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Can pornography be art?

Can only when we stop confusing artistic merit with ethical deformity can we start having interesting conversations about what constitutes “artistic” pornography and whether there’s a market for it, says Tabatha Leggett.

A model at the Venus Erotic Fair, 2012. Photo: Getty

Lovelace, a film starring Amanda Seyfried as Linda Lovelace, a porn star who was famously abused by her peers, is coming out this August. Its release is inevitably going to prompt a whole wave of journalism debating the merits and failings of an industry that, let’s face it, is not going anywhere. Some journalists will claim that the porn industry perpetrates sexism. Others will argue that as long as no one is being abused, there’s nothing wrong with a woman choosing to be a porn star. How. Very. Boring.

A far more interesting question, which is increasingly being asked by aestheticians, concerns porn’s status as art. This debates centres around the idea that the process of making porn is not relevant to judging the artistic value of the end result. According to this logic, judging the artistic value of Deep Throat, the profoundly unsettling film that made Linda Lovelace famous, according to how Linda was treated during its making, misses the point.

So here’s a biggie: what counts as art, and what makes it valuable? Let’s go for a simple definition. Malcom Budd reckons art does these things: prompts an emotional response in its viewer; gives them pleasure; grants them the satisfaction of appreciating a work well done; allows them to feel they’re communicating with the mind of the artist; and encourages them to develop an attitude towards the attitude that it asserts. Let’s test his theory. Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” does all of those things. It’s art. The stick man I just drew on my napkin does none of them. It’s not art. Seems about right? Cool.

Graham Ovenden’s illustrations have long been recognised as art. But when Ovenden, who mostly drew unclothed young girls, was found guilty of molesting his underage models in March, the Tate withdrew his works from public view. Its argument was that the pictures’ worth was undermined by Ovenden’s actions. If Ovenden hadn’t abused those children, his work would have been better. Did anyone really think that, though? Do people, fundamentally, think the behaviour of an artist negates the value of his or her art? If so, do they think that Justin Bieber’s 2011 Christmas album “Under the Mistletoe” increased in musical value when he donated its proceeds to charity? 

Obviously the seasonal warblings of a teenage popstar are less contentious than products of the sex industry, but the same argument holds. Of course an industry that abuses women (or men) is bad. Of course Linda Lovelace’s story is tragic. And of course the porn industry needs to be closely monitored to avoid the exploitation of its subjects. But none of these things mean porn can’t be considered art.

Feminist philosopher Anne Eaton, who writes about this subject often, thinks that expressing a morally dubious message undermines the value of a work of art because it requires its viewers to identify with ethical deformities, which distracts them from appreciating the works as art. Put simply, she reckons that to enjoy porn, you have to (at least temporarily) objectify women, and you can’t do this at the same time as contemplating it as art.

Eaton’s arguments are tendentious. Obviously pornography doesn’t always require viewers to objectify women. That’s simply an accurate, if not particularly astute, observation about the majority of the stuff you’ll find on any teenage boy’s laptop. But she’s wrong to think that you can’t objectify someone in a work of art and contemplate its artistic value at the same time. There are loads of artworks that let you do that. Remember Fiona Banner’s 2002 Turner Prize nominee “Arsewoman in Wonderland”, a pornographic film transcript printed in pink ink on a large canvas? It says things like, “he cums in her face, she moans and rolls over”. You can objectify the woman being described and think about whether it’s art at the same time.

The same goes for basically everything that Jeff Koons ever made. Koons even spoke about the function of the explicit paintings from his 1989 exhibition “Made in Heaven” being twofold: to encourage audiences to form opinions about acceptable expression of sexuality and to get them feeling a little hot under the collar.

As it happens, Deep Throat is, artistically speaking, terrible. It doesn’t prompt an emotional response; instead leaving you feeling quite cold. It doesn’t give you pleasure, award you the satisfaction of appreciating a work well done or allow you to communicate with the filmmaker’s mind. And it certainly doesn’t assert enough of an attitude to allow its viewer to develop a reflexive attitude. But let’s not forget that these are the criteria that it should be judged on. The same goes for Graham Ovenden’s illustrations.

Tighter industry regulation may be an important legal debate, but there’s nothing new to say about it journalistically. And only when we stop confusing artistic merit with ethical deformity can we start having interesting conversations about what constitutes “artistic” pornography and whether there’s a market for it.