Moral panic: Porn, art, or both?

April 20, 2015

There’s plenty of debate on where the line is between art and pornography, or whether there really is a line at all. But before we start comparing the two, it’s a good idea to first define both terms.

Art: “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance” (Define Art at Dictionary.com, 2015).

Pornography: “obscene writings, drawings, photographs, or the like, especially those having little or no artistic merit” (Define Pornography at Dictionary.com, 2015).

So what are the differences and similarities between the raw definitions of these two terms? Looking at the definition of art on its own, it seems as though pornography fits the same criteria. Pornography is created for the sole purpose of being aesthetically beautiful, appealing, and of more than ordinary significance; as per the definition of art. However, the dictionary definition of pornography completely contradicts this, stating that the word ‘pornography’ is especially definitive of erotic images with little or no artistic merit. So why is it that one thing can essentially be defined by two vastly different terms?

Porn or Art Gallery

Dictionary definitions aside, art and pornography share many fundamental concepts. I created the cover image above to illustrate an art gallery hosting content that some people would consider pornographic, though many would also argue that there is plenty of artistic merit to the images, allowing them to essentially fall under both definitions. The dictionary definition of pornography is fairly broad as it relies heavily on the reader’s perception of what can be considered ‘obscene’. For example, in some cultures where faces or complete bodies are to be covered, a facial portrait may be considered obscene. So is there any art that can’t be considered pornographic? Or any porn that can’t be considered art?

The two following characteristics can often be used, to an extent, to determine if an artwork can be considered pornographic:

  • Viewer intention
    • “It’s what people are going to use it for. Are they going to look at it and admire it? Or are they going to use it in a sexual way?” (The Resident 2009). However, using this alone to determine whether or not an artwork is pornographic is unreliable, as it’s impossible to determine the intention of every viewer of an artwork.
  • Artist’s intention
    • Many would also say that it’s more so the intention of the content creator than the viewer, however artists aren’t always able to convey their intended meaning to their audience. It’s possible that their artwork could be interpreted as something completely different to what they intended, and this also relies on the viewer intention.

What I’ve concluded from this is that it’s often hard to determine whether an image can be defined as art, pornography, or even both. The way in which we define both of these terms are too broad to draw any sort of definitive line between the two. Contributing to this are the ambiguous dictionary definition of pornography, varying cultural perceptions of what is obscene, and difficulties in determining the intent of both the viewer and artist of a piece of content. Until we can refine these, we will always have issues differing between what is and isn’t porn.


References:

Cover image Photoshop’d from the following images: 1 2 3 4 5 6

Scerra, S., 2011, Drawing the line between art and porn… if there is one, Called To Write, viewed 19 April 2015, <http://www.stephaniescerra.com/2011/12/drawing-the-line-between-art-and-porn-if-there-is-one/>

The Resident 2009, Nudity: Art or Porn?, online video, 22 December, The Resident, viewed 20 April 2015, <http://www.theresident.net/nudity-art-or-porn/>

  • The concept of pornography varies between culture, religion, social and political opinion. According to Spender. D. A (1973), photography is not simply science but an art. Art is purely based on perception and opinion; nonetheless difficulty can arise when certain forms of art or pornography are conveyed. Erotica, a favourably artistic premise, illustrates sexual explicit scenes but isn’t considered pornography (Gehrke. W. J, 1996). Challenging the notion that pornography and art are separate entities, Dictionary.com (Define Pornography, 2015) states “obscene writings, drawings, photographs, or the like” as the definition of pornography, however considering that sex is a natural occurrence it becomes difficult to consider as obscene.

    ‘The Dairy Maid’s Delight’ drawing by Thomas Rowlandson (1759-1872) depicts representation of penetration and nudity, whereas this would likely be considered as ‘hard-core pornography’ or Erotica to some, is it not art due to the technical and imaginative proficiency expressed. Current film or photography centred pornography generally sits upon a diverse scale in comparison to mainstream products. Nonetheless, doesn’t pornography express themes, stories and subjects that ultimately are comparable of many films today, only expressed through a different output.

    Reference:

    Define Pornography, Dictionary.com
    Gehrke. W. J, (1996) Erotica Is Not Pornography, The Tech, retrieved 19.04.15
    Spencer, D A (1973). The Focal Dictionary of Photographic Technologies. Focal Press. p. 454.
    Thomas Rowlandson (1759-1872) ‘The Dairy Maid’s Delight’


  • This blog post was good from start to finish; your introduction was grabbing and clear and explained immediately the topic of the post. I really enjoyed the explanation of the two definitions and their similarities, I found that while lengthy, Hans Maes ‘The definition of porn’ was really helpful in further explaining the difference between art and porn.- “The line is drawn either on the basis of representational content, moral status, artistic qualities, or prescribed response” which allows another perspective on the distinguishing of the two.
    The cover photo is a really impressive example of ‘art’ as a construct that adapts based on the high culture or low culture it is subject to. It is almost a debate of semiotics when you reference ‘The Resident’ particular view on what is porn and what is art, because truly art could be porn without that being an artist intention. Your conclusion went through key points that excellently summed up the argument.

    Reference:
    Hans Maes, “Who Says Pornography Can’t Be Art?,” in Art and Pornography: Philosophical Essays, ed. Hans Maes and Jerrold Levinson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012),


  • Love the opening image. It immediately grabs the intention of the viewers, followed by an engaging introduction. Supplying both definitions of each term and analysing separately as well as together really helped to see determining the difference between art and pornography is almost impossible. For criticism, the only thing I could pick up on is discussing the difference in pornography artwork. For example the different styles of art used in the above image, although all displaying similar denotations, connotations can be quite different. Overall I believe this is a great, well written and structured blog.


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *