Pornography: art or not?

Pornography: it’s a presentation of sex most people will have come across at some point. The question is how this presentation differs from the wide array of sexual material found in popular culture – in particular, film. When films like Blue Is the Warmest Colour depict sex scenes that wouldn’t look out of place on a pornography site, the question is where do we draw the line between porn and art? But also how do we define art? Is there even a line between the two?

The use of porn is a private, indulgent experience that caters to desires very differently than the cultural taste that cinema creates. When we watch Blue Is the Warmest Colour, for example, we’re not supposed to see ‘hot lesbians.’ Instead, we are encouraged to see the contrast in connection – physically and emotionally – between this sexual encounter and Adèle’s previous heterosexual encounter with her boyfriend. The focus of the viewer, in the context of the cinematic medium through which we engage with it, is on what the actress’s facial expressions and intimate touches tell us about their character arcs and relationship.

But that doesn’t change the fact that the scene is an overtly physical depiction of sex, with full nudity and a variety of positions. Even in the context of the film we’re watching and the way in which we’re engaging with it, there’s no avoiding the similarities with pornographic material, both in terms of content and reaction – namely, arousal. For all its artistic qualities, out of context, the scene is just as arousing as porn, and therefore serves the same purpose – so how does the context in which we view it make it more ‘respectable’ than pornographic material?

The definition that I usually take of art is ‘work that expresses the human condition’. In cinema, this expression is at the front of the viewer’s mind as they watch the scene, making it easier to respond to the piece as art. However, most of the analysis I gave of Blue Is the Warmest Colour’s sex scene could still be elicited out of context; we can still see Lea Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos express the particular love and intimacy intended by the director, even if we don’t know the plot. So if the sex alone can be considered art because of the intimacy expressed, where does this leave porn? If we were to apply the same process to certain pornographic videos, the viewer could look past arousal to find a similar, if not quite as potent, response; porn often sets up intimacy and human connection between actors and actresses to enhance its sexual stimulation.

Where, then, is the line between porn and cinematic art? The main divider is that cinema intends to express human connection, whereas if we are to find this in porn, we have to look past the primary intention of arousal. Some may define this as art, and personally, I wouldn’t rule that reading out if a piece additionally communicates a human connection. But, often, porn wants no response beyond stimulation. Additionally, there are unavoidable concerns about the abusive and patriarchal nature of the porn industry which, contrary to Leggett’s thoughts, I believe can’t be overlooked in considering the artistic merits of porn.

Sex scenes taking place in film or porn, therefore, can potentially elicit responses of arousal or connection. Film intends expression, porn intends arousal. But both mediums unavoidably elicit both responses. It is therefore up to the viewer if a depiction of sex is art. Art is a two-way process between artist and viewer: the viewer has to convert the artistic message into a response, and if the viewer looks for how it is portraying the human condition, it will inevitably be more ‘artistic’ than if they choose to simply be aroused. Whilst this leans things in favour of cinema, it is not to say that there is no art in porn; but it can only be found if the viewer looks beyond the sexual stimulation that defines the medium. This secondary importance, in my mind, leans porn away from art.

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Ryan Norman

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May 2022
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