Pornography, eroticism and the “art” category

by bjmuirhead

I have been experiencing a great deal of difficulty thinking through eroticism in art. On one hand it seems that there is a lot to say, while on the other hand saying more seems almost pointless, if only because the term “erotic” is so broad that it can contain almost any idea related to the perception of the sensuality of the human body. Perhaps the one view that most (but only most) people agree on is that “the erotic” signifies something other than blatant sexuality and does not include (in art, at least) representations of actual sex acts intended to arouse sexual desire and/or sexual feelings. Beyond this, however, the term seems to include all representations of the (primarily naked) human body.

The distinction between the erotic and the pornographic, however, is not clear cut (nor is the role which the erotic and the pornographic play in our culture), and artists often are accused of producing pornography rather than art. The reason seems to be that different people and groups of people within the same culture use different criteria for their definitions of pornography. There are those, e.g., who believe that the mere fact of nudity in an artwork renders the work pornographic, irrespective of any other consideration. Their definition of pornography depends on the belief that all nudity is morally reprehensible, and that the naked body is inherently and provocatively sexual merely by being naked, and therefore is pornographic if displayed in any fashion or context; but we can ignore views such as this—they don’t allow even the possibility of an acceptable nude. Of more interest are those views which claim that some nudes are art, whilst others are pornographic. The possibility that a particular work may be both art and pornographic is considered rarely, Robert Mapplethorp’s work being one of these rare instances. The reason for this, simplistically, is that discussions of this nature usually occur within the overall framework of what is called an exclusive disjunction: something either is p or is not p, but not both.

In order for this type of distinction to be made, there needs to be some means of distinguishing between art which is not pornographic and art which is pornographic (and which, therefore, is not art). For Roger Scruton (2009 , 158–162) the two are distinguishable by appealing to the notion of the embodied person and contrasting it with sexual feelings and their arousal: if a representation of a nude shows the embodied person (their subjectivity) and does not arouse sexual interest in the viewer, then the work is erotic. If, on the other hand, the representation does arouse sexual feelings (interest, fantasies), then the work is pornographic. Simplistically, the point Scruton is making is that pornography is bad because it focuses on sexual desire and acts, and is intended to arouse sexual desire in the viewer contra erotic art which is at least acceptable because it focuses the viewer’s attention on the (subjectivity of the) embodied person and leads to contemplation of the nature of sexual feeling without arousing sexual feeling in the viewer. The former is interest in the body, the latter is interest in the embodied person. (Scruton 2009 , 159)

Before going on to consider Scruton’s example of a work which hovers on the edge of being pornographic, it is important to note that what is at issue is argument about the criteria by which we determine that a particular image is pornography and not erotic art. The assumption behind such argumentation is that there is such a thing as pornography, and that it is morally suspect, if not outrightly reprehensible. A goodly part of this certainty that pornography exists and is reprehensible arises from our cultural history and the contained cultural story lines about how the world works. (see Cherland 2008 , 273–274 for an interesting take on this.) This is relevant simply because our Western tradition has “the nude”and pornography. Other cultures do not necessarily have a categories. China, for example, does not have any art form which we can designate as the nude (i.e., as works publicly exhibited) but it does has an ars erotica (usually intended for private viewing) in which naked bodies appear, and which were intended to be of sexual interest. (see Jullien 2007 , 42–49) This work, along with similar work produced by Japanese artists, would, on Scruton’s view, be deemed pornographic or, at best, on the borderline between acceptable art and pornography. The point, of course, is that the depiction of sexual activity was not rejected in their original cultures. (The cultural and moral imperialism of the Christian West, however, is changing this, and has been doing so for quite a long time.)

Anonymous, Woman Reading, Japan, circa 1910s

Anonymous, Woman Reading, Japan, circa 1910s

In contrast to images such as Woman Reading, Scruton’s offered example is Boucher’s Blonde Odalisque. There are several versions of this work, which is assumed to be of Marie-Louise O’Murphy, who was mistress to Louis XV. This painting, according to Scruton, (2009 , 161) encroaches on “the bounds of decency” in at least two ways. Firstly, the woman is shown in a position she could never adopt when clothed, a position which has no place in life except in terms of the sexual act. (Whilst this was the case in Eighteenth century France, it is not the case now, where clothes permit this position, and when clothed variants of the position may be seen in public parks and in films, for example, without necessarily implying availability or willingness for sex.) Secondly, she is alone in the painting and doing nothing other than what we can see; her position, however, invites us to fill the place of the absent lover—we are, in the most blatant of terms, invited to fuck her.

It is, I think, pointless to discuss Scruton’s observations in detail—they are well supported by (conservative) cultural and feminist, as well as being supported both by historic precedent and in respect of interpretation, and common cultural opinion. It is worth noting, however, that Scruton (2009 , 154) says of Titian’s work (a specific painting is not identified, but he seems to be referring to the Venus of Urbino) that we do not detach the unclothed body from the face and personality, with the result that Venus is not being shown to us as an object of desire, but “is being withheld from us, integrated into the personality that quietly looks from those eyes and which is busy with thoughts and desires of its own.” (Scruton 2009 , 155) In contrast, Boucher uses “off-the-shelf stereotypes” which enable the face to act as no more than a pointer to the body, with the result that Boucher’s nudes show us possible objects of our own desire, of fantasy.

Francois Boucher, Blonde Odalisque,1740

Francois Boucher, Blonde Odalisque,1740

The erotic in art, from this point of view, not only does not, but cannot excite or attract the viewer sexually because it does not focus only on the body and the viewer’s (sexual) fantasies. Rather, the erotic takes us into a consideration of the nature of the erotic desire of the people pictured—and art fails if it provokes any other, more personal response because it ceases to be erotic and becomes pornography. (see Scruton 2009 , 159–160) This is to say that any nude which cannot be viewed from this “aesthetic distance”, and so studied for what it tells us (intellectually) about erotic desire, fails to be art according to Scruton. (2009 , 160)

As a means of distinguishing between the pornographic and the non-pornographic in art, the maintenance of aesthetic distance contra personal (sexual) interest, fails for many reasons, not the least of which is the nature of human sexual interest and feeling. The types of people, bodies and situations which can lead to the arousal of sexual interest in another is so wide and varied that it seems absurd, if not impossible, to claim that there is any nude that will not arouse sexual interest in someone, that there exists a nude which always will be viewed with aesthetic disinterest by some person. Furthermore, it seems to me to be impossible to represent or show a (recognisably) human body in a manner which does not also carry information about either the person represented, or about humanity generally. The representation may be poorly done, it may be emotionally and intellectually shallow, it may utilise stereotypes. but it always will convey meaning beyond itself, beyond whatever it is that actually is shown—it always will show an embodied person.
In Scruton’s thought the idea of the embodied person is an aesthetic ideal elevated to a moral principle which claims that only a specific type of representation of the subjectivity of an embodied person is “art”. What is left out of this type of idea, what is not considered at all, is the truth that sometimes people simply are sexual, that sometimes the seductive and the blatantly sexual are the full extent of the “erotic”, and that this therefore is the representation of the subjectivity of an embodied person. One’s subjectivity, this is to say, sometimes may be purely sexual, and on this basis alone “art”, even “great art”, also may be pornographic in the most obvious and simplistic senses.

Such a view runs counter to common opinion and to Scruton’s view which, as previously noted, places Boucher’s painting on the dividing line between the sexual and the aesthetic. In order to prove a point which is more moral than aesthetic, Scruton adds one further piece to his argument by contrasting the “tits and bums on page three of The Sun” with paintings of naked women. (Scruton 2009 , 161–162) Our thoughts and sexual feelings are not provoked by the women in the paintings because they are not “real, ready and available” in the manner that photographic models are. The distinction is that paintings provide “representations of fiction” whereas photographs provide “representations of reality,” and this apparently is the case even when we know that a painted nude is a portrait of a particular person, e.g., Boucher’s Odalisque, or Peter Lely’s painting of Charles II’s mistress (thought to be either Nell Gwynn or Barbara Villiers). In this instance, the model’s actual identity matters less than the certain knowledge that the woman represented existed—surely any contemporary of the model, knowing that it is a portrait, would be able to think of the model as “real, ready and available”? Irrespective of this, however, Scruton’s point is that we do not need to know anything about Boucher’s Odalisque or Lely’s portrait in order to appreciate their effect. The tits and bums an page three, however, are photographs of real people about whom we may have a fantasy of sexual contact, by which Scruton may mean a sexual fantasy designed to excite one’s own sexual response, or he may mean an erotic daydream—a fantasy of sexual contact without the element of actual physical sexual excitement.

Peter Lely, Venus and Cupid (Portrait of Nell Gwynn)

Peter Lely, Venus and Cupid (Portrait of Nell Gwynn)

Leaving aside the nature and importance of erotic daydreams for the moment, it is the case that I cannot and would not want to deny that there is a vast difference between a painting and a photograph of a naked body. Rather it needs to be noted that Scruton leaves out of consideration cultural and historic factors which seem to stand against his view. He fails to take into account, e.g., the explicit sexuality of much of ancient Greek and Roman art; nor has he taken into account the repressive Christian morality which has, over many centuries, placed restrictions on sexual behaviour and representations of the body. He also ignores that pre-photographic representations of sexual activity and the nude were intended to, and apparently did, provide sexual excitement and fantasy.

Perhaps more interestingly, Scruton did not mention male nudes which apparently (on the basis of being ignored,) hold no possibility of exciting sexual interest, feelings or excitement. Needless to say, such an idea is obvious nonsense: heterosexual women and homosexual men clearly can, and almost certainly do, entertain a sexual response to representations of naked men.

The obvious answer to these omissions is that they do not negate Scruton’s argument—because art does not excite sexual feelings, any representation which does so automatically fails to be art. But this claim can be made successfully only if the idea of sexual feeling is as clear cut as Scruton appears (in this text) to believe it is; he merely indicates that sexual feelings and interest lead us away from art, which brings us back to the central questions of What is art? What do representations of naked bodies mean?

Whatever else art is, it is at least two things. Firstly, and obviously, art and the concepts of art which we use to talk about art are cultural. Secondly, art is a means of embodying human meaning in visual, aural, tactile (etc.) forms.

Beyond these two things, however, we are faced with the historical (cultural) invention of a category, “art”, for which “aesthetic quality” is the only criteria which need be applied. As Dave Hickey (2009 , 99) notes, “this category (…) is not really a category of art but a categorical way of looking at art (…).

It is this “categorical way” of looking at “art” which I have been struggling with whilst remaining within the category. Scruton’s argument in this particular book has been aimed at defining the categories “art” and “pornography” in such a way that they mutually exclude each other. As such, his argument fails simply because his primary criterion, the “embodied subjectivity” on which his argument hinges, contains hidden moral criteria as to the acceptable form of embodiment. (I include “aesthetic distance” in respect of the nude as a moral criterion, it’s sole purpose, after all, being to render the nude morally acceptable by placing psychic distance between the viewer and the viewed in order to prevent “sexual response”. It has no aesthetic function beyond this that I can see.)

The point about art—painting, drawing photography, etc., is that the very process itself necessarily entails the embodiment of meaning and of subjectivity in the finished work. It merely is the case that it may not always be the type of subjectivity which Scruton believes to be appropriate. Boucher’s Odalisque, for example, may be sexual, arouse sexual feelings and lead us toward sexual fantasy in exactly the manner Scruton suggests, but it seems undeniable that the Odalisque shows (represents) the subjectivity of an embodied person, specifically the erotic daydream if a naked woman. (Whether it is before or after sex is irrelevant.) Perhaps this subjective state could have been more effectively painted (represented), but it cannot be denied that what is represented is the subjectivity of an embodied person who, in this instance, happens to have been an actual person.

If the painting was of two people engaged in a sex act, the same would apply—it would show (represent) the (sexual) subjectivity of two people. What should be at issue is not the moral description and nature of the subjectivity, but the quality of the representation: How effectively has the work been executed?

As for sexual feelings, fantasy and arousal, Freud made the following instructive comment about “perversion”:

In every healthy person a supplement that might be called perverse is present in the normal sexual goal, and this universality is sufficient in itself to suggest the pointlessness of using the term “perversion” in an accusatory sense. It is precisely in the area of sexual life that we encounter particular and currently insoluble difficulties if we wish to draw a sharp distinction between mere variation within the physiological range and pathological symptoms. (2006 , 136)

Scruton has not suggested that sexual response to an artwork is perverse, but he has morally joined the suggestion of perversion (vide inappropriate sexual response) to whether or not something is art. What brings Freud’s comment into play for me is the sheer diversity of experiences, sights, objects and situations which result in some form of sexual arousal and or thought. A “healthy” person might be thought perverse if they respond in some sexual form to an ankle (or they may merely be so deprived of the sight of an unclothed body that they respond to the slightest amount of usually hidden flesh). When we are talking about sexuality in the manner of Scruton, what happens is that we pretend that sexuality is a simple simple matter that is easily understood and used as a criterion. This, however, simply is not the case. It may be a hand, an ear or nose, a face, a particular shape, a particular type of landscape, the type of tree, the presence or absence of a stream which leads to the type of thoughts and feelings which Scruton feels mark the distinction between a naked body as art and a naked body as pornography.

What becomes important when we accept this—and some will not—are very general questions about the nature of erotic response.

It is to a consideration of this that I will now turn in my next post.

©B.J. Muirhead, 2015. All rights reserved

The images in this post have been sourced from wikimedia commons.

Cherland, M. (2008), ‘Harry’s girls: Harry potter and the discourse of gender’, Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 52(4), 273–282.
Freud, S. (2006), The Psychology of Love, Penguin Books. Translated by Shaun Whiteside; Introduction by Jeri Johnson.
Hickey, D. (2009), The Invisible Dragon, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.
Jullien, F. (2007), The Impossible Nude—Chinese Art and Western Aesthetics, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London. Trans. Maev de la Guardia.
Scruton, R. (2009), Beauty, Oxford University Press, Oxford.