Drawing the Line between Pornography and Art

Porn and art generate two classic human responses: “Art is in the eye of the beholder” and “I know porn when I see it.”

Sometimes these responses overlap such as in reaction to erotic Egyptian drawings, Ancient Greek wine vases, 19th century etchings and literature, and in 20th century erotic photos, movies, and adult cartoons. In these cases, we observe art with erotic touches or eroticism with artistic touches. What is the difference between them? And can we find the spot that divides them?

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Erotic and Satirical Papyrus. Papyrus, Der el-Medina, New Kingdom,
Dynasty XX (1186 – 1070 BCE). Turin Museum

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Erotic scene on the rim of an Attic red-figure kylix, c. 510 BC.

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Alfred Beardsley

Novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand is passionately adamant about where her boundaries are: “I want to state, for the record, my own view of what is called “’hard-core’” pornography. I regard it as unspeakably disgusting. I have not read any of the books or seen any of the current movies belonging to that category, and I do not intend ever to read or see them.”

John Stagliano, a porn producer and an Objectivist, said,: “My argument that pornography is art hinges on the value I put on sexual arousal. I submit that is as valid an emotional response as fear, hate, joy, or any other emotion. Those that don’t think pornography is art perhaps don’t value the sexual response and therefore dismiss porn as art. Still, if their response to it was immediate revulsion than that in itself proves that it is art.”

Rand saw explicit sex in movies and writing as porn. Stagliano implies that if it conveys emotion, it is art.These perspectives raise some questions: Is there a difference between sex in a book and a movie? What about non-art situations that raise heated emotions such as football games, and traffic jams?

In ancient Greek theater sex and murder took place off stage behind the skene, yet, in Greek comedies, male characters paraded exaggerated fake genitalia. Contemporary films portray murder, medical operations, and romance but none of these things happens for real; they are make-believe.

I casually discussed the question of art versus porn with two contemporary philosophers, David Kelley, Founder and Chief Intellectual Officer of TAS, and Stephen Hicks,  philosopher at Rockford University. Kelley commented, “Art and pornography raise thorny questions of definition — and even thornier questions of application, a real briar patch.”

Hicks added: “Art and porn are often put in different categories. But my view is that porn can be art — though in the range of kitsch, slapstick, or doggerel. That is, it’s of a kind with portrayals that take important human values but present them in crude, reductionist, or only semi-authentic ways. The issue is not ‘that’ sex is presented but ‘how’ it is.”

Georgina Leahy, singer, performer, model, and social media diva, who recently posed for two of my paintings in the Lovers Series, Arabesque, told me: “I never thought about it, art is art, porn is porn. I would never do porn, but I am always pushing the boundaries as an art muse.”

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Newberry, Arabesque – Heterosexual Couple with Georgie Leahy and Jase Grimm, oil on linen, 48 x 72 inches

So where is the boundary? The re-creation of sex in art requires the viewer to consciously or subjectively decide whether it is in good or bad taste, which also holds true for how we judge art in general. Giving us a clue, Rand defines art as a re-creation of reality, not as a literal transcription of it. It seems to me that the documentation of sex with real people through photos, movies, and on stage is the edge of the issue. Where would you draw the line?

Michael Newberry is Artist-in-Residence at The Atlas Society. He has exhibited in New York, Los Angeles, Athens, and Rome. Follow him on Instagram at @artnewberry.

Originally published with The Atlas Society.

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