Art Vs Porn


Arthouse or tacky? Sexy or innovative? Intelligent or explotative? Clare Patterson takes a look at the debate over nudity within the arts.

“Bodies” feminist writer Kathi Weekes remarks “are never just bodies. Bodies exist in cultures, and acquire highly different meanings.” There’s not really anything inherently sexual about naked bodies – we all have broadly similar things going on there – but perception makes it so.

As the social taboo around sex has decreased over the past few decades, our depictions of sex in our art have become more explicit, from Lars Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” and it’s graphic depictions of sex addiction to Gaspar Noe’s “Love”, a film which depicts unsimulated sex and has had recent cinematic release. As the barriers around sex come down, the lines between what is art and what is pornography begin to blur. It’s not as simple as saying “if something has sex in it, it’s porn”, but sex is still pornographic – it is a difficult line to draw and one that encapsulates multiple media genres.

In theory, the question to ask when deciding whether something is art or porn is “is this intended to arouse?”, or more simply “is this sexy?” – porn is something to get off to. However, in reality, so much of what we watch, read and see – particularly that about women – is subtly sexualised anyway. The male gaze permeates so much of what we see that almost everything, whether sexual in subject or not, is still sexualised in some way. Michael Bay films aren’t porn (unless you have some particular fetish for explosions) but the purpose of lingering shots of women’s arses or Megan Fox in booty shorts fixing a car is still titilation. So much of our culture is subtly, quietly concerned with the arousal of straight men that it becomes difficult to determine which scenes are included in films, books, plays purely to arouse and which hold deeper narrative value. The oral sex scene in Black Swan is meant to be about Nina losing control or becoming more adventurous and experimental, but it’s undeniable that many people, most of them straight men, will almost certainly get a kick out of a sex scene between Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. You can’t help but feel that this factors into the directors process somewhat, perhaps accidentally and subconsciously, especially considering the number of films about or featuring women’s sexuality which are made by men (Nymphomaniac, Black Swan, Blue Is The Warmest Colour, Carol, to name a few). The age-old adage that “sex sells” should really be modified to reflect that lack of almost-exposed penises in high-fashion advertising, perhaps to “sex involving women but performed for the enjoyment of men sells” and our attitudes towards the division of porn and art should take this into account.

The argument often wheeled out by those accused of exploitative, or sexist, content is that nudity is ‘beautiful’. If the Neo-Classical Venuses of Renaissance paintings can depict the naked female body, why is it any different in a music video or acting performance? Yet the florescent lighted nudes in photographer Terry Richardson’s work or, say, the barely clothed models hovering around in most Top-40 music videos carry a far more obvious sense of exploitation than the historical nudity within Titan’s Venus.

Another important factor to consider here is class, more specifically classism. I’m entirely in agreement with the “No More Page Three” campaign. I don’t think we need any more naked women in daily newspapers. However, we view page three along with publications such as FHM and Nuts as throwbacks to a more sexist age, but don’t take the same view of say, Esquire or GQ when they publish essentially the same thing. This belies an attitude that presents the nudity within working class culture as misogynistic yet characterises similar content marketed towards those with wealthier lifestyles as tasteful and stylish; cat-calling from construction workers is often used as a prime example of sexism, without referencing the hypermasculine culture and sexual harassment of white-collar boardrooms. The same hypocrisy applies to different attitudes towards stripping and burlesque. Both formsof theatrical performance yet one is seen as demeaning, the other empowering. Yet, the only real difference in performance is the social status of the audience.

I may come across here as a prude, which isn’t my intention; sex is a human experience like any other and thus deserves to be explored in art. But I think the ways in which we decide what is smut and what is art can be clouded by our wider view of the world and that we need to be aware of these things. I’m not saying “ban this filth”, more “have a good think about the external factors surrounding this before deciding whether or not it’s filth” (I don’t actually mind filth, per se, I just think it’s overwhelmingly skewed towards getting straight men off; compare the breast to penis ratio on Game of Thrones and you’ll see what I mean). Ultimately I think porn is about provoking arousal and art is about provoking thought, but the line between those is blurred; plenty of things do neither, and plenty of things do both.

[Clare Patterson]

 

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