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  • Why Some Pornography May Be Art
  • Mimi Vasilaki

In "Why Pornography Can't Be Art,"1 Christy Mag Uidhir argues, as the title declares, that pornography cannot be art and thus that pornography is not art. According to Uidhir, this is because of the different ways in which pornography and art relate to contents and purposes. His argument for the impossibility of something being both art and pornography at the same time runs roughly as follows. If something is pornography, then it has the purpose of sexually arousing (some audience) and that purpose is manner-inspecific. If something is art, then if it has a purpose, then that purpose is manner-specific. So when the purpose is sexual arousal, then it is manner-specific. Thus sexual arousal by art is manner-specific and sexual arousal by pornography is manner-inspecific. Therefore, Uidhir concludes, something cannot be both art and pornography.

Here I argue that although this conclusion seems plausible, Uidhir fails to make a strong case for it because he does not establish that the purposes of art are necessarily "manner-specific" as opposed to the purpose of pornography, which is necessarily "manner-inspecific." That is, the paper does not make it plausible either that pornography has manner-inspecific purposes or that art has a manner-specific purpose.


Uidhir's exclusivity doctrine is intrinsically implausible. Let us take for example a work mentioned in the article, Red Butt from Jeff Koons's [End Page 228] kitsch photo series of "Made in Heaven." Uidhir writes, "part and parcel of understanding Red Butt is recognizing that it depicts a sexual act involving Jeff Koons and Cicciolina. . . . Failure to do so precludes satisfaction of the purpose of the work" (p. 198). Here he rightly says that the audience cannot interpret the work without the prior knowledge of who is depicted in Red Butt: the audience must recognize the sexual act and the subjects of the photo as the artist and his wife. In other words, the role of knowledge of context in understanding art is connected with the claim that manner-specificity is essential to the purpose of art. In the case of Red Butt, the appeal to extra-visual and contextual information enables fuller understanding of the artwork. However, in fact, the wider audience (rather than the art critics) perceives the trash aesthetics of Red Butt while being ignorant of Koons's biography and this aesthetic irony might precisely be one of the purposes of the work. Even if it is true that the audience's recognition of the artist's intentional self-parody requires knowledge of who is depicted in the photos, we don't know if Koons intends his work to be understood (solely) in reference to or through this knowledge. It is plausible that Koons intended to blur the distinction between art and pornography by attempting to create art that is pornography. If we accept that pornography can never be art then if Koons intends to create art that is also pornography then he attempts the impossible; if we, on the other hand, allow for the possibility for an artwork to be both art and pornography and if we accept that Koons has succeeded in creating art that is pornography, then we can interpret Red Butt in the most natural way and say he has succeeded in creating both art and pornography. It seems therefore that regardless of the context, it is left to the audience to negotiate and finally decide, if they wish to, whether to appreciate Koons as pornography or as art (or both) despite the lines between these being unclear. This very ambiguity is part of the purpose of the work, which is lost on Uidhir's account.

His exclusive model cannot account for artists whose explicit intention is to defy dichotomies by doing art and pornography at the same time. For example Annie Sprinkle, in reply to the question of whether she is doing art or pornography, insists against critics and defenders alike that she is "both an artist and a whore."2 Uidhir's position must be that, in effect, contrary to what she intends and believes, Sprinkle by definition cannot do both...


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pp. 228-233
Launched on MUSE
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