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Art or Porn?

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In 1878, the Irish novelist Margaret Wolfe Hungerford wrote, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”—a phrase I recall whenever I view art. Whether I’m walking the galleries of a modern art museum, or watching a film that makes me cock my head like a dog that’s heard a high-pitched noise, I’m conscious that my responses are inevitably subjective.


This subjectivity is also inevitable in any attempt to distinguish between art and porn. In an exhibit I recently viewed, I felt as if the content might be considered pornographic yet the artist had elevated this content to the level of art. Another viewer might have perceived that art had been lowered to the level of pornography. What would Margaret think?


Differentiating porn from art might seem simple to most people: it’s as simple as clarifying the work’s context or the artist’s intention. If a work is produced with the intent of getting people off—well, it must be pornography. But what about erotica? Some literary works will get you at least halfway there—just peruse the bookshelf at any Good Vibrations shop (or similar venue) and you’ll find plenty of highly artistic classics that will also moisten your loins. Even if erotica has been penned solely for that purpose, can the quality of its writing be acknowledged?


I like to think that if a viewer, upon fully absorbing the entirety of her experience (whether that involves a painting, photograph, film, or short story), can perceive any artistic quality in the work, any identification of that work as pornography can be discarded like a worn pair of panties.


I considered porn vs. art while walking through an exhibit at a local gallery around the corner from my office. A local man named Merkley had photographed 111 mostly naked girls at home on their couches, surrounded by and wearing their own stuff—most notably their favorite shoes. Initially, it was the images of 111 naked bodies that attracted my attention; however, within minutes I noticed how I was focusing instead on the saturated colors and minutely staged sets in every photograph. Then I began observing the specific items surrounding each model, chosen as a visual narration of self. Much later—after viewing photos of about fifty-three women—I was seeing naked girls and their explicit body parts as abstract objects, while checking mentally if I was being turned on by the size of their breasts or the shape of their butts (which I wasn’t, although it was aesthetically enjoyable).


The art worked for me on a level that was free from sexual prurience because I was enticed by the quality of the artist’s craft and his creativity in the use of his medium to tell his subjects’ stories. I can only hope that I got part of what the artist had intended.


For more on art vs. porn in film, see: Film: Art or Porn?


Photo courtesy of merkley???


 

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