] The sexual writing of Anais Nin emphasises strongly on sexual arousal but this is simultaneously done in order to bring to the attention of the reader her active consciousness and desires and her varying responses to certain people, feeling, and situations. [16] If we were to classify these examples as pornography, they would not be given the credit they deserve as great literary and art works.

However, the issue of pornographic art has been highly contested by critics. Jerrold Levinson feels that pornography can never be classified as art of any kind. He uses the aforementioned example of Vox By Nicholson Baker and states that it only mimics and resembles pornography, and it is not pornography in its true form. He goes on to mention that he does not think that classifying pornography as art is a good idea as it ‘leaves no place for the category of erotic art as distinct from pornography’.[17] He feels the furthest one can go in relation to pornographic art is simply art that has a pornographic feature or look, pornographic art should not have a category of its own.

This is not to say that there is no place for pornography in art. Tate Britain’s director, Stephen Deuchar has mentioned before that ‘much art is not comfortable’[18] which further proves that perhaps pornography can support art in the sense that it adds to the range and content of art. Many believe that the best new art allegedly infringes rules. Pornography can be used to invigorate more conventional art or question art’s susceptive work. Pornography can also serve to suggest transgression when art flies too safely to its own parameters.

On the other hand, there are also disadvantages to pornography entering the artistic realm. Pornography can act as an assault and crush elevated art into being more ordinary. People often like art as it invokes reality, one can argue that visual pornography is often styled in a certain way that does not usually represent the greater part of one’s experience.

Strict offences of pornography

Perhaps one of the reasons why it is important to be able to distinguish effectively between pornography and art is that there are strict offences relating to pornography. Under the section 48 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003[19], it is an offence to cause or invite child prostitution or pornography. Child pornography is defined as ‘any representation of a child engaged in real or simulated explicit sexual activities or any representation of the sexual parts of a child for primarily sexual purposes’ (Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 2002)[20]. There have been high profile police investigations like Operation Ore that led to the investigation of thousands of people in relation to possession of child pornography and downloading and making child pornography on the internet.[21] The operation was one of a very large magnitude. This reflects how serious and widespread the offences relating to child pornography is. Hence, there is a need to distinguish between pornography and art in order for child pornographic offences to be rightly convicted.

Another offence under pornography is the possession of extreme pornographic images under section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008[22]. Extreme pornography is low on morality and context, proscribing both bestiality and necrophilia. The case that was arguably the expedient basis for the need for this legislation involved Jane Longhurst[23] who was asphyxiated by Graham Coutts in 2003 in a ‘sex game’ that he claimed went wrong. Coutts’ habitual use of pornographic internet sites that featured woman in sexual activities involving death and strangulation was seen as attributing to his perverted view in relation to sexual acts.

These serious crimes involving pornography shows that the law views it as a strict matter and hence it can be argued that it is important for pornography and art to be distinguished in order for these offences to be regulated effectively.

Inevitably, the different attempts of defining pornography brings to mind certain legal descriptions of obscenity

There has been varying attempts of defining pornography many numerous art critics. Authors like Fred Berger has mentioned that he thinks pornography involves work ‘which explicitly depicts sexual activity or arousal in a manner having little or no artistic or literary value’.[24] A definition like this inevitably reminds one of certain legal descriptions of obscenity. For example, the Miller test in the USA, fleshed out in Miller v California[25] states that for something to be obscene it has to be found appealing to the prurient interest, depicts sexual conduct and taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value. Roth[26] suggested that all art should be saved if it had redeeming qualities. The Miller test is problematic to the definition of pornography as it seems to merge both the idea of pornography and obscenity as one. Critics like John Huer (Art, Beauty, and Pornography) have raised the idea that pornography seems to be a subset of obscenity, as the category of obscenity is wider as it includes many non-sexual instances. This once again reiterates the fact that the lack of a proper definition for pornography creates certain obstacles in obscenity law.

Conclusion

In conclusion, while it may seem like a somewhat simple task to effectively distinguish between art and pornography, one will soon realise it is not as easy as it seems due to the inevitable overlap of art and pornography and the limitations of the arguments. The current lack of definition for pornography has problems as mentioned previously. Perhaps with a possible definition of pornography in the future, art and pornography will be able to be distinguished with more ease.


[1] A. W. Eaton. ‘A Sensible Antiporn Feminism’ Ethics, Vol 117, No.4, Symposium on Education and Equality (July 2007)

[2] Tabatha Leggett. ‘Can pornography be art?’ (New Statesman) http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/06/can-pornography-be-art#main-content

[3] Jerrold Levinson. ‘Erotic Art and Pornographic Pictures’ Philosophy and Literature, Volume 29, Number 1, April 2005 (The Johns Hopkins University Press) pp 229-230

[4] Sigmund Freud. Civilization and its Discontents (Standard Edition, Volume 21). London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1961 pp 83

[5] Roger Scruton. Beauty. (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2009)

[6] Elliott, George P. ‘Against Pornography.’ Perspectives on Pornography. Ed. Douglas Hughes. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1970. Pp 74-5

[7] Lynda Nead. The Female Nude: Pornography, Art and Sexuality, Signs, Vol.15, No.2 (Winter, 1990) (The University of Chicago Press) pp 325

[8] Hans Mae. Drawing the Line: Art vs Pornography, Philosophy Compass (2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd) pp 386

[9] Arthur Schopenhaur. The World as Will and Representation. 1 vol. Trans. E.F. J. Payne. New York: Dover, 1965 pp 207-8

[10] Lord Longford. Pornography: the Longford Report (London: Coronet, 1972) 99-100

[11] Tate Britain. Turner Prize 2002: Shortlisted artists, Fiona Banner http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/turner-prize-2002/turner-prize-2002-shortlisted-artists-fiona

[12]The British Museum. Shunga: sex and humour in Japanese art, 1600-1900 http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/research_projects/all_current_projects/shunga_japanese_art_1600-1900.aspx

[13] Yaman Akdeniz. The Regulation of Pornography and Child Pornography on the Internet (Journal of Information, Law and Technology 1997 (1)) http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/1997_1/akdeniz1/

[14] Matthew Kieran. Pornographic Art, Philosopy and Literature, Volune 25, Number 1, April 2001 (The Johns Hopkins University Press) pp 35

[15] Matthew Kieran. Pornographic Art, Philosopy and Literature, Volune 25, Number 1, April 2001 (The Johns Hopkins University Press) pp 44

[16] Matthew Kieran. Pornographic Art, Philosopy and Literature, Volune 25, Number 1, April 2001 (The Johns Hopkins University Press) 37

[17] Jerrold Levinson. ‘Erotic Art and Pornographic Pictures’ Philosophy and Literature, Volume 29, Number 1, April 2005 (The Johns Hopkins University Press) pp 234

[18] Nigel Reynolds. ‘Turner Prize exhibition makes art a dirty word’ (The Telegraph 2002) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1411671/Turner-Prize-exhibition-makes-art-a-dirty-word.html

[19] Section 48 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2003/42/section/48

[20] United Nations Human Rights. Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/OPSCCRC.aspx

[21] John Carr. ‘A force to be reckoned with’ (The Guardian 2002) http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2002/nov/12/childrensservices.crime

[22] Section 63 Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2008/4/section/63

[23] R v Coutts (Graham) (Costs) [2007] 6 Costs L.R. 878

[24] Berger, Fred, ‘Pornography, Sex and Censorship.’ Social theory and Practice 4 (1977) pp 184

[25] Miller v California (1973) 413 U.S. 15

[26] Roth v United States (1957) 354 U.S. 476


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