What is art?

February 23, 2007 at 2:22 pm (philosophy of the arts)

I would be interested to see what other people’s opinions are on the notion of pornography as an art form, or better, whether or not pornography is moving in that direction. I should add, by way of warning, that if you need to search for any of the concepts I am talking about, it is probably safer to do so through a neutral medium such as Wikipedia rather than through google.

First of all, I am not referring to whether or not we may consider the nudes of classic art as pornographic; however, if anyone feels that this is necessary to this discussion, I would be interested to hear their reasoning.

Recent years, and increased use of the internet worldwide, have seen pornography, as an industry, multiply its output and profits tenfold. Compared to just ten years ago, there are a great deal many more people consuming pornography on a regular basis.

I personally consider that pornography is primarily a form of vulgar titillation, rather than being genuinely erotic; my understanding of the erotic is that it is not primarily focused on the more ‘base’ desires of voyeurism and stimulation, that the notion of the erotic is synonymous with our procreative functions.

However, I am interested in areas of pornography which seem to be heading away from ‘pure’ titillation, and more into experimenting with what is possible in the context of pornography. For instance, the practice of Bukkake seems to be farther removed from the notion of ‘pure’ titillation than what is conventionally considered pornography – it strikes me as, presently, being more concerned with extremes of human endurance; further, it seems to question, by exposing one extreme of pornographic enterprise, the precise limits of what will be consumed by the pornography industry – that is, Bukkake strikes me as a question for the ‘art’ of making pornographic films, a similar enterprise to contemporary artists (from Duchamp onwards) questioning what is acceptable within the context of a gallery.

Hentai, similarly, seems far removed from pornographies primary purpose of vulgar titillation, insofar as it is not concerned with representing sex faithfully – in fact, Hentai thrives more on a sort of Freudian dreamwork, on delirium and visual association than what is conventionally considered titillation. Further, I have friends within animation who watch some Hentai videos for their animational skills, and consider the titillation factor minimal if not entirely absent.

So, given these instances (there are others as well), I am basically asking: Could pornography be considered art? Are we beginning to see pornography break away into areas not primarily concerned with titillation? In questioning, or challenging, ‘what is acceptable in pornographic film’ (as spurious as that sounds), what are the ends of contemporary pornographic films.

I don’t wish to give the impression that I am the world’s largest consumer of pornography, and I hope this forum will be good enough to consider my comments with at least a modicum of seriousness. Although pornography is not one of the most enticing areas of philosophical investigation, I’m sure some of you are aware of certain writers (Sontag, Barthes, de Beouvoir (sp?)) exploring the notion of the pornographic.

Opinions, any one?



  1. the crooner said,

    Before I begin I will mention that I am absolutely no expert on pornography, but am against the dehumanizing of people. I do know a thing or two about art in general, and have an Associate degree in art besides my more extensive music training, and my sister is a professional artist.

    These are some principles worth applying to various contexts. Human expression falls between two poles: one in which the created object conforms to the expectations of the observer, and another in which the creation transforms the observer. For the sake of this discussion I will call the conformed object craft and the transforming object art. When the human body and sexuality is presented in a manner that subjugates itself to the observer’s expectations through use of clique’, poor taste, obvious overstatement, falsification, etc. it is not art. Human sexuality can be presented in art, but the nude as an art object does not bring to mind dehumanizing vocabulary, but a sense of truth. There is no aspect of sexuality that would preclude it from art, quite the opposite is true, in fact. Because sexuality is so all encompassing it has the capacity to conform to human expectation in the basest, vulgur manner, and has equal capacity for deep, exalted artistic communication. When human sexuality is communicated with an artistic vocabulary, the sensitive observer will leave transformed in much the same way as after eating the sweetest possible fruit. The observer of pornography, as I understand it, will leave with a belly full of grease, if you get my metaphor.

    One more aspect to consider: artistic communication tends towards a unification of expression in order to achieve a distilled potency, while I understand pornography, and other commercialized immediate gratification, tends towards a fragmenting process that dissolves meaning. Sexual content in art encompasses the human being on many levels of complexity, rather than fragmenting sexuality from its human context.

  2. nine perls said,

    HA! If you think that Bang Bus is art, I will have to laugh at you.

    Art can be pornographic, particularly given the sliding scale of what qualifies as “obscene” from culture to culture, and year to year–say, Pin-Up stuff from 50 years ago could be considered art, now. But, mainstream video porno (or even old “stag films”) sold as a product doesn’t qualify as “art” any more than a Snickers bar or a pair of Nikes does.

  3. nine perls said,

    True enough, and I definitely put myself up for mockery.

    Crooner – I agree with the sentiment of your post, hence I tried to emphasise that I was talking about specific areas of pornography, not pornography in general – a great deal of it exempt from being artistic by dint of its vulgarity and functionaing as base titillation.

    Still, perhaps I should emphasise what Hentai is exactly – an animated version of pornography that, a great deal of the time, is not so much concerned with representation of a human act, but a ‘creative’ manipulation of visual representation of the sexual – that is, subjugation of the body (in the sense of ‘these are actual people’) or manipulation of societal norms (‘this is a woman’) is a slightly less valid criticism of Hentai. What I am trying to get at is that a lot of Hentai is so far removed from the original function of the pornographic – and I don’t want to be mis-read on this: the overwhelming majority of pornography serves a very basic function of titillation and little else – that it strikes me as trying to find a sense of the artistic from within a medium which is, conventionally, exempt from the notion of the artistic.

    The crooner wrote:
    ‘Human expression falls between two poles:: one in which the created object conforms to the expectations of the observer, and another in which the creation transforms the observer. For the sake of this discussion I will call the conformed object craft and the transforming object art’.

    The point I am trying to make is contained within this statement. That pornography, as an industry, has expanded tenfold in the last decade is obvious. My contention is that there is evidence, thanks to this expansion, that pornography no longer needs to fulfill its original function (although the majority of it still does) – and that examples such as Hentai, which seem to be greatly removed from the notion of titillation even, could be seen as the beginnings of the notion of an artform coming from within the realm of pornography. Hentai being an animated form removes it first of all from the realms of ‘true’ representation (which is never true, but always presented as true elsewhere in pornography). Its subject matter then moves from representation of the sexual to a creative re-representation of the standard cliches of the pornographic, to the point of seeming to be parody. My point is not that the notion of the pornographic can be used within art; my point is that small areas of pornographic enterprise seem to be attempting to forge an artform from the now-standardised craft of pornography.

  4. nine perls said,

    Gosh. I think you’re missing part of the point with Hentai. A LOT of it (ie, Loli, rape, etc) is meant to be stuff that’s illegal in real life, and as such is meant to be titillating and deviant. Go to an Anime convention–the Hentai room isn’t an art gallery–it’s a excellent source of income for paper towel companies. I guess what I’m saying is that if someone tells you that they like Hentai “for the art” they might just being saying they “read Playboy for the articles.” Know what I mean?

    I do totally agree with you on the Freudian part, though. The tentacle monsters that rip the girls apart… the vaginas that actually eat the dude… Hentai is, indeed, in touch with that part of the brain… but don’t kid yourself that it’s entirely for art’s sake.

  5. the crooner said,

    Ok… so I haven’t actually seen a great deal of it. What I have seen struck me as deeply amusing and utterly ridiculous, and greatly removed from what I understand by pornography. I’m not under any delusions that it is entirely for art’s sake (that would be most foolish)… it just strikes me that it is a pornographic form that is drifting away from its oringal intent, and it seems to me that, Hentai specifically, is drifting towards art.

  6. savage rabbit said,

    Sure, you can call Hentai art… I’ll call it nauseatingly bad art, but I believe it is valid to call it art…

    I disagree that the word art holds a necessarily positive connotation

  7. jager jagger said,

    If comedy can be art, even vulgar comedy with stories about raunchy sex, then even vulgar porno can be art. A lot of times, vulgar porno is funny. The exaggerrated sex-crazed characters and the wild situations in which they have sex is funny. And in a way, you can consider some pornos a sort of genre satire of porn from 10-20 years ago: the cheesy music and the bad acting has to be done on purpose (if it’s not then it’s funnier than I imagined).

    The word “art” is the problem here, though, because we always want to leave art to the things we can feel smarter thinking about, but we deep down inside just don’t. But most people could care less about the Mona Lisa and would rather watch “Die Hard”. Entertainment, I think, is a form of art.

    So, if hardcore, vulgar porn is art, it’s art because it’s entertaining. Either it gives you a hard-on, makes you laugh, or both, or maybe it does something else for you. Either way, it’s a type of art.

  8. soniarott said,

    Could it not be purely that the displacement of the pornographic into an exotic format – that of both animation and the Japanese – makes you consider it as art because said displacement renders you interested more than attracted?

  9. tobias said,

    Can this whole topic not simply hang on genre distinctions? I think in the definition of porn (not that I have it an hand, but ay) includes the idea that it is not art. If a movie that has explicit sex scenes in it would be considered art, it would not be considered porn. It might well be that Hentai is art, but than it is not porn, but erotics. Has anyone watched Catherine Braillat’s “l’Anatomie d’Enfer”? It has quite some sex and I found it titillating too, but no one would call it porn. (Though critics slaughtered it)

    Porn may well cross over into art, why not, but than it would lose its being porn. A band without electric guitars, without dark lyrics, without a pumping drum and bass rhithm and excessive use of piano, is not a heavy metal band. That does not mean bands do not start out as heavy metal bands but become something else.

  10. elaine said,

    I find that the naked form is usually erotic when unveiled. But nudity also depends on posture, demeanor, and a nude old grandmother elicits different emotions period. I haven’t stared at naked bodies while drawing, painting, or representing them in another medium. I hear, from close friends, that it is amazing and makes pornography seem rather ridiculous.

    Beauty in a woman one likes, depending on mood, can often be a longing for intimacy, which, if going somewhere, is the pleasantest prelude to “things.” I talk of this on the topic of porn because porn reminds one of a lack, the absence of a relationship. It is “fucking.” This is an expression of values, however. I value relationship and dialogue. Sex fits best in that narrative. I can’t agree with pornography, irrespective of its lighting, timing, even intimacy, if all it presents is sexual expression without the support of context and human meaning.

    I find that there are certain postures of a nude that are more erotic (passionate) than others, some crude (base, in a way that people would never treat their loved one), and others that are more modest (sophisticated). Again, values are informing my perspective and some post here (I seem to recall but can’t find it at the moment) touches on this values topic.

    Sex can be beautiful but is often felt contextually lacking if expressed in a blip instead of inside a narrative. On the crude side, given most people find some interest in seeing what is not “meant” to be seen, it is exciting and so this has always been an added stimulant to base sexual urges. When I say porn is base, it means meaningless and even destructive (the level of destruction may be moderate but destructive nonetheless).

    I believe utter abandon has a fascinating animalistic tendency and can occur in different contexts (crude or intimate sexual experiences), and is present in most people (discounting asexuality), and we wonder over it and one senses its self-absorption. Maybe some freedom to be what we are and let another relax as they are is necessary in a healthy relationship? Hmmm. I know this is taking it a little farther than “pornography as art” intended but it is simply an interesting topic.

    I find that sexual expression in, what I would consider, real art is either fit within a larger narrative than sex or emphasizes critically our wickedly insistent desire to grind our hips, emphasizing a kind of biological foolery to our needs and desires. It may even emphasize its procreative side…

    A porn topic brings all sorts of concerns to bear. Sexuality has moral tones, inherently, value are expressed. Would you call pornography art or would you call art pornography? I would not, do not. Our erotic nature is a part of a narrative and only makes sense there; pornography is and will always be voyeuristic masturbation or titillation (the popular and more gentle phrase used here). Outside the narrative sex is just a distraction or an indulgence (wastes time and leaves one disappointed) in present pleasures, a willful (?) or instinctual (?) withdrawal from concerns of the past, present, or future. This is, again, expressing values of mine.

    Hentia is in tune with revealing that which we should not (making real the taboo and unhealthy treatment, it is absurd how it makes the animated characters pleased by horrible, cruel, destructive treatment) and creating excited sexual euphoria. It is a type of purified impersonal self-absorption (in that there are not humans doing the act). Some seems to carry “higher” tones than other types. Some is more thoughtful and seems to represent “real” relationships and fascinating imaginings of the past, present, or future. Though one might be prone to calling some of what I just mentioned Anime. Most horrible of all and already touched upon is: one will notice that rape, torture, and whatever other violent treatment of a person is often expressed as pleasing or the screaming is made to be on the edge of pleasure and pain, so one can’t really tell.

    An “artistic” penchant found in some Hentia will either make the sex a part of a narrative, based off meaningful relationship, community, or unfortunate human realities, and avoid utter baseness and meaninglessness or just add more “artistic” flourish to something lacking it. If someone refines killing people for pleasure to a precise and intricate skill, it does not make it real art simply because its intention is ugly from its start to its finish. If art is meant to do good for people, porn isn’t art in my estimation in that it dehunizes us; it can be a more sophisticated meaningless enterprise or evolve into an expression of real human relationship, abstraction, or even truthful unfortunate realities. It is new for me to consider art so values infused, I have had few occassions to think on it.

    I do realize I am taking a rather strong stance. I apologize if it offends. Sociologically interesting porn may be, but I believe it feeds off disorganized minds or desires. Not too surprising on a philosophy forum is it?

  11. willie baker said,

    Porn may well cross over into art, why not, but than it would lose its being porn. A band without electric guitars, without dark lyrics, without a pumping drum and bass rhithm and excessive use of piano, is not a heavy metal band. That does not mean bands do not start out as heavy metal bands but become something else.
    I think this is a very pertinent point, and I like the music analogy too. It reminds me of the endless tiny subcategories of genre fiction.

    For example the genre of “High Fantasy” is often criticized because it relies almost entirely on familiar themes like Elves, Dragons, magic, objective good and evil, etc. But the thing is, the genre itself has become a sort of (humourless) self-parody through repetition. If you write a High Fantasy novel that has no Dragons, a bunch of morally ambiguous characters with guns, and very little magic, all you have succeeded in doing is writing a fantasy novel that doesn’t fit into the High Fantasy subgenre. It has become impossible to modify the genre. Whether or not that means it no longer qualifies as art is another question

    Pornography is (to me) the same; endless repetition for a non-aesthetic purpose has rendered it self-defining, and if you make something that doesn’t have any of the traditional themes or purposes of pornography then you haven’t made porn into art – you’ve just made something that isn’t porn.

    On a side note, a bunch of Australian artists started this thing called the “Agony Project” a few years ago, where they video the heads of people masturbating to climax. It’s all very serious and “we are artistes,” but they also sell memberships to their frequently updating website. It started as a video art exhibition but has transormed into what I can only describe as an amateur porn site. It’s an odd thing. It is definitely erotic, but to me it almost feels like art that has been corrupted into porn, which is sort of the opposite of what the OP is suggesting is taking place with hentai. I don’t know if I can post a link to an adult site here, so I won’t unless I’m told it’s OK.

  12. contingent said,

    One of the interesting things for pornography for me is that it is usually lumped into one category, that is, a moderately shameful exploration of fantasy. Part of what I am suggesting is that porn is becoming more diverse in its intentions – the fact that there are lots of sub-genres, that porn may no longer be understood by the paradigms of Swedish naturist films or Emmanuelle-style pseudo-drama or by trashy soft-core. This is in part inspired by a friends dissertation which compared Emanuelle to contemporary pornography of the gonzo type (that is, low-budget sheer voyeurism, no edifices of narrative) and the function it serves for sexual practice. I shall send her an e-mail and see if she wants to comment here, she is perhaps better suited to explain her points than I am. I found her dissertation interesting primarily because she is a woman who is utterly unabashed about her interest in pornography, which is a market that hasn’t been explored here yet, which in turn is part of my point – porn is no longer so singular in its aims and purpose. Generally speaking, the notions of ‘fake’ fantasy and female subjugation are the predominant purposes of porn, but this is by no means contemporary porn in its totality.

    If I can put the notion of ‘pornography as art’ to one side for a second (as you say, it’s a somewhat obvious point) I am also interested in how pornography can contrive a fetish – for instance, the genre of Bukkake was born of Japanese censorship regarding the male member and seems to have grown into a fairly large market. I suspect that many people have succmbed to the sheer extremism of the act as a fetish – by this I mean that the titillation is in the sheer fact that it is an act which would never occur in conventional sexual practice, ergo, is totally ridiculous fantasy. Another suspicion is that, for the practioners the act becomes a kind of sport, a test of endurance, not too far, by analogy, from extreme sports or the kind of endurance practices of David Blane. Either way, I contend that there is a market for pornography which appreciates it not as titillation but as something else… and it is this something else which confuses me.

    My limited experience of Hentai saw me laughing at how absurd it was. I wasn’t offended or aroused, I did find it incredibly amusing. Perhaps I have a perverse humour? Is it a contemporary mutation of humour that we laugh where no humour was intended? Regarding Bukkake, I find it quite repulsive, but ultimately quite pathetic. I do admire the absurd in its extremism – its intentions seem so obscure as to be lost.

    The notion of a contrived fetish was touched on by cleverjim, where he mentions the ‘Agony Project’. Also, I would mention the recent rise in clown porn – that is, people engaging in conventional porn wearing clown masks. While none of these particularly interest me, and I have no intention of consuming them, they do give rise to thoughts which can basically be summarised by ‘what the hell is happening to people’s sense of titillation?’ Are, by proxy, our fantasies defined by what we are exposed to?

    The following question, essentially, is not so much ‘are our sexualities contingent to factors beyond biology/ culture’ but ‘Is our understanding of sexuality changing in contemporary times?’ This question is of particular interest to me, here, on a philosophy forum, because I am, in nearly every other instance, utterly resistant to any notion that ‘the contemporary’ changes anything fundamental about ourselves.

    Again, apologies if I’m just hammering the same boring points at you people. I appreciate everyone’s opinion here, it’s been very helpful to me so far.

  13. beauvoir said,

    Interesting that you should use the word ‘consume’. Etymologically speaking, this is to devour; ergo to erode at the existence of. Perhaps herein lies the crux of the issue. I can see that your point was indeed slightly different to the obvious one that I stated; more that porn is being justified by its celebrants more and more and that, for the first time, we are being forced to take their justifications seriously as the boundaries are becoming blurred. Yes? But to return to ‘consume’; perhaps the prime mover of this generic slippage is that so much pornography has been consumed that it is now merely a husk if its former glory; in order to give it new energy, we much provide new definition. In all those grubby anti-procreative rubbings we have greedily devoured pornography.

    PS as a woman i have an unabashed interest in, and, indeed, arousal by porn. I am writing an article on pornographic tropes in literature and vice versa and would be interested to see what your friend has to say if she decides to contribute here.

  14. willie baker said,

    I?d say art and pornography has one thing in common: lack of humor. But recently I saw a film by Ming-Liang Tsai titled The Wayward Cloud. It has features common in many art films, such as little dialogue, slow scenes, but, unlike most art it has humor. It is quite funny and wierd. In fact, the male protagonist works as a porn actor and the porn is depicted in hilarious cartoon-like passages. If the fictional porn flic that they?re working on in the film would be made and released for real, then perhaps humor in pornography would exist after all. Is there any funny porn?

  15. darren tums said,

    You’d be surprised. Then again, it’s up to what you find funny.

  16. the boss said,

    Pornography is a very human thing. There’s the animal part of us which seeks to satisfy our sexual wants; but the intellect has made it difficult by swapping the usual mating rituals (usually involving violence) for ethics and etiquette. So the intellect throws us a bone: if we can’t have the real thing for a while, at least we can create representations of it to remind ourselves what it’s like. Animals can’t do this, and angels (ie. pure intellect) don’t need to.

    If pornography does anything, it simply serves to remind us that we are all human. That’s not to say that it might be undignified, or even immoral – after all, morality is there only as an attempt by our intellect to keep our animal side under control.

    As for whether porn is art, I’d have to say ‘no’. It seems to me a purely semantic distinction. There’s nothing to say that art can’t be titilating – what is considered titilating will differ from person to person in any case; someone might get aroused by the Haywain, and I can personally testify to being a turned on by music at times. But it seems the term ‘pornography’ itself is used to suggest that something is not art – its primary focus is titilation and not aesthetic experience. I don’t think there are hard and fast rules to what counts as art and what counts as porn, but it does seem like you can’t use both terms to describe the same thing. What might be art to one person might well be porn to another and vice versa, but it can’t be both things to either.

  17. grabber said,

    You don’t keep up with what’s popular in porn these days, do you? In a way, good for you. In another way–BangBus and the current sales trends in “Gonzo” porn, which is mainstream, in the front of the shops, and shows no signs in falling out of style, btw, is not about humanity, not even about real sex, and not particularly animalistic, as it’s appeal lies in circumstances animals don’t really have to think much about–mostly socioeconomic matters.

    The vast majority of what’s purchased these days features 1.) women that do a handful of “amateur” sessions at a very, very low rate to make rent, or 2.) women that have essentially been surgically mutilated to make a name in the industry. Now, animalistically, men would want healthy women with whole bodies, right, so as to “spread the seed?” Or, am I hauling our the wrong BS theory about why it’s okay to exploit women sexually?

    The premise is almost always “random slut (she’s always a slut, right?) Gets “banged” with “tools” because she just loooooves getting “screwed” on camera.” Exactly which animals use cameras? And, it always, always, always ends with semen flying at a heavily made-up face–directly contradicting what one would presume in the animalistic desire to reproduce, right?

    Animals don’t make or use porn. “A rabbit doesn’t need lipstick! A Rabbit doesn’t use hair spray! A monkey doesn’t need pills to get revved up for hot, monkey sex! It’s people man, we’re miserable!”

    There is no chimp equivalent of the eternally punished Eve.

    Letting your intellect trick you into thinking that specific social constructs based on economic indicators are “animalistic” just because politeness dictates a thing is distasteful, only means you can’t see the forest for the trees.

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