Is It Porn Or Art?

One of the intriguing questions that arises in aesthetics is how to distinguish art from pornography. How does one determine, for example, that Rubens’ “Sleeping Angelica” is not smut? And if it isn’t, then what about the centerfold in Playboy? Or, again, what about the beautiful woman standing naked next to a bed while giving the camera a “come-hither- look” as she fondles a dildo? Clearly, there are differences, but what are they?

The philosopher Monroe Beardsley wrote an essay toward the end of his life where he addressed the question “what is art?” and he came up with the following definition: “An artwork is something produced with the intention of giving it the capacity to satisfy the aesthetic interest.” Let’s unpack this. Keep in mind that Beardsley is the one who coined the term “intentional fallacy,” insisting that we can’t really determine what the artist’s intention is when he or she creates a work of art, so we must look elsewhere to determine what the work is all about. But the word “intention” plays a key role in his definition of the artwork above as we shall see. For now, let’s focus on the key words, the “aesthetic interest”; these words can help us determine whether porn is art.

The nude in the Rubens painting plays a central role in the overall composition of the painting; she is not there to arouse sexual interest. She seems pretty clearly to be there to arouse what Beardsley called the “aesthetic interest.” This notion refers to the response of closely attentive spectators that engages the imagination and arouses the gentler emotions of pleasure and approval; aesthetic interest is attached to the object itself, held there by the ability of the artist to create an object worthy of our full attention. It is clearly different from an erotic arousal which is somewhat violent and generates considerable physiological unrest, which we call “passions,” and which is not intended to hold our attention, but allow it to wander freely elsewhere. Erotic arousal leads to sexual encounters, as a rule. This is not what the Rubens painting is all about. It seems fair to infer this from the painting itself, even to infer what the artist’s “intention” happened to be. The same is true of the beautiful woman holding the dildo: she is there to arouse erotic interests, not aesthetic ones.

However, to be sure, the Rubens’ nude might in a particular case arouse erotic interest in a particular spectator — depending on how hard-up he is! But we are talking about the general rule here, and Rubens was pretty clearly on another tack; the erotic arousal wasn’t what he was going for. We can judge this from looking at the painting as a whole and giving it our full attention. But the adult photographer certainly was going for erotic arousal, and that is a key difference.

The interesting cases are those that lie on the border between the two, so-called “soft-core porn,” that seems to have both an aesthetic and an erotic appeal. In the case of the Playboy foldout, for example, because it appears in a men’s magazine, and the model is posed in provocative ways, the intention seems to be to arouse erotic, not aesthetic interest. But the latter could be the case, because the intention is not as clear as it is in the other two cases discussed above. Thus we are invited to focus on the nature of the “interest” we take in the photograph in this case: is it aesthetic or is it erotic?  And that’s the strength of Beardsley’s definition: it gives us an idea what criteria we should be looking for when we debate the question of porn versus art. Clearly, there are subjective elements in this definition; that cannot be helped. But there are also things we can look for and discuss that are part of our shared world. The issue may not be settled once and for all, but progress can be made toward a solution of the problem. And it helps us to determine what other objects are art and which are not as well. The piece of driftwood on your mantle is art if the one who put it there (the artist) placed it there with the intention to arouse aesthetic interest, to enjoy it for its sensual properties — its texture, color, and shape — for their own sake, and not for anything else. Is your attention drawn toward those properties of the driftwood? If not, should it be? Those are the key questions.

In the case of pornography, then, we ask ourselves, is it beautiful (do we find pleasure in the object itself?) or is is provocative (does it seem intended to arouse passion and lead the spectator’s attention away from itself to other things, such as sexual engagement with the object?) To the extent to which an object seems designed to hold our attention to it itself and hold it fast, it is art. But Beardsley was right to focus on the question of the intention of the artist: it is a key, but not the only one.

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