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The art of Pornography

Does pornography perpetrate sexism?

Does pornography perpetrate sexism? One side suggests pornography objectifies the female species, degradingly viewing them solely in a physical form. The counter argument states that should no form of abuse be present, there is little wrong with a woman’s decision to ply her trade in this industry.

From an aesthetic perspective, a more intriguing question, with less scope for black and white responses, focuses on whether or not pornography can be viewed as art. At the core of this debate is the concept of what relevance the process of producing the material holds to the artistic value of the final product. In other words, the two must be viewed as mutually exclusive for pornography to be viewed as art.

The 1972 pornographic film, Deep Throat, written and directed by Gerard Damiano and starring Linda Lovelace, is considered as a one of the first to feature a plot, character development and high production standards. The official premier occurred at the World Theater in New York on June 12th, gaining mainstream attention and it became responsible for the birth of the ‘porno chic’ movement, a brief period of upper-class interest in explicit pornography. Originally describing the making of the film as a liberating experience, the actress who played Lovelace, Linda Boreman, later claimed she was the subject of sexual abuse, rape and forced prostitution by her abusive then-husband Chuck Traynor, who received $1,250 for her role in the film. She stated:

“Virtually every time someone watches that movie, they’re watching me being raped… It is a crime that movie is still showing; there was a gun to my head the entire time.”

But, given the above theory, the way in which Boreman was treated during production holds no weight in assessing whether the finished, highly popular film, Deep Throat, may be viewed as art.

So, what is art?

Philosopher, Malcolm Budd, believes that art does the following: prompts an emotional response in its viewer; gives them pleasure; grants them the satisfaction of appreciating a work well done; allows them to feel they’re communicating with the mind of the artist; and encourages them to develop an attitude towards the attitude that it asserts. By this theory, Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece Mona Lisa achieves all the above and is therefore art. A smiley face drawn on a piece of scrap paper does not and therefore, is not art.

The illustrations of artist, Graham Ovenden, who predominantly drew naked young girls, have long been recognised as art. However, upon being found guilty of molesting his underage subjects in 2013, his works were removed from public view by the Tate as their worth was deemed to have been undermined by his actions. But, would his work really have been considered more highly had he not committed such crimes? Do people genuinely believe that the value of an artists production is negated by his or her behaviour? Did Michael Jackson’s musical value decrease when he was charged on fourteen counts of intoxicating and molesting a minor? If anything, Jackson’s musical artistry only continued to flourish after such events, cementing his music in the pop hall of fame. Despite all his issues and sometimes public displays of outrage, (such as dangling his baby by one arm over the railing of a fourth-storey hotel balcony in Berlin in 2002), consumers of his musical art appear unconcerned with the process or the personal actions that go before. It is the end product that seems to constitute real artistic value.

It is without question that the pornographic industry must be scrutinised closely to eradicate exploitation, for any industry that abuses women , or men, is morally wrong. Yet, this fails to stop pornography being considered as art.

Anne Eaton, a feminist philosopher, argues that expressing a morally dubious message undermines the value of a work of art because it requires its viewers to identify with ethical deformities, thus distracting them from the art. In other words, she believes pornography can only be appreciated when the viewer, at least temporarily, objectifies women and that this is impossible to achieve whilst contemplating it as art. However, her argument is tendentious. We are fully aware of the multitude of freely available, consumer pornography that clearly does objectify women, but the claim that objectifying someone in a work of art prevents you from considering its artistic value at the same time can be challenged.

American artist, Jeff Koons is known for, (amongst many other artworks), his explicit Made in Heaven exhibition, which premiered at the Venice Biennale in 1990, consisting of oversized photos printed on canvas, marble sculptures and Murano glassworks. The artwork flaunted himself alongside his then-wife, renowned Italian pornography actress (La Cicciolina) and politician, Ilona Staller, as a contemporary Adam and Eve, captured in staged moments of lascivious foreplay and erotic lovemaking. The works referenced numerous art history sources, from the realist paintings of Manet and Courbet to the extravagant canvases of Boucher and Fragonard, pushing the boundaries of the portrayal of sexual relations in art. Koons declared the function of his explicit exhibition as twofold: to make the audience engage in their sexual emotions and to encourage them to form opinions about acceptable expression of sexuality.

From a film perspective there appears an unexplainable bias when considering the merit of pornographic art compared with other medium. It is often considered that ‘softcore’ pornography is more artistic than its ‘hardcore’ alternative. But, why so? It is argued that the explicit nature  and highly intimate level of detail of hardcore pornography detracts from the artistry of production. British artist, Damien Hirst’s exhibits; Two Fucking and Two Watching, including a rotting cow and bull, Mother and Child Divided, composed of a cow and calf sliced in half inside a tank of formaldehyde and The Death of God, containing a human skull, all received huge acclaim in the art world. Surely, the presentation of butchered animals and human remains far exceeds the explicit nature of procreation, the most natural act within the animal kingdom?

Erotic imagery is something shared by all cultures, from Michelangelo’s David and the Kama Sutra to Pablo Picasso’s La Douleur, a painting of the artist receiving oral sex and other works including images of beastiality and rape and the Japanese Shunga paintings of Katsushika Hokusai. If such images and exhibitions are freely defined as art, the act of filming a scene of two people making love must qualify to be included in the same bracket.

Signs do exist that attitudes in mainstream cinema are changing with last year’s French film, Blue is the Warmest Colour winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The film, directed by 52-year-old Abdellatif Kechiche, which screens scenes of an explicit sexual nature as two young girls embark on their first lesbian love affair, garnered rave reviews and the recent release of Nymphomaniac has followed suit. Directed by controversial, Danish provocateur, Lars von Trier, the film addresses issues surrounding our attitudes towards sex, essentially questioning the desensitisation of sex by the media. The first of a two-part drama is built around the foundation of taboos and had been highly anticipated since the director’s claims his would overlook simulation in favour of real sex scenes. Next year’s release of Fifty Shades of Grey, an adaptation of the hugely popular trilogy, written by British author E.L.James, promises to continue the trend. These films go beyond their explicit sex scenes and are intended as thought-provoking, character studies, commentating on elements of contemporary society. Rather than existing as films about sex, they are films that address sex as part of life as opposed to a peep-show indulgence, akin to the nature of Hirst’s exhibitions which focus on death, another natural process. Sex on screen may never be granted the artistic freedom that is afforded to violence and drug abuse, but it is certainly becoming less and less taboo, due, in part to the normalisation of pornogrpahy.

In actuality, Deep Throat is, artistically speaking, woeful. It fails to evoke an emotional response, give you viewing pleasure, grant you the gratification of appreciating a work of high quality or enable one to relate to the producers thought process. Furthermore, it positively fails to engage the viewer enough to allow for the development of a reflexive attitude. However, it is crucial that we appreciate these to be the criteria by which pornography should be judged on, including the work of Graham Ovenden, or anyone else.

In the pornographic film industry, tighter regulations are an important legal debate, but this nothing new, journalistically. Only when we cease to confuse artistic value with ethical deformity, will we be able to discuss what comprises ‘artistic’ pornography and whether, or not, a market exists for such ‘art’.

Dominic Wallace