“To Art its Freedom” – Finding the Line Between Art and Pornography

Giulia Calvi has just finished her final year at King’s with a degree in Philosophy, and she is currently studying for her Master’s in Curating the Art Museum at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She is passionate about history, art, queerness and queer representation in pop culture, feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, war and family narratives, genealogy and anything else human.

[Featured Image: Vienna Tourism Board; Paintings of Egon Schiele. Altered images of Egon Schiele’s exploration of the naked body, with banners covering sensitive parts that read “SORRY, 100 years old but still too daring today”. Source.]

Sorry, 100 years old but still too daring today. Source.

In 2018, Vienna celebrated the centenary of Viennese Modernism with a year-long retrospective. For the occasion, the Vienna Tourist Board decided to advertise the event with a selection of beautifully contorted naked bodies by Egon Schiele, with explicit depictions of their private parts. The advertisement, meant for the London Underground among other places, was refuted by Transport for London on the account of its content being too explicit and borderline pornographic, and therefore unsuitable for a public space. As a result, the Vienna Tourist Board was forced to produce altered images with banners covering sensitive parts that read “SORRY, 100 years old but still too daring today,” accompanied by the hashtag #ToArtItsFreedom, which references the Vienna Secession slogan “To every Age its Art, to Art its Freedom.”

This episode raises all kinds of interesting questions regarding the connection between art and the pornographic, and whether such a thing as pornographic art even exists. Should pornographic art be banned? Does Schiele’s work have lesser artistic value because of its pornographic nature?

It is somewhat implied, in popular thinking, that we are all equipped with the ability to recognise pornography when we are faced with it: in 1964, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart delivered what is perhaps the most famous definition of pornography and obscenity to date. “I know it when I see it,”[i] he said, suggesting that there’s something intrinsically recognisable about pornography. Naturally, countless attempts at defining pornography have been made over the years, trying to define the nature of pornography itself and its connection to art.

To make just one example, a very popular definition is the one advanced by the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship, which states that pornography is such when it “combines two features: it has a certain function or intention, to arouse its audience sexually, and also has a certain content, explicit representations of sexual material.”[ii]

If we think of some widely recognised artworks – Egon Schiele’s Two Men and Eros, for instance, or the entirety of Robert Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio series, or Klimt’s erotic sketches -, they do appear to have highly sexually explicit content, and it seems quite implicit that they were also meant to be sexually arousing – or, at the very least, that they could be used for this exact purpose. Hence, it’s very difficult to deny that these works do in fact have pornographic content, and yet they are recognised worldwide as works of art. This definition, then, does not necessarily imply that pornography and art are mutually exclusive: actually, it doesn’t say anything about art at all. But then, where does the line lie?  And why is pornographic art such a controversial topic?

Egon Schiele, Friendship
Egon Schiele, Two men

There is a certain resistance to the idea that pornography could be considered art, and the main reason lies in the belief that there is something to pornography, something concerning its moral status, that makes it flawed in such a way that it prevents it from being art. The belief is that pornography not only focusses on emotionless, violent, and objectified forms of sexuality, but also that it endorses moral degradation. Feminist activists MacKinnon and Dworkin, for instance, draw the line between art and pornography on the basis of their content: pornography objectifies its subjects, whilst art does not.

We define pornography as the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures and words that also includes (a) women are presented dehumanized as sexual objects, things, or commodities; or (b) women are presented as sexual objects who enjoy humiliation or pain; […] (h) women are presented in scenarios of degradation, humiliation, injury, torture, shown as filthy or inferior, bleeding, bruised, or hurt in a context that makes these conditions sexual.[i]

The same line is also drawn by philosopher and political activist Susan Sontag, who distinguishes between erotic and pornographic works: “in this notion of the annihilation of the subject we have perhaps the only serious criterion for distinguishing between erotic literature or films or paintings which are art and those which (for want of a better word) one has to call pornography.”[ii]

However, while I do admire immensely the ground-breaking work that Sontag, Mackinnon, Dworking and other feminists have done in the second half of the 20th century in the fight for equal rights, and while I do recognise that such a radical definition was probably needed at the time, I’m also by nature very sceptical of every classification that wants to put a limit on human experience and that wants to establish the right way of experiencing certain situations.

First of all, pornography is treated here solely as an issue whose defining feature is the objectification of women. This seems to be a hazard: while it might certainly be the case with a good portion of pornography available out there, in recent times and especially in the light of the #MeToo movement – and with the growing awareness of sexual freedom and issues concerning toxic masculinity – there has been an exponential change in the direction of ethical pornography and the fruition of it. Most porn is highly misogynistic, most porn is made for men, and most porn is made with a tailored male-gaze that allows men to project themselves into the context while women are just accessory to the scene. But not all porn is heterosexual, not all porn concerns women, and ethical porn, fair trade porn and feminist porn are rapidly growing realities that need to be accounted for.

Gustav Klimt, Water Serpernts.

More importantly, the idea that there are aspects of human sexuality that are degradative simply because they include humiliation, objectification or violence, dangerously denies the existence of the entirety of the BDSM and kink communities, and negates the experience of people who have fought for decades for their sexuality to be validated. It is certainly true that women are often objectified and humiliated in mainstream porn in a way that reinforces certain harmful social dynamics, but the line cannot be drawn at objectification or humiliation. There is a reason why the kink community is so big on consent, and that is because consent is exactly where one goes to define whether something is morally flawed or not. Everything else is just splitting hairs.

Moreover, denying that pornography can have a role in the art world also negates a massive portion of the artistic production of the queer community: in the recent exhibition “On Our Backs: The Revolutionary Art of Queer Sex Work” at the New York City’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, which specifically highlights how the relevance of sex work and pornography in the LGBTQ+ liberating movement have been dismissed by the art world, curator Alexis Heller explained how queer artists have been using porn “specifically as a medium for liberation.”[i]

The idea that pornography cannot be art has its roots in the same elitist idea that art cannot be properly understood without a degree – that unless we stand in front of a Caravaggio for hours on end we cannot possibly appreciate it and engage with it, that without having read hundreds of essays on the subject, art cannot in fact disclose itself to us. It’s the idea that we can’t look at Schiele and appreciate his ability as an artist while also recognising the arousing power of his drawings. The idea that art is something classy and necessarily intellectual, that art – and bless Oscar Wilde when I say this – truly is for art’s sake.

Art is political, art enrages, art is pretty, art is ugly. Art is what the artist makes of it and what the audience takes it to be. Indeed, not all pornography can be art, but instead of holding onto judgements about pornography that have less to do with the art world and more to do with personal prejudice, it would then be worth exploring in which cases pornography happens to earn a place in the art world, what the requirements would be, and what the reasons are that impel people to be wary towards pornography. It would be worth investigating the reasons for the struggle against acceptance that ‘pornographic art’ is, after all, a label like any other, and that there is no dichotomy in place between the art world and pornography, at least in a theoretical sense.

Indeed, let art have its own freedom, if you please.

[i] Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964)

[ii] Williams, B., Obscenity and Film Censorship: An Abridgement of the Williams Report, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982

[i] MacKinnon, C. A. & Dworkin A., 1983: Ordinance tit. 7, chs. 139 & 41, Minneapolis Code of Ordinances Relating to Civil Rights. I have here edited the definition to reduce it to (a) dehumanization, (b) objectification, (h) degradation and inferiority.

[ii] Sontag, S., Against interpretation and other essays (London: Penguin Books, 2009)

[i] them, This Exhibition Celebrates the Role of Queer Sex Work in Art, Sep. 27, 2019, available at https://www.them.us/story/on-our-backs-queer-sex-work-art

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