Art or Porn: Clear Division or False Dilemma?  

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"I am sure that there can be works of pornographic art, simply because there already are works of pornographic art."


"Each of these works qualifies as both art and pornography. I am by no means the only one who thinks so. Linda Williams, for instance, calls In the Realm of the Senses [in Screening Sex] “the first example of feature-length narrative cinema anywhere in the world to succeed as both art and pornography.” Arthur Danto [in Playing with the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe] underlines the fact that Mapplethorpe “achieves images that are beautiful and exciting at once: pornography and art in the same striking photographs.” Douglas Wolk says of Lost Girls: “It is . . . beautiful, literary and moving. It’s also bluntly pornographic, with explicit sex scenes on almost every page.” After reading Pauline Réage’s The Story of O Susan Sontag was convinced that “works of pornography can belong to literature” and Brian Aldiss wrote: “I do believe that Pauline Réage has confounded all her critics and made pornography . . . an art.”

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

"Art or Porn: Clear Division or False Dilemma?" (2010) is a paper by Hans Maes first published in Philosophy and Literature. It is a direct contradiction of the claims that porn can't be art put forward in "Erotic Art and Pornographic Pictures" (2005) by Jerrold Levinson and "Why Pornography Can’t Be Art” by Christy Mag Uidhir. The paper does not use the term erotic at all.

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Blurb

Art or Porn? The popular media will often choose this heading when reviewing the latest sexually explicit novel, film, or art exhibition. The underlying assumption seems to be that the work under discussion has to be one or the other, and cannot be both. I think this is a false dilemma. Against Jerrold Levinson and Christy Mag Uidhir, I argue that pornography and art are not mutually exclusive and that the phrase “pornographic art,” far from being an oxymoron, actually designates a legitimate artistic category. There is strong opposition to this view in the philosophy of art today. Both Jerrold Levinson and Christy Mag Uidhir have recently argued that pornography and art are mutually exclusive. So, my first task is to show that their arguments, though well-crafted and carefully formulated, ultimately fail.

Corpus

In the domain of literature one could mention, besides the inevitable Marquis de Sade, Pierre Louÿs’s Trois Filles de Leur Mère (She-Devils), Pauline Réage’s Histoire d’O (The Story of O), and Mieke Maaike’s Obscene Jeugd (The Obscene Youth of Mieke Maaike), written by one of Flanders’ most celebrated authors, Louis Paul Boon. In the visual arts there is the rich tradition of Japanese shunga illustrations: woodblock prints depicting sexually explicit scenes intended for use in brothels and the private bedroom. Exquisite examples include Hishikawa Morohira’s “Erotic scenes” (c. 1700), Isoda Koryusai’s “Man kissing woman’s nipple” (late eighteenth century), Kitagawa Utamaro’s “Woman with man with black cloth and food service” (1788) and Katsushika Hokusai’s famous depiction of an Awabi fisherwoman being “embraced” by an octopus (“Untitled” 1824). Indian culture gave us the Kama Sutra and many highly artistic miniatures depicting sexual positions directly or indirectly inspired by the Kama Sutra. “The private pleasure of Prince Murad son of Shah Jahah by Goverdhan” or “The private pleasure of Raja Dalpat Singh by Lakroo” (1678–98) are just two examples. In the Western tradition there are a number of canonized artists who have produced paintings, drawings, engravings of an unmistakable pornographic nature (though for censorship reasons these were rarely displayed in public and often deliberately kept secret). Images such as “Reclining Masturbating Girl” by Klimt (1916–17), “Woman with Black Stockings” (1913) by Schiele, “Female Nude on All Fours, Rear View, Dress Lifted to Hips” by Rodin (undated), or “I Modi” created by the engraver Marcantonio Raimondi after a series of paintings by Giulio Romano (16th century), are as explicit and arousing as any image in Hustler Magazine, though their artistic quality is infinitely greater. When arguing for the existence of pornographic art photography the obvious name to mention is Robert Mapplethorpe, while In the Realm of the Senses (Nagisa Ôshima, 1976), with its many subtle references to the shunga tradition, is often cited as the best example of a pornographic art film. Finally, there is the artform of the graphic novel, often overlooked in discussions about pornographic art. There are numerous pornographic comic books that, in my opinion, deserve the status of art, including (but not limited to): Guido Crepax’s “The Story of O” (1975) and “Justine” (1979), Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s “Lost Girls” (2006), and Dave McKean’s short story “X-Rated” (2009). This by no means exhaustive list indicates that the cross-section between pornography and art does not just exist in theory but in reality. The label “pornographic art” seems perfectly appropriate for each one of the examples mentioned.

Maes's answer to Levinson's hesitation in the case of Schiele and Klimt

"Of all the works listed in section III, Levinson only mentions the drawings of Klimt and Schiele as potential problems for his account. [...] He sees two ways of dealing with this case (without expressing a clear preference for one solution over the other): “The first is simply to accept that, on the conception defended here, those drawings must be accounted pornography, but pornography that it is uncommonly aesthetically rewarding. . . . The second is to posit for those drawings an implicit artistic intention as robust as the explicit pornographic one . . . in virtue of which they can be accounted, though uneasily, erotic art after all” (p. 238)."

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