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Art 101

Art or Porn?

Art & sex have gone hand in hand throughout history, but is there a difference between pornography & some examples of fine art? Find out in Rise Art's blog.

By Rise Art

Art and porn can be hard to distinguish at times, given that art and sex have gone hand in hand throughout art history.

From classical Greek sculptures and the frescoes of Pompeii to Modernist paintings and prints; globally, artistic tradition is bursting with art that looks suspiciously like, well, pornography. So, how do you decide if something is art or porn?

 

Botton 10 by Héloïse Delègue

 

Art & Porn, A forbidden friendship?

We’ve had a hard time dealing with art befriending porn. Historically, we’ve viewed art as the receptacle of our most honourable traits and values. Pornography, on the other hand, has been seen as dirty and shameful. To combine art and porn undermines the power of art to elevate us beyond our basest instincts.

Interestingly, what we understand to be pornographic in European art today would have made for cherished heirlooms a few centuries ago. For instance, The Warren Cup (C. 5-15) proudly displays the Greco-Roman practice known as pederasty, where older men would mentor young men as sexual partners. What was originally crowned as a prized possession was later denied public display for its deviant nature.

 

The Kiss That Freed a Thousand Dreams by Teresa Wells

 

Artist or pornographer? 

Is it the deviant nature of porn that distinguishes it from art? One argument is that pornography is relatively one-dimensional, without any artistic merit, as the pornographer’s only interests are sexually arousing viewers and the commodification of sex. The latter might be true but then what about the complex nature of Jeff Koons’ Made In Heaven (1989)? Or Robert Mapplethorpe’s Self Portrait With Whip (1978)? Both are iconic, author-proclaimed pornographic constructions; both are, arguably, deviant. 

In her study on the distinction between erotic art and pornography, philosopher Anne W. Eaton posits that erotic art and pornography differ based on their ethics. She states that while pornography is presumed to degrade and objectify the people it represents, erotic art respects the agency and psychological depth of its subjects. Pornography, as opposed to erotic or pornographic art, reveals all, leaving very little to our imagination. Erotica, conversely, stimulates our imagination, concealing to reveal our deepest fantasies and feelings, allowing each interpretation to be unique and personal.

 

Black Friday [Body] by Glib Franko

 

But what about the backstories of works by Realist Auguste Rodin or Abstract Expressionist Pablo Picasso? Many of their pieces were inspired by affairs with forsaken lovers. Does their reckless use of nude, female models respect the psychological depth of their subjects? Does the somewhat vulgar conception of their artwork then classify it as porn? It appears the boundaries are not so clear. 

Serment Des Femmes (Oath of Women) by Pablo Picasso

 

Even before the unruly Warren Cup, artists have been getting up close and personal. Countless pre-historic drawings depict sexual acts, often as part of a religious celebration. Then, we have Pompeian heritage and the cult of the phallus. People would hang overtly pornographic paintings above their doors in the hope it would bring them fertility. From pagan rites to the Far East practises, global art history shows a deep fascination with all things sex. 

Art continues to question and subvert gender inequality, power, and socio-cultural structures today. We hail many artworks with pornographic content as revolutionary and necessary. After all, is art not supposed to go above and beyond our expectations? Or to serve as an unsettling window on all of our flaws and vulnerabilities? Let’s take a look at several artists who have blurred the line between porn and art.

 

Connected by Paris Ackrill

 

Artists getting up close and personal 

Japanese artist, ukiyo-e painter and printmaker of the Edo period, Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), is perhaps most well-known for his landscape prints such as The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1830). However, he also engaged in painting passionate scenes of lovemaking. His wildly graphic works are still popular in the Western world, despite many presenting scenes of rape. The Adonis Plant (C. 1815) woodblock painting, for example, often celebrated as one of his masterpieces, depicts a bathhouse rape scene. 

Austrian painter Egon Schiele (1890-1918) spent time in prison for the explicit, sexual content of his etchings and drawings. The protégé of Gustav Klimt is known for the intensity of his nude self-portraits, often featuring young prostitutes from the streets of Vienna. His delicate, expressionistic figures, expressive lines and injections of brilliant colour are recognised worldwide.

 

Red Thread by Jenny Boot

 

All dolled up 

Sex toys have made a few appearances in gallery spaces, transcending their function as sexual apparatus to artwork rich with meaning. Fetishised doll-representations of women extend back to Surrealist Hans Bellmer (1902-75) and the life-sized pubescent female dolls he made in the mid-1930s. Ed Kienholz's (1927-94) notorious assemblages made an appearance in the 60s, too. We need not forget the disruptive Doll Clothes (1975) film by Cindy Sherman (born 1954) either, which explores ideas around gender construction.

 

Oops 2 by Vadim Kovalev

 

To boot, a feminist allegedly threw acid on Allen Jones’ sexually subversive Chair in 1969. The fetishist sculpture, which saw a bare-breasted, leather-clad woman transformed into a piece of furniture, was incredibly controversial. Even today, it remains unclear whether the work exhibits humour gone awry or was purposely chauvinistic. 

Sarah Lucas, in particular, (born 1962) has repeatedly challenged such objectification of women. The installation Bunny Gets Snookered (1997) is perhaps one of her most widely recognised forays into abject femininity. Stuffing tights with cotton wadding, Lucas created bunny-girl forms whose dangling limbs she clipped to an office chair. Lucas references porn and popular culture to provide a looking glass for the masculine gaze, transforming a stereotypical, macho wet dream into a horrorshow of passive, grotesque forms.

 

A Historia de Lily Braun by Gustavo Amaral

 

Along the same vein, Tracey Emin, also one of the original YBAs, challenges how we perceive the female body in her confessional works. The seminal photograph, I’ve Got It All (2000), cements her aggressive honesty and satirises the commodification of the female form.

 

Crane by Tracey Emin

 

Art that hits the spot

It would seem that the two categories are not mutually exclusive. What all of the above artworks have in common is that they elicit an emotional response in viewers. If we appreciate art for its ability to move us, for better or for worse, artists who straddle that fine line between art and porn meet the requirements.

 

Reclining Nude by Grigorii Pavlychev

 

Many creative voices have challenged the status quo by manipulating sexual content in their art, whether to break down taboos surrounding sexuality or to confront gender inequality. And, while sexual arousal may arise from observing an erotic artwork, it is not the only experience a viewer can have. Perhaps what differentiates art from porn is less exciting than the actual works that trigger us to question their distinction.

 

Dark Womb by Tracey Emin

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