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Philosophy and Literature 25.1 (2001) 31-45

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Pornographic Art

Matthew Kieran

"Pornographic art" is an oxymoron. At best, pornographic representations can only be bad art and, at worst, they cannot be art at all. This is the received view. 1 But what underwrites such aesthetic contempt? There are three distinct lines of thought typically held to warrant the apparent truism. Purely definitional considerations are often cited as showing that pornography, as a matter of principle, cannot be artistically valuable. The purpose of sexual arousal is sometimes adduced as rendering the production of pornographic representations artistically indifferent. It is also suggested, albeit far less often, that though we may appreciate a work both as art and as pornography, we cannot do so at one and the same time, i.e. we cannot appreciate a work as pornographic art. I will show that not only is the received view without warrant but, moreover, there are works which are valuable as pornographic art.


The dismissal of pornographic art by definitional fiat runs as follows. Pornographic representations are characterized as having the sole aim of eliciting sexual arousal. By contrast, although erotic representations might have this aim, they can also have other aims, including artistic ones. Hence, an erotic representation can qualify as art in virtue of its possession of, and possible realization of, artistic intent, but a pornographic representation can never be art, or be valuable as such, since by definition such a representation does not possess artistic intent. 2

But what reason do we have to grant this characterization? Pornography essentially involves the explicit representation of sexual behavior [End Page 31] and attributes. Naturally this is insufficient to constitute pornography since anatomical drawings or medical textbooks may be sexually explicit without being pornographic. Pornography as such seeks, via the explicit representation of sexual behavior and attributes, to elicit sexual arousal or desire. How does the pornographic stand in relation to the erotic? The erotic clearly need not involve sexual explicitness. Corregio's Io, Degas's portraits of ballet dancers, Robert Mapplethorpe's flower studies, for example, are devoid of sexual explicitness and yet they successfully solicit sensuous thoughts, feelings and associations which are or may be arousing. The erotic essentially aims at eliciting sexual thoughts, feelings, and associations found to be arousing. Thus there are many things which are erotic but not pornographic--such as a representation of someone suggestively eating strawberries--but things which are pornographic are also erotic. Pornography is a subspecies of the erotic or erotica--it seeks to realize the aim internal to all that is erotic, but via the distinctive means of sexually explicit representation, which many other erotic representations do not utilize.

Of course a work whose primary aim, as an erotic representation, is sexual arousal may also have other aims, including artistic ones. An artist may intend to produce a work which is sexually arousing and, moreover, intend to do so in such a way that the artistry deployed conveys a certain view, cognitive-affective state, or attitude regarding what is depicted or the nature of the arousal elicited. This statement is no different in principle from the recognition that Eisenstein can intend and successfully produce a work that aims both to be propaganda and artistically valuable. Indeed a work produced solely in order to be sexually arousing, without any artistic intention, may yet artfully suggest an insight, view or attitude towards what is represented. Similarly, we recognize that someone may intentionally produce a religious icon with the sole intent of evoking religious devotion, and yet produce at the same time an icon of artistic worth.

Now, in terms of definitional characterization alone, we have no reason to suppose that, as a matter of principle, what is possible with respect to the erotic generally is precluded with respect to a particular subcategory of the erotic--namely the pornographic. What we require is a reason which explains why the pornographic may be inimical to the realization of artistic value. The possibility of pornographic art cannot be ruled out by definitional fiat.

Carving out the difference between the pornographic and other forms...


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pp. 31-45
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