Posts Tagged ‘pornography’

On ‘Art that is Pornographic is Pornographic Art’

February 19, 2009

My primary objection to Jerrold Levinson’s categorical denial of the existence of pornographic art stems from the very structure of his argument.  He spends a great deal of time providing reasons to separate that which he labels ‘erotic art’ and that which he deems ‘pornography.’  To Levinson, the central differences are the aims of the two categories.  Pornography, he asserts, “induces you, in the name of arousal and release, to ignore the representation as to get at the represented.”  ‘Erotic art,’ however, “induces you, in the name of aesthetic delight, to dwell on the representation and to contemplate it in relation to the stimulating or arousing qualities of what is represented.”  Thus, the aims of either pornography or ‘erotic art’ have a bearing on the aesthetic qualities of the object itself, namely its ‘transparency’ or ‘opaqueness’ in terms of aesthetic quality.  While this in itself seems like a fair distinction, it is when it is applied to actual art-objects that it loses traction. Take, for example, the Venus of Cnidus, a marble sculpture of ancient Greece formerly the centerpiece of a temple in Cnidus but now known only in Roman copies.  It is an image of a nude woman—a beautiful and sensual one, at that.  However, when the sculpture is discussed or critiqued in this day, we do not focus on it as a pornographic image, instead our focus lies on its formal and aesthetic qualities—its pose, texture, proportion, the obvious skill needed to render such a gentle, compelling likeness of the human body, even—within reason—we comment on the beauty of the figure itself, at least in terms of it being an example of the Ancient Greek tendency to idealize the human form.  Levinson could not deny that the Venus of Cnidus is art, and its place as a religious image in the Classical canon would make it interesting for him to classify as ‘erotic art,’ though I have no doubt that this is where he would place it in his categorical understanding of art objects.  However, the sexually stimulating quality of the artwork—a factor which he claims pushes an art object beyond the realm of erotic art and breaches the pornographic—cannot be denied.  The Venus stands in half nudity, revealing her expertly carved curves in all their sensual suppleness.  The skill of the artist in veristically rendering the female body, which allows us to better imagine her as real, thus allows us to more easily be stimulated by her image.  In this case, the quality of transparency that allows us to become more aroused by the sculpture is also the very reason the sculpture is so compelling and exalted as a masterpiece of sculpture—thus, this same element of transparency is functioning to two different ends, and not unsimultaneously.  This example serves to illustrate that Levinson’s conception of pornography and erotic art is founded in the all-too-modern understanding of art for the sake of art.  Of course, in our post-Modern times, the medium of an art object and the process of art-making are foregrounded in the formal qualities artwork itself.  Thus, pornographic images could be seen to fail as art objects because their attempts at transparency for the sake of arousal remove or reduce that which we understand to be the very essence of contemporary art—the way in which a thing is represented, not the thing that is represented itself.  However, this is a very young aesthetic school, and though it dominates now it was once unknown.  Certainly the Ancient Greeks had never thought the vehicle of the image was itself the most important thing.  What was important was making a likeness of the god or goddess; the vehicle of sculpture merely the logical means of fulfilling this goal.  Then who is to say that, in rendering an image of a god or goddess, a Greek sculptor would avoid making the image erotic for the explicit purpose of stimulating at the same time as it serves to represent a religious icon?  This is especially true when the goddess being depicted is the goddess of beauty and sensuality; the goddess Aphrodite.  Why not make her likeness an effective demonstration of her supernatural powers; her ability to tempt and to seduce, but never give in? As described in Lucian of Samosata’s Erotes, the Venus of Cnidus does just that, and in her beguiling, all-too-real form is the intersection of pornography and art of the highest order:

“Filled with admiration, we noticed behind one of the thighs a stain like one on a robe, which only brought out the whiteness of the marble. It seemed a flaw in the stone. This kind of defect is not uncommon, and fate thus tends to thwart that which otherwise would reach perfection. Supposing this dark stain was natural, my admiration for Praxiteles only increased, for having so skillfully hidden it where it would least be noticed. But the groundskeeper, who had stayed by our side, recounted an extraordinary and barely believable tale on this subject. “A young man from a distinguished family,” said she, “but whose act has made the name unspeakable, came often to the temple, where an evil spirit had made him fall in love with the goddess. As he spent his whole day there, it was first believed to be due to a faith bordering on superstition. In fact he was up way before the dawn, and only went home after sunset, having spent all his time seated before the goddess, his eyes constantly fixed upon her. You could hear him murmuring sweet nothings to her.

….His passion only grew stronger…finally, the violence of his desires made him lose his reason, his audacity serving him for pimp. One evening, at sunset, he slid unseen behind the temple door and hid in the darkest corner, holding his breath. The keepers closed the gate as usual, and this new Anchises found himself alone inside. Who would dare recount the sort of deeds he consummated that wicked night? In short, at daybreak this sign of his amorous embraces was discovered, a sign which ever since has marked the goddess as a reminder of her suffering. As for the young man, they say he threw himself upon the rocks, or into the sea. In any case he disappeared forever.”

-Elliot Reichert