What makes it porn? [office safe]

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When I was in high-school, my Latin teacher smuggled in books of poetry to translate that the administration deemed too pornographic to include in the curriculum. There were no pictures or illegal acts. In fact, the content was downright tame, compared to what I and nearly every other teenage boy already had stashed around the house.

But, the powers that be deemed it too unsafe to read.

When I was in law school, we read about first amendment protection, then learned about it’s limitations when it comes to porn. And, again, we were given a standard by the United States Supreme Court…

”I’ll know I when I see it.”

Last week, I was stumbling through websites and stumbler’s pages on, you guessed it, StumbleUpon and I came upon a stumbler who had posted vivid shots of naked women. Then a few stumbles later, came upon someone with classic paintings of naked women. Very similar content, but totally different creative medium. And, one was labeled porn, while the other was not.

And that got me wondering about art, porn and who decides which is which…

If I took a photograph of a naked person that was shot in an artistic way, but was exposed the private parts, many people would cry porn. But, if I then took that same photo and painted those same subjects (assuming I was a great painter), for many, it would now be art.

Museums are filled with painting of naked women, many of which are worth millions. Galleries are filled with images of nudity that stretch from floor to ceiling. Put these same images on a website or in the wrong magazine, though, and all hell breaks loose.

What makes one art and one porn?

  • Is it the simple fact that one is photo emulsion and the other oil paint? Would the identical subject turn from porn to art, then back again, simply because the creator chose film over paint?
  • Is it the setting in which the porn/art is displayed? Would porn on the web or in a magazine become art when displayed in an art-mag or the walls of a museum?
  • Is it the fact that it was created by a man or a woman? Would art created by a woman be viewed as porn, if created by a man?
  • Is it the sexual orientation or relationship status of the content-creator? Would porn created by a single gay artist in NYC be viewed as art, if created by a straight mother of four in Boise?
  • Is it that someone whose opinion we are inclined to take told us it was one or the other? Do judges, philosophers, colleagues or faith-leaders define the line for us?
  • Is it the culture we grew up in? Americans are notoriously prudish about content Europeans frame and hang on walls.

Why is the book featured in the image that leads this column considered a collection of 100 works of a master painter (Botero), but photos of the women who served as models, in the same poses would, to so many who consider the paintings art, be labeled porn?

And, what about writing? If I blog or write about the similarity between writing, blogging and sex, is that porn? If the prose is magical, does that turn it into poetry?

[Fair warning, I grew up in a house where the classic tree with a helmet poster punctuated the living room with the words “make love not war” emblazoned upon it.]

So, what do you guys think? Share your thoughts in the comments below…

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15 responses

15 responses to “What makes it porn? [office safe]”

  1. Brett McKay says:

    My wife and I had this exact conversation the other day. My wife thinks something is porn when it is designed to elicit sexual feelings. So Playboy, Girls Gone Wild, and to some extent Maxim and FHM, would probably count as porn under my wife’s definition. If it was a picture from that one artist who lines up hundreds of naked people, not porn.

    Of course, one can probably take an image that wasn’t meant to be sexualized and sexualize it themselves.

    I really don’t know the answer to this one. I’m interested in what others have to say.

  2. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ brett – interesting, though, the challenge is that a lot of classic paintings were actually intended to capture some of that very allure or sexual intrigue, but most people wouldn’t call them porn.

    Plus, one person with a foot fetish might find naked feet highly erotic, while another woould consider them just plain nasty. Man, there’s are sooo many slippery slopes, here!

  3. Liam says:

    Whilst reading this article my first throught was simialar to the commentators’ wife above, porn is material which first and foremost is created to elicit a sexual response.

    Art can still provoke a sexual reaction but it has other layers of meaning and interpretation, whereas porn seldom, if ever, does.

  4. Keith says:

    Part of the problem is temporal. One of the signs of good art is that it evocative and challenges the viewer’s beliefs. A painting could be perceived as pornographic in the time it was created and looked at 20 years later and thought beautiful and tame. A Betty Page pinup was scandalous in the 50s and now is kitch.

    Things that appear on network tv today would not have made it onto late night cable when I was growing up. It’s a sign that the overall standards of what is deemed acceptable are changing constantly (for the worse perhaps).

    The other part of the problem is that lines are blurred beyond hope now. Like actress Chloe Sevigny felating director Vincent Gallo in Brown Bunny. Are we to believe that she is a serious actress and not a porn star now? Line drawing is problematic in this day and age. Look at “women’s magazines” like Shape, Fitness, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan. They all feature scantily clad women on the covers and have articles discussing better sexual performance in explicit detail. How is that not porn?

    The challenge up until now was having to decide what we are willing to put up with and what we will allow our kids to see. Unfortunately the toothpaste is out of the tube and you can’t go anywhere without seeing something offensive. At this point we can no longer say “I won’t let this into my house” or “I won’t allow my children to see that.” We have to decide now how we react when we do see it and how we will handle it when our children see it.

  5. Observation of Life says:

    I agree with Brett. I think it all depends on the context in which the picture is being viewed. If a picture was intended to be admired for its beauty and substance, it’s not porn. If it was designed for someone to get sexual pleasure from it, it is porn. I don’t think an artistic, non-sexual photograph of a naked woman is porn, even though people might use it as such.

  6. Observation of Life says:

    I agree with Brett. I think it all depends on the context in which the picture is intended to be viewed. If a picture was intended to be admired for its beauty and substance, it’s not porn. If it was designed for someone to get sexual pleasure from it, it is porn. I don’t think an artistic, non-sexual photograph of a naked woman is porn, even though people might use it as such.

  7. While all of these comments make sense, they only make sense in the context of our traditional western-cultured, restricted religious upbringings. The use of the work “Porn” here seems to relate to “bad or negative,” when if fact Pornography, by definition, differentiates the aesthetic (art) from the erotic. So what then is “erotic art?” And what if someone does get sexual pleasure from viewing a photo or film? Are they bad people, or are they just different from all of you who mount the missionary position from time to time and then feel guilty about even that. I don’t think the idea of porn should be thought of as “bad” or even separated from “art” unless it motivates dangerous and destructive social deviance.

  8. Raine Summer says:

    Interestingly enough this is a subject I was discussing with a female friend today..
    I think the naked body is beautiful if viewed in the right way..but to me it becomes porn when it illicits violence and/or destructive behavior..The “porn” site I was discussing with my friend was on stumbleupon..The images were of women in chains, etc. bleeding and women being beaten..this is porn..

  9. esther says:

    Great topic!

    I wandered through my OED, which defines ‘pornography’ as “the explicit description or exhibition of sexual subjects or activity in literature, painting, films, etc, in a manner intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings.” Hm. Then flipped to ‘aesthetic’ and got “things perceptible by the senses” and “of or pertaining to the appreciation or criticism of the beautiful or of art.” Which led me to ‘beauty’ which is “that quality or combination of qualities which delights the senses or mental faculties.”

    Mulling those defs, i think perhaps it’s less about the intent of the artist, and more about the experience of the viewer. If something elicits strictly erotic feelings but doesn’t touch the soul or ones sense of beauty, it may well be simply porn, but if it triggers an experience which fills the senses (which experience may well include the sexual), you may well be veering into art. Which would put art vs. porn in the eye of the beholder. Which in a way would make “I’ll know it when I see it” on the money – the only problem is when one beholder insists that their view is the ONLY way to see and begins to legislate on that basis. I mean, I can buy that some people experience Maplethorpe photography or the paintings of Egon Schiele or even a Manolo Blahnik (in the case of the foot fetishist) as porn. I just wish those people could accept that others may be having a different experience.

    Thanks for inspiring a swim through the OED, and then some!

  10. Kelly says:

    Jonathan,

    Not waters I like to wade into, but as someone who got my degree in Fine Art I’m gonna give it a shot.

    1. No, the medium is irrelevant. Robert Mapplethorpe’s work is considered by most to be art, though both photographic and overtly erotic.

    2. To an extent, yes. Seeing it on a shelf at the 7-11 gives us a certain opinion of its “merit,” so setting does play a part. (Just as the 7-11 itself is a setting that tells me I’ll find no artisan cheeses or organic produce inside.)

    3. Nah, there are plenty of women who create “porn,” and many women who are consumers and advocates, though far fewer than men. The gender of the creator doesn’t play a part in whether it’s pornography.

    4. It might have an effect on opinion if known, but at least in magazine photography, you generally don’t know. In film the creator’s own story is sometimes part of the branding, so there it probably has some relevance to who views it, but on whether it’s called porn or not? I don’t think so.

    5. Of course opinions of influencers have something to do with it. This is why Mapplethorpe’s work was accepted in the narrow art world far before it was accepted by a wider world (being told by influencers that his photography was pornographic), and why many still do not accept or understand it. Then again, my grandmother could never accept Monet. Art’s tricky that way.

    6. Culture’s got to be a part of it. The French president’s wife just had a nude photo of her (15 years ago) sell for some insane amount of money. No American president would consider marrying someone who might go on the block at Christie’s for anything but her handwritten dinner invites or her Valentino suit. Long prudish history back to the Puritans, etc., etc.

    How about class? Somewhere I read that there is a certain ugly immediacy to a lower class of porn, and that the more money/ status you have, the more you are likely to want distance/ filters/ “artisticness” on the erotica you will look at. A class scale from Mr. Flynt’s version to Mr. Hefner’s version to Van Gogh’s Nude Woman on a Bed?

    Oh, and what about writing? Michael Martine wrote a great comparison of Twitter and sex recently, and nobody called it porn. Maybe because it was funny. Writing probably gets greater latitude.

    What is porn is so close to impossible to say. Probably, there was a sexually provocative intention when it was made. I think that is true in a lot of erotic art also, but it’s a matter of degrees. Possibly, it has exploitative connotations. But not always. Often, it may seem objectifying, reducing people to functional parts. But not always.

    The Supreme Court’s answer is sort of right. It’s individual, and what it is to you is not what it is to me. Unfortunately as our official guidance on the law it’s a terrible answer.

    I couldn’t resist looking around for opinions. A “porn” filmmaker who wrote on the subject says: “I am uncomfortable with the word ‘porn’… because for many people, porn means something is going make them feel bad if they watch; they’ll feel bad about themselves, or bad about the people on the screen, or bad that they’re aroused by something they know is cheap and shabby, made without care or craft.” He tells people he makes “sex films,” instead of using a word with negative connotations.

    Well, I waded into the water a bit more than I thought I would! Yikes!

    Regards,

    Kelly

  11. Anthea says:

    Another charged topic Jonothan.

    Instantly recalled to me an issue of IdN magazine I have, here’s a link to the frame on their site:
    http://www.idnworld.com/idnworld/magazines/v13n5/v13n5.htm

    They asked artists who use “explicit” imagery or themes about their opinions on the topic.

    Great issue!

  12. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ everyone – wow, fantastic discussion. When I was a kid, were closer to the hippy family on the block than the buttoned-down family, even though my dad is a college professor.

    But, in addition to our “make love, not war” poster, I also remember my mom having discussions with her other mom-friends about what they’d let their kids see and saying, “why is it okay to let them see guns that shoot death, but not guns that shoot life?”

    As a bunch of you noted, the very word porn denotes that whatever comes under that rubric is in some way “wrong.” But, we all define what it is that makes it right, wrong, or okay with very different criteria. And, I actually think that’s a good thing. I want to define it myself.

    Which is why my concern is that labeling something porn versus art has extraordinary social, economic and legal implications. When we hand that task over to people who are often more than a generation behind and steeped in the morality of a single culture, that’s a bit of a scary dance for me.

    Even more interesting to me is who is behind the porn/art wheel at the major online social networks, many of which have barely an employee over the age of 30. Who’s deciding what’s art or porn on StumbleUpon, Facebook, Myspace and beyond?

    If there were no social, economic or legal implications, I’d be more comfy with handing over the decision to others. And, I don’t really write content that pushes the porn/art buttons (though I certainly could). It just seems, at least in the U.S., increasingly the folks who’d make the decisions are farther and farther from my own value system.

  13. esther says:

    jonathon, your parents sound very cool. and, knowing what i know of you in terms of all your career changes, i have to giggle, thinking of you blogging furiously about porn vs. art at 6:36 am rather than suiting up to write briefs, and getting us all to join you in the endeavor! perhaps your former wall street colleagues would view you now as an instigator of a cyber-porn orgy, but my take? now THAT’S art!

  14. Mel says:

    If porn is an image created to elicit a sexual response, with no particular thought to beauty, substance or deeper meaning, then a good half of commercial advertising is porn. Those soft drink ads featuring swimsuit clad models at the beach? That’s all about linking a sexual response to beauty to a specific product in an attempt to make you buy it. Although there’s no explicit nudity, it’s the same basic drive that’s being stimulated. That, in some ways, is more disgusting to me than what’s typically regarded as porn.

  15. Wtblogger says:

    People aren’t used to see others without clothes on them.I think that’s the thing that makes it porn