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.

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. 

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

Tabatha Leggett is a freelance journalist who has been published in GQ and VICE and on the London Review of Books blog and

Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage