Naughty but Nice

Naughty but Nice

"Pornographic Art" by Matthew Kieran, in Philosophy and Literature (Apr. 2001), The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, Journals Division, 2715 N. Charles St., Baltimore, Md. 21218–4363.

Read Time:
3m 14sec

"Pornographic Art" by Matthew Kieran, in Philosophy and Literature (Apr. 2001), The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, Journals Division, 2715 N. Charles St., Baltimore, Md. 21218–4363.

There can be no such thing as pornographic art. That’s the received view, as reported, but not shared, by Kieran, a lecturer in the School of Philosophy at the University of Leeds, who finds none of the supporting arguments convincing.

The first argument is definitional: As a matter of principle, pornography cannot have artistic value. Pornography’s sole aim is sexual arousal. Other kinds of erotic representations, by contrast, have additional aims, including artistic ones.

But why, Kieran asks, should we grant this narrow characterization of pornography? Most representational forms—pictures, novels, films— have little artistic merit, but we do not take this lack as evidence that the respective forms are incapable of having artistic merit. Might it not be that the stigma attached to pornography has kept genuine artists from attempting to create it? Besides, it’s far from obvious to Kieran "that there are no artistically valuable pornographic representations." The onus, he believes, is on others to prove that such things as Nicholson Baker’s novel Vox, Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye, Egon Schiele’s portraits, and some of Picasso’s late work are without artistic merit.

A second line of argument against the possibility of pornographic art holds that the very purpose of pornography—sexual arousal— causes pornographic representations to be "artistically indifferent": "the greater the explicit concentration on the physiological, biological, and more generally animalistic aspects of sexual behavior," the more limited the possibilities of representation "in any complex and interesting way."

Kieran replies that many choices can be made about how the explicitness is to be "treated and conveyed." Nor is the "inherently formulaic" nature of pornography an automatic argument against artistic expressiveness. "Even where a pornographic representation is formulaic," he insists, it may realize aspects of originality, as do, for example, many of Rodin’s pornographic nude drawings: "The specifically artistically innovative developments in Rodin’s line drawing enabled him to characterize the lines of action, sexual embraces, and actions in a more athletic, impulsive, vigorous manner which enhances the evocation of sexual arousal."

Yet another line of argument holds that the aesthetic aspect of a work cannot be appreciated so long as our interest in the work is pornographic. "A pornographic interest," says Kieran, "is held to be one which involves the objectification of a person’s body, in the service of arousal, by denying or precluding their firstperson perspective."

Kieran counters that many artistic works solicit an interest that precludes the first-person perspective of the represented subject. Among the examples he proposes are Ovid’s Ars Amatoria and the literature of courtly love, in which the object of desire is idealized as an object to be possessed, and visual art by Correggio, Rubens, the Pre-Raphaelites, Rodin, Courbet, and Renoir. All of these we appreciate as art. Kieran rejects as well the notion that we cannot take a personal interest in the subject in whom we take a pornographic interest: "In order for sensuous thoughts and arousal to arise, far from being uninterested, we must usually be interested in the subject in some way."

So what’s a contemporary example of pornographic art? Nicholson Baker’s novel of phone sex, Vox (1992), measures up nicely, Kieran says: "The arousal both portrayed and solicited from the reader is symbiotically enhanced by the literary features of the work." The book is a kind of triumphant, unholy grail for Kieran—"a novel which aims to be and is only appreciable as pornographic art."


More From This Issue