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  • Why Pornography Can't Be Art
  • Christy Mag Uidhir

When cultural pundits, members of Congress, and New York City mayors exclaim "That's not art, it's pornography!" they mean something quite exclusionary, namely, if pornography, then not art. Typically, such exclusion gets predicated on some supposed essential moral or aesthetic value difference between pornography and art that is controversial at best. The goal of this article isn't to attack or defend value-based exclusionary claims but rather to offer a value-neutral option. I argue that, while pornography and art may be able to share contents and aims,1 pornography and art are essentially related to contents and aims in a way that makes it impossible for something to be both pornography and art.


Responsibly making claims about whether or not something can be both art and pornography would seem to depend on there being relatively robust notions of both art and pornography to which to appeal. Such appeals, however, make any exclusionary claim hostage to the merits and demerits of the particular full-fledged theories of art and pornography. I adopt a far less troublesome strategy. I merely invoke a few plausible necessary conditions for something's being pornography and for something's being art, then show that these are mutually exclusive. My argument is as follows: [End Page 193]

  1. 1. If something is pornography, then that something has the purpose of sexual arousal (of some audience).

  2. 2. If something is pornography, then that something has the purpose of sexual arousal and that purpose is manner inspecific.

  3. 3. If something is art, then if that something has a purpose, then that purpose is manner specific.

  4. 4. If something is art, then if that something has the purpose of sexual arousal, then that purpose is manner specific.

  5. 5. A purpose cannot be both manner specific and manner inspecific.

  6. 6. Therefore, if something is pornography, then it is not art.

I do not claim that pornography has only the purpose of sexual arousal or even that the purpose of sexual arousal is primary; nor do I claim that other purposes of pornography, should it have them, are manner inspecific. Also, I do not claim that art has a purpose; I claim only that if art has a purpose, then that purpose is manner specific. Should it turn out that art is a purposeless enterprise then the exclusion claim comes free of charge. My argument targets those, like myself, who think that the pornography/art debate is interesting precisely because both pornography and art can have the purpose of sexual arousal. The crucial difference, I argue, is that the purpose of sexual arousal is manner inspecific for pornography but manner specific for art.

Manner specificity I take to be the following: for a purpose to be manner specific is for a purpose to be essentially constituted both by an action (or state of affairs) and a manner, such that the purpose is to perform that action (or bring about that state of affairs) in that particular manner. Failure to do so constitutes failure to satisfy/fulfill the purpose, that is, a manner specific purpose is satisfied only if the state of affairs is brought about in the prescribed manner. For a purpose to be manner inspecific is just for it not to be manner specific. That is, for manner inspecific purposes, failure to bring about the state of affairs in the prescribed manner does not constitute failure to satisfy the purpose. Note that I am not arguing that manner inspecific purposes lack prescribed manners. I suppose that all or most purposes have prescribed manners associated with them, and I suppose that, most of the time, purposes get satisfied in the manner prescribed. The key distinction is [End Page 194] that for manner specific purposes, the prescribed manner is essentially constitutive of the purpose, and this makes all the difference.

Lastly, I assume that both pornography and art have intentional components, that is, both pornography and art are intention-dependent. Given this, I assume that purpose-talk is talk of intended purposes. Although value-neutral, my argument remains consistent with claims about essential value differences between art and pornography—I...


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pp. 193-203
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