Can Pornography be Art?

In the past decades, art has become more experimental and porn increasingly common which prompts the question about porn’s status as art. Despite their mergence not being a recent occurrence, it is still a widely discussed debate which is sometimes met with heated disagreement and sometimes with tentative acceptance.

What is pornography? In order for something to be considered pornography, it must sexually arouse an audience. The main reason why pornography’s status as art is disagreed upon is because of the common belief that pornography incites sexual violence. Nowadays, in a lot of people’s minds, pornography offers an archaic an degrading view of women where objectification and submission are the norm. Slowly things are shifting or at least expanding as we now see a new genre of ‘female-friendly’ porn being produced.

While I have my share of reserves concerning this topic, I also believe that sex as art should not be disregarded or censored. In 2012, Hans Maes wrote in his essay Who Says Pornography Can’t Be Art?:

‘Sexual experiences involve the deepest corners of ourselves and are among the most intense, powerful, emotional, and profound experiences we have. If pornography, which offers the most direct representation of, and access to, such experiences, can in principle be lifted into the realm of art … then I think we have every reason to encourage artists to attempt just that, to make intense, powerful, and profound works of pornographic art and rescue this much-maligned genre from the clutches of the seedy porn-barons.’

What Maes suggests is that the problem doesn’t come from the distinction between porn and art, but from the image that society has of pornography. We are quick to classify it as illicit and obscene, even when it is presented within an artistic context. Should the porn industry continue to work on their image by changing their intentions, then it might reach acceptance within society and the art world.

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In 2002, Fiona Banner’s “Arsewoman in Wonderland” is a pornographic film transcript printed in pink ink on a large canvas. It describes in detail who does what to whom and what effect it has on them, I quote “he cums in her face, she moans and rolls over”. In countering the outcry following the display of this work, Stephen Deuchar, director of Tate Britain, said, “these are not comfortable works to view but then much art is not comfortable”.

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The first time I saw and read what Banner had written, I cringed. Pornography? Yes, without a doubt. But is it art? Banner uses pornography to explore sexuality and the limits of written communication, and what better way to attract attention than porn? It’s clever and cynical. The artist justified pornography by boldly and crudely displaying it in an art gallery, all of a sudden it was under the name of art and couldn’t be sanctioned. However, I do not consider the work in itself to be art, the media furore around it that is the work of art.

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In 1989, Jeff Koons said about his exhibition “Made in Heaven” that it was twofold: to encourage audiences to form opinions about acceptable expression of sexuality and to get them feeling a little hot under the collar.

I’m not interested in pornography, I’m interested in the spiritual, to be able to show people that they can have impact, to achieve their desires.”

– Jeff Koons (1990)

This statement suggests Koon’s used pornographic images to transmute a concept beyond promoting sexual gratification. He wanted to elevate porn into art by giving it spiritual depth.

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What would be interesting to look at as well is a collection of feminist porn shots named “Dirty Diaries” which includes a manifesto fighting for change against mainstream pornography. It covers points like self-love, acceptance, the use of protection during sex, the profit-driven porn industry and the tolerance of homosexuality and transsexuality. It has more dimension to it than solely trying to create sexual arousal, it addresses moral concerns with pornography and uses its efforts to change them. This, however, is not pornography. I feel like I am stuck in an indecisive loop when it comes to this question, I have trouble finding good and convincing examples which skillfully showcase both art and pornography but I do firmly believe that pornography can be art.

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