There is a long-standing debate over the nature of pornography in relation to erotica (or erotic art). What is the difference between the two? Was Michelangelo a pornographer? It seems the main argument to be that they stand on different planes because porn reduces the object (and, indeed, the subject) to their sexual nature and that only; whereas erotic art seeks beauty and human representation. Essentially, what makes an image (online or offline, still or video) erotic, or pornographic?
Jonny Pollock is contributing this second post tonight in his series-within-the-series that tries to answer the question of what pornography actually is.
In this debate there are various levels: from the surface to the deeply philosophical and psychological discussions of academics. Historically, the terms of eroticism and pornography have been brought together by conservatives and pulled apart by liberals, in a general sense. However, this has been brought to the surface again in society by the raging debate surrounding the literary release of “50 Shades Of Grey.”
“50 Shades of Grey” is the first in a trilogy by British author, E.L. James. The books focus on the relationship between protagonists Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, and explicitly detail the pair’s sadomasochistic sexual encounters. It has provoked much discussion over censorship and defining the terms of what is and isn’t acceptable in the public domain.
This debate, as I have said before, is historical. The most popular derivation of this debate has been in the sculptures of the Renaissance artists, in particular Da Vinci and Michelangelo, whose striving towards beauty and their depictions of the human form caused outrage, which they still do today. Most of us are familiar at least with Michelangelo’s iconic marble sculpture of a standing male nude, representing the Biblical hero David. (Albeit very poorly researched by the sculptor seeing as David, a Jew, would have been circumcised!) Yet this debate is circular as it creates a false dichotomy. “Who is to say that pornography isn’t art?” – promoters of pornography claim. They explain that art is any creative expression of the self-intended to inspire emotion in an audience. Sexual arousal is an emotion, and sexuality is a part of the self just as worthy of expressing creatively as any other. Pornography is a basic genre of art, no different from comedy, tragedy or drama. Whether David is pornography depends entirely on whether Michelangelo intended primarily for it to be sexually arousing. Which is obviously hard to know for certain at this point.
Studies have been carried out in this area, in particular to the philosophy behind the debate. The key element here isn’t whether the anatomy of the face or figure is correct, or whether the art object’s style can be seen as anyone of the multitudes of artistic styles. Yet it can be investigated in the intention of the creator. If the work has been executed erotically, it’s generally assumed that the creator viewed the subject matter as praiseworthy. Something to take pleasure in, celebrate, exalt, glorify. And in this sense, the erotic and the aesthetic merge.
Not to say that the artist’s work, even as pornographers claim like their ‘art’, isn’t also evocative. But, unlike pornography, it doesn’t appeal exclusively to our senses or carnal appetites. It also engages our aesthetic sense, our judgment about how this or that figure illustrates an ideal of human beauty. The rendering may border on the abstract, or be as real as an untouched photograph. It may be black and white, or in color. Male or female. The humans portrayed may be contemporary and real, ancient or mythic. What finally determines the work’s eroticism is how the artist (or, for that matter, author or composer) approaches their subject.Unquestionably, erotica and pornography both present the human organism in a manner that’s sexually compelling. But the aim of the pornographer is hardly to help his or her audience rejoice in the human form. Rather, the objective, is to typically leave little or nothing to the imagination, which leads to the “turning on” the viewer. It is a temporary ‘fix’ rather than an attempt to reach beauty and transcendence.
For me, the principal difference, and the line that defines in in the expected outcome of the production of the ‘art’. With pornography, it’s basically “sex for sale.” Artists who produce erotic works of art, I think, do it as they pursue beauty. It may sell, but their goal is usually not to sell their art, but to transcend sexuality to reach something higher, more beautiful and to communicate that with the patrons. Pornographers, on the other hand, are far less motivated by the desire to faithfully represent what they may regard as beautiful or aesthetic. Rather, their undertaking is contrived to “produce” what they believe will turn the largest possible profit. Further to this, even the term ‘pornography’ in its etymological renderings always connotes a sense of degradation in it’s portrayal of sex by reducing those involved in their ‘art’ as objects rather than representatives of beauty. It cheapens the sense of intimacy and beauty to become something carnal and mechanic.
Basically, pornography is simply sex without the intimacy, beauty and relationship.
//What do you think? What are the aspects of erotic art and pornography that differentiate or join them?// Other posts in this series can be found by clicking here.//