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  • Erotic Art and Pornographic Pictures
  • Jerrold Levinson

Only in primitive art, with its urgent need to evoke the sources of fertility, are the phallus and the vulva emphasized, as it were innocently. By ancient Greek and Roman times there already existed the special category of the pornographic—graphic art or writing supposed, like a harlot, or porne, to sexually stimulate.1


AS REGARDS PHILOSOPHICAL ANALYSIS of the opposition between the erotic and the pornographic, there are a number of reasonable goals one might have: to preserve as many considered intuitions about the opposition as possible; to present the opposition in a clearer light than it enjoys when casually invoked; to modestly "sharpen" the standard opposition that either accounts for our experience in this domain more fully, or allows us to organize our thinking about the domain more perspicuously. I hope in this paper to make progress toward some of those goals. Though the scope of the erotic/pornographic opposition goes beyond the visual, my focus here will be the opposition as it exists in the visual sphere, and even more narrowly, in the sphere of images. In addition to preserving and clarifying a distinction between erotic art and pornography, I hope also to make an intelligible place for erotica, as something intermediate between the other two.

Here, then, are some intuitions on the erotic and the pornographic: [End Page 228]

  1. 1. the erotic and the pornographic are both concerned with sexual stimulation or arousal.

  2. 2. while the term "erotic" is neutral or even approving, the term "pornographic" is pejorative or disapproving.

  3. 3. while "erotic art" is a familiar, if somewhat problematic, notion, "pornographic art" seems an almost oxymoronic one.

  4. 4. whereas pornography has a paramount aim, namely, the sexual satisfaction of the viewer, erotic art, even if it also aims at sexual satisfaction on some level, includes other aims of significance.

  5. 5. whereas we appreciate (or relish) erotic art, we consume (or use) pornography. In other words, our interactions with erotic art and pornography are fundamentally different in character, as reflected in the verbs most appropriate to the respective engagements.

In what follows I try to accommodate all of those intuitions. As I will need a distinction invoked in the first of them (between sexual stimulation and sexual arousal) let me spell that out before proceeding. By sexual stimulation I will mean the inducing of sexual thoughts, feelings, imaginings, or desires that would generally be regarded as pleasant in themselves. By sexual arousal I mean the physiological state that is prelude and prerequisite to sexual release, involving in the male, at least, some degree of erection. And by sexual release I mean something that I take it needs no spelling out.

How to differentiate erotic art from pornography, and from erotica as well, is of course not the only important philosophical question about erotic art. Here are two others: 1) How is the erotic aspect of erotic art compatible with the disinterested or distanced frame of mind that seems required for aesthetic engagement with or appreciation of a work of visual art? 2) How is the degree of eroticness of a work of erotic art related to its artistic value? I will briefly address those two questions toward the end of the paper, but most of my effort will be devoted to the prior question, that of the differentiation of erotic art, erotica, and pornography.


How, then, to effect that differentiation in the domain of visual images to which I have restricted my inquiry? One possibility would [End Page 229] concern the specific kind of response aimed at. Thus, erotic art might be said to involve images intended to sexually stimulate, but also to reward artistic interest; erotica to involve images intended to sexually stimulate but not to reward artistic interest; pornography to involve images intended to sexually arouse in the interests of sexual release. Another possibility would be by the character of the sexual representation involved, so that pornography would involve sexually explicit images, erotic art would involve sexually inexplicit images, and erotica images would be intermediate in their explicitness, irrespective of the ends for which the images were fashioned. A third possibility would be by...


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