Is Art just Porn for Posh People?

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[Jonathan Light – The Art of Porn: An Aesthetics for the Performing Art of Pornography]

For me, my Classics seminar at 9am on a Thursday morning equates to what I imagine the mental struggle of Chinese water torture to be like. Okay so torture should never be trivialised, I take that back, but the purest and most undiluted form of FML should be referred to here. In fact, any I-hate-my-life-cliches you can think of apply. I usually resort to attempting to replay ab-fab episodes in my head to get me through the gruelling two hours, a process which is all the more pitying considering being there is self-inflicted, and as a humanities student my seminars cost on average £50 a pop.

But this week, amongst the mundane drivel I was filtering out of my head, an interesting phrase popped up that made me snap out of my daydream and metaphorically stand to attention:

“Is art just porn for posh people?” my seminar leader joked.

The topic we were talking about (classical sculpture) suddenly got a lot more intriguing. It is true, I thought, why does the labelling of something as “art”, in particular “classical” art, make nakedness okay, especially in a society which criticises too much flesh in the media as either slutty or objectifying, depending on the subject.

Why is the naked form acceptable when cast in white marble, or painted in oil, and stood in a gallery with a little gold plaque? Essentially: how does the pretentious label of “classical art” justify a butt naked lady thrusting her boobs at any Tom, Dick and Harry? Even Niki Minaj barely gets away with that stuff.

What makes this kind of image pornographic…And this kind of picture ‘classical’?

Is this piece by Adam Harvy porn, or art?

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And why does the Venus Callipyge’s beautiful buttocks have rights that Jlo’s don’t?

This summer the British Museum opened an exhibition showcasing examples of the Japanese erotic art Shunga, a supposedly racy collection which would get the heart pumping of the most decayed dinosaur in the art world, despite protests that the Edo period produced high art. An age limit of 16+ was imposed so child line’s phones wouldn’t be ringing off the hook with concerns that those liberal art types were exposing the youth of Britain to sexually explicit content – as if they couldn’t just get that from watching their favourite Disney star and a wrecking ball, Miley you kinky devil you.

But would some pin-striped ponse from Sothebys excuse some of Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki’s raunchier photographs? Google image his name and you’ll get many a black and white still of bondage inspired images.

But when does the S&M get too OTT for the NPG?

Nobuyoshi Araki : Kinbaku, 1980-2000/2013

And it’s not just those overly-sexed Orientals that are at it. Dazed Digital ran a great article looking at whether porn can be used as a legitimate creative platform, think Danny Sangra, Fiona Banner and Patricia Cronin amongst others. Just because Jeff Koons’ ‘Made in Heaven’, is not quite the same heaven depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel – does it make it any less ‘art’?

Take a look at Schiele and Klimt who both grappled with issues of obscenity surrounding their nude sketches, or Helmut Newton whose photography has always caused controversy. (Also – Georgia O’Keefe, they’re just flowers? Really? you’re kidding no one love). But why was this kind of art any more outrageous than Titan’s Venus, or William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Abduction of Psyche? The same amount of skin is being flashed, the vajayjay still gets centre stage, and double D’s are still double D’s – whether they are in watercolour or pixels. Dress up Kate Moss in wet rags and splay her across a couch: photograph her and you get Playboy cover, paint her in oils and frame it in gold and you get a Tate masterpiece.

“Many a 19th-century gentleman’s study paraded a raunchy… nude, safe under the fig-leaf of classicism” – Mary Beard

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Sir Elton got into trouble back in 2007, when some artwork he owned was seized from the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. Authorities struggled to determine if the image by artist Nan Goldin was ‘art’, or whether the nude child crossed over into child porn:

…does it matter that a photograph of a naked child is in a respectable art gallery – rather than in a seedy magazine or on an illegal website?  (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/7016651.stm)

More recently, in advertising Kate Moss’s Saint Tropez advert caused quite a stir, and what was Lara Stone’s portrait all about? Flesh is a political hot topic in an age of supposed liberating values, begging the question are we actually more prudish than our Victorian ancestors? But if we go back to legal issues surrounding Elton’s case -perhaps it does depend on the context.

Something that we discussed in my seminar was the eroticization of the body; despite our desensitised culture perhaps we see skin as more sexual nowadays, new media forms make flesh a lot more accessible and a lot more HD realistic. In contrast, the completely naked marble statue was not seen as an erotic figure, but one that enshrines independence and purity. 

For a perfect example of the cliched ‘grey area’ between art and erotica, go to Taschen’s website (the proverbial Aladdin’s treasure trove of art books, which adorn coffee tables all over the country). Scroll down the categories, you start with ‘Architecture’, oh yep – there’s ‘Art’, of course you have your ‘Classics’, and then ‘Film’, then ‘Sexy books’, then…wait – what? Sexy Books encompass all manner of naughty tombs, complete with all volumes in The New Erotic Photography, and a book entitled ‘The Big Penis Book 3D’. Oh yes people, 3D.

It seems that issues surrounding whether something is art or pornography is ultimately rooted around the central question –  what is art itself? Perhaps the same mantra that applies to all contemporary art applies to nudity – if you can use ambiguous philosophical motifs  justify your concept, you can call whatever you do art, and go as bare as you dare.

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….’Actually it’s not funny, it’s Art

In all honesty, I have no concrete answer. I think you can find art erotic, and that’s okay, but it becomes tricky in determining whether it’s a two way street, and whether something primarily erotic can project artistic value (or indeed, whether some contemporary art has any artistic value at all – still not convinced by the whole Emin and the bed chestnut). All I can say is that in a time when Hull is named as the City of Culture, nothing is certain anymore.

What do you all think people, when does art cross than thin line into pornography?

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