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 Buzzfeed.com.

Photo: Getty
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Ann Summers can’t claim to empower women when it is teaming up with Pornhub

This is not about mutual sexual fulfilment, it is about eroticising women’s pain. 

I can’t understand why erotic retailers like Ann Summers have persisted into the twenty-first century. The store claims to be “sexy, daring, provocative and naughty”, and somewhat predictably positions itself as empowering for women. As a feminist of the unfashionable type, I can’t help but be suspicious of any form of sexual liberation that can be bought or sold.

And yet, I’d never really thought of Ann Summers as being particularly threatening to the rights of women, more just a faintly depressing reflection of heteronormativity. This changed when I saw they’d teamed-up with Pornhub. The website is reputedly the largest purveyor of online pornography in the world. Pornhub guidelines state that content flagged as  “illegal, unlawful, harassing, harmful, offensive” will be removed. Nonetheless, the site still contains simulated incest and rape with some of the more easily published film titles including “Exploited Teen Asia” (236 million views) and “How to sexually harass your secretary properly” (10.5 million views.)  With campaigns such as #metoo and #timesup are sweeping social media, it seems bizarre that a high street brand would not consider Pornhub merchandise as toxic.

Society is still bound by taboos: our hyper-sexual society glossy magazines like Teen Vogue offer girls tips on receiving anal sex, while advice on pleasuring women is notably rare. As an unabashed wanker, I find it baffling that in the year that largely female audiences queued to watch Fifty Shades Darker, a survey revealed that 20 per cent of U.S. women have never masturbated. It is an odd truth that in our apparently open society, any criticism of pornography or sexual practices is shut down as illiberal. 

Guardian-reading men who wring their hands about Fair Trade coffee will passionately defend the right to view women being abused on film. Conservative men who make claims about morals and marriage are aroused by images that in any other setting would be considered abuse. Pornography is not only misogynistic, but the tropes and language are often also racist. In what other context would racist slurs and scenarios be acceptable?

I have no doubt that some reading this will be burning to point out that feminist pornography exists. In name of course it does, but then again, Theresa May calls herself a feminist when it suits. Whether you believe feminist pornography is either possible or desirable, it is worth remembering that what is marketed as such comprises a tiny portion of the market. This won’t make me popular, but it is worth remembering feminism is not about celebrating every choice a woman makes – it is about analysing the social context in which choices are made. Furthermore, that some women also watch porn is evidence of how patriarchy shapes our desire, not that pornography is woman-friendly.  

Ann Summers parts the net curtains of nation’s suburban bedrooms and offers a glimpse into our peccadillos and preferences. That a mainstream high street retailer blithely offers guidance on hair-pulling, whipping and clamps, as well as a full range of Pornhub branded products is disturbing. This is not about women’s empowerment or mutual sexual fulfilment, it is about eroticising women’s pain. 

We are living in a world saturated with images of women and girls suffering; to pretend that there is no connection between pornography and the four-in-ten teenage girls who say they have been coerced into sex acts is naive in the extreme. For too long the state claimed that violence in the home was a domestic matter. Women and girls are now facing an epidemic of sexual violence behind bedroom doors and it is not a private matter. We need to ask ourselves which matters more: the sexual rights of men or the human rights of women?