First, let’s start by defining porn and understanding how pornographic art differs from other pieces of erotic art. Porn is an explicit representation of sexual attributes and behaviors. But so are medical textbooks and anatomical drawings do and they are not considered porn. What is the difference? For many philosophers and modern artists, the difference is that porn aims to elicit sexual arousal or desire, whereas other erotic art does not.
If we trace eroticism and pornography back through history, we are able to see similarities between the two. Pornography is dynamic; it changes throughout time based on acquired tastes. Forty years ago, “hardcore” porn usually meant the depiction of sex between two or more people. “Soft-core” porn on the other hand tended to show topless or nude women. But, these terms have changed over time. Today, hardcore porn has evolved immensely, and its subsections have increased ten-fold. BDSM, orgies, violence and humiliation, anal sex, etc. have all become part of pornography. The soft-core porn of today resembles the hardcore porn of just a few centuries ago. Images and paintings of half naked women are commonplace, and appear on almost every mainstream media outlet.
Ramachandran’s peak shift principle can easily explain this change in society’s pornographic taste. Although this psychological phenomenon was originally found in rats, it can be used to explain caricatures, as well as many other aspects of art. An example would be an evocative sketch of a female nude in which the artist selectively accentuates feminine form-attributes that allow the figure to be discriminated from a male nude. In the example of pornography, our brains have been rewarded for stimulus that is more sexually arousing, and therefore pornographic art has evolved to exploit this response. The pornographic art of a few centuries ago has become the erotic art, or soft-core porn, of today.
The received view of modern artists today is that pornographic art is an oxymoron. At best, porn is bad art, and at worst, porn is not art at all. More so, modern aesthetic art has built a wall between aesthetic pleasure and sensual, or sexual, pleasure. Immanuel Kant, a well-known philosopher, believed that purely aesthetic judgement is based entirely on feelings of disinterested interest, or a pleasure that does not depend on, or generate, a desire for the object. This belief has been echoed by Clive Bell, an art critic, who deduced that people who seek out pictures, poems, or music that appeals to our sensual feelings and desires are confusing the sensual with the aesthetic. Other philosophers believe that erotic art tends to be bad art, and that the more erotic the piece is the greater it is to appreciate it aesthetically.
But, there are many outstanding works of erotic art that cannot be ignored, and many modern artists believe these pieces count as art. Also important to note is that eroticism is central to these piece’s status and value as art. Two philosophers in particular have drawn the line where art begins and ends. Mag Uidhir, who researches the philosophy of art at the University of Houston, arrives at his conclusion with this evidence.
- If something is pornography, then that something has the purpose of sexual arousal (of some audience).
- If something is pornography, then that something has the purpose of sexual arousal and that purpose is manner inspecific.
- If something is art, then if that something has a purpose, then that purpose is manner specific.
- If something is art, then if that something has the purpose of sexual arousal, then that purpose is manner specific.
- A purpose cannot be both manner specific and manner inspecific.
- Therefore, if something is pornography, then it is not art.
Jerrold Levinson also concludes that erotic art is an art form, and pornographic art is not. He defends his position with these statements:
- Erotic art consists of images centrally aimed at a certain sort of reception (R1).
- Pornography consists of images centrally aimed at a certain sort of reception (R2).
- R1 essentially involves attention to form/vehicle/medium/manner, and so entails treating images as in part opaque.
- R2 essentially excludes attention to form/vehicle/medium/manner, and so entails treating images as wholly transparent.
- R1 and R2 are incompatible.
- Hence, nothing can be both erotic art and pornography; or at the least, nothing can be coherently projected as both erotic art and pornography; or at the very least, nothing can succeed as erotic art and pornography at the same time.
“R1” is aesthetic delight or aesthetic experience, and “R2” refers to sexual arousal and release. He continues with, “the aims of true pornography and the aims of art, erotic art included, are not compatible. One induces you, in the name of arousal and release, to ignore the representation as to get at the represented, and the other induces you, in the name of aesthetic delight, to dwell on the representation.
The opposite side of this argument begins with Malcom Budd, who states that all art prompts an emotional response in the viewer, gives them pleasure, grants them the satisfaction of appreciating a work well done, allows them to feel like they’re communicating with the artist, and encourages them to develop an attitude about the art. Porn does all of these things. Jeff Koons is an example of an artist that has made explicit paintings (Made in Heaven) for the function of encouraging audiences to form opinions about acceptable expressions of sexuality and to get them feeling a little hot under the cellar. Pornographic artists make many choices of expressivity in the lighting they use, the reactions they show, the angles they produce, the details they focus on, and the characters and positions they depict.
So, will porn ever be art? Although there is no definitive answer, many modern artists are starting to ask for people to stop confusing artistic merit with ethical deformity so we can begin to have interesting conversations about what constitutes “artistic” porn. Erotic art has become an acceptable art form in a very short period of time, and it would not be surprising if pornographic art does the same.
Things are pretty explicit, but:
- Feel free to google search “pornographic art” or “erotic art”
- Go to the museum and look at the nude paintings and sculptures
- Watch some porn?