Monday, March 20, 2006

Art or Pornography

BondWoman’s post this morning set me to thinking about the relationship between art and pornography, and where the line can be drawn between the two. I suppose that really it is all a matter of definitions and boundaries and whether or not there is actually an overlapping of the boundaries between the two. Wikipedia defines art in the following way:

“By its original and broadest definition, art (from the Latin ars, meaning "skill" or "craft") is the product or process of the effective application of a body of knowledge and a set of skills; this meaning is preserved in such phrases as "liberal arts" and "martial arts". However, in the modern use of the word, which rose to prominence during the Renaissance, art is commonly understood to be the process or result of making material works (or artwork) which, from concept to creation, adhere to the "creative impulse"—that is, art is distinguished from other works by being in large part unprompted by necessity, by biological drive, or by any undisciplined pursuit of recreation.”
This is by no means a full and accurate definition, but it will suffice for this post. Wikipedia defines pornography in this way:

“Pornography is the representation of the human body or human sexual behaviour with the goal of sexual arousal, similar to, but distinct from, erotica, though the two terms are often used interchangeably.”
Again not a definitive definition but sufficient; however, a comparison of these definitions tells us absolutely nothing about the relationship between pornography and art.

Kant gives us a starting point in his “Critique of Aesthetic Judgment” in differentiating between the experience of the beautiful and the experience of the sublime.

“The beautiful in nature is a question of the form of the object, and this consists in limitation, whereas the sublime, is to be found in an object even devoid of form, so far as it immediately involves, or else by its presence provokes, a representation of limitlessness.”

Kant Critique of Aesthetic Judgment

He is saying that whereas the beautiful has an existence in a limited manner (i.e. the contemplation of a framed picture) the sublime challenges such judgmental acts by implying the existence of form beyond limitations.

Gustave Courbet painted two pictures (
The Origin of the World and La Source which can be used to illustrate the point admirably; and whilst today we see them both as ‘art’ this was not always the case as Tamar Garb points out:

“The context within which a work was intended to be shown may presuppose a certain viewing position, both physically and in terms of a set of intellectual and aesthetic predispositions. Courbet's Origin of the World, for example, commissioned by the Turkish diplomat Khalil Bey, was made for an entirely different audience from his La Source shown at the Paris Salon. They conform to different notions of decorum in their representation of the female body, the one provocative but acceptable as public display in the mixed context of the Paris Salon of the 1850s the other an arguably pornographic work directed to a private, exclusively male world of exchange.”
This tells us that the categorisation works produced for different audiences is very much dependent upon viewer and context, Tamar Garb again:

“Artists may, therefore, arrange their compositions, decide on scale subject-matter and materials in relation to the intended viewing context of their works and an imagined spectator for them. Some idea about the potential viewing content of a work is usually operative therefore at the moment of making, and the evidence for this may be traceable in the work. But this does not necessarily determine or circumscribe the subsequent meanings of the work. Once it enters into the public domain its potential signification shifts and alters constantly depending on the uses to which it is put, the context in which it is viewed, and the community by which it is viewed. Certain ways of looking may predominate at given historical moments, conforming to their own commonsense, their own logic and truth. Once these shift, so, necessarily, do the possible meanings attributed to cultural artefacts.”

Tamar Garb: Modernity and Modernism,
1993, The Open University pp.276-277

So, the distinction seems to be dependant, to an extent, upon societal norms, and these can change with time. This tends to indicate that we can only make judgements about what is art and what is pornography within the framework of the society in which we live; this I find difficult to accept

A larger part of the problems we have with defining the boundaries stem from “Pornography: The Longford Report” which had the effect of driving pornography underground where it has been impossible to exercise any meaningful control over it. The objectification of women in art has long been the subject of debate which, to my knowledge, has not yet come to any satisfactory conclusion, and is one which I suspect will rage for as long as women are portrayed in art. None of this really helps us in defining the boundaries; but Kenneth Clark, in his submission to the Longford Report, may be able to help us with his notion of the effect of art, and where it oversteps the mark:

“To my mind art exists in the realm of contemplation, and is bound by some sort of imaginative transposition. The moment art becomes an incentive to action it loses its true character. This is my objection to painting with a communist programme, and it would also apply to pornography. In a picture like Correggio's Danae the sexual feelings have been transformed, and although we undoubtedly enjoy it all the more because of its sensuality, we are still in the realm of contemplation. The pornographic wall-paintings in Pompeii are documentaries and have nothing to do with art. There are one or two doubtful cases - a small
picture of copulation by Gericault and a Rodin bronze of the same subject. Although each of these is a true work of art, I personally feel that the subject comes between me and complete aesthetic enjoyment. It is like too strong a flavour added to a dish. There remains the extraordinary example of Rembrandt's etching of a couple on a bed, where I do not find the subject at all disturbing because it is seen entirely in human terms and is not intended to promote action. But it is, I believe, unique, and only Rembrandt could have done it.”

Kenneth Clark: quoted in Pornography: The Longford Report

Clark is arguing that an image ceases to be art and enters the corrupted domain of pornography the moment that it becomes “an incentive to action”; he is saying that sensuality plays a critical role as a form of sexual content deemed to be permissible within the concept of art; whereas sexually explicit images which could be deemed to provoke an action are relegated to the realms of pornography. Therefore we can say that the mediated sexual image can be seen as art, whilst the unmediated sexual image is categorised as pornography. Although I still have problems even with this, I can accept that such a definition of the boundaries is reasonably clear, even though it does not completely prevent there being some degree of overlapping.

I know there will be those who will criticise this, and I would ask them to bear one thing in mind; this is a vast and wide ranging topic which has been the subject of a great many books. All I have done here is to scratch the surface and put forward what I think to be a sensible starting point for any argument of this topic.


Blogger Norman said...

In the art I found myself making over the span of decades, (I'm a seventy seven year old book artist) I've perused these issues, meditated on them -and explored these motifs continually.

In retrospect I can say my work evolved in stages: began actually as I was 'learning' 'how-to-draw' I made porn in the period of working on my 'learning pieces.' I worked with no models or mannikens-purely out of my head, my imagination. These were 'for my eyes only.'

-Ideal, as it turned out, it was for discovering-developing my own schema -mechanics for drawing -for rendering images that were readable -their gestures, actions legible. I made friezes of animated male and females, naked, touching, experiencing seduction, the tactility that heightens lust, makes the blood race. I called this (the work of the decade of 60's) my 'homemade-porn.'

I pondered the denoted word, 'pornography,' look it up in dictionaries, etc. -found the reference sources wanting in its metaphysics -just didn't fit the experiences I was having, the process I was engaged in. The esthetic outcomes didn't gibe. Contradicted what I read. Serendipitously, regardless of the reference books, I'd stumbled onto making my 'art' with this 'pornography'.

I invite you to visit my web site. so you can see what I'm talking about.

I'm a book artist. My artist's books are in museums, in public and private libraries. The Kinsey Institute in Bloomington Indiana has a substantial representation of what I do, has received very recently an updating as to my most recent work.

At this stage, my 'making-book art' IS about 'The Obscene'? And does 'porn' (by any definition) match the atttributes of genocide, ethnic cleansing, war, terrorism? My art is of this aspect as to what is NOT PERMISSABLE. THIS is the polemic of my art. Is and has been.

I'm hoping very soon to open my own blogger site. I would like very much to join this community -hold discourse on these themes, engage and be engaged by your commentary.

Saturday, August 05, 2006  
Anonymous BondBloke said...

Thanks for the comment Norman, and a very interesting one. Since posting this piece I have set up a seperate blog purely for art, A Brush with Art, related stuff, and I have copied your comment across to the relevant post there also. This piece was only ever designed to be a mind clearing exercise to work out the ideas for a longer more considered piece...

Sunday, August 06, 2006  

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