Art and Porn are Orthogonal (not Antithetical)
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By zharth   |   Watch
2 4 1K (1 Today)
Published: June 28, 2018
You can't be a photographer of nudes without encountering the debate between what constitutes fine art, and what constitutes pornography. In fact, many artists who are not photographers of nudes encounter this debate, too (much to their chagrin, I am sure). But something has always bothered me about the terms of this discussion. Most people try to put art and porn at opposite ends of a spectrum, but I think they're conflating two separate axes, which is cause for much confusion and misunderstanding. We shouldn't be looking at it as a spectrum on a single axis, but rather as a two-dimensional field defined by two axes. What these two axes are will become apparent when we examine what we really mean by these two terms, "art" and "pornography".

A False Dichotomy by zharth

Arguably, art is the more nebulous of the two. What defines art? Personal interpretations vary, but I think that, generally speaking, a good way to "judge" a piece of art that is not overly subjective, is to examine its technical aspects. Art is a craft. It involves knowledge, and skill (whether learned or inherited). In terms of photography, there are rules of composition. Tools to master. Experience to earn. An artistic photograph stands out because it is beautiful, striking, and/or uncommonly good.

Now what do we mean when we say "pornography"? At its core, the word 'pornography' refers to materials of a sexual nature. Depictions of human sexuality may be artistic or not. Fine art may depict sexual themes or not. But while fine art has traditionally been reserved to high society, pornography has been relegated to the common masses. Because it is popular. And if art is not your goal, it is very easy to produce.

As a result, correlation has been misconstrued as causation. Because most fine art does not depict sexuality, and most pornography is not artistic, they have been typecast this way, and placed at opposite ends of a spectrum: thus, art cannot depict sex, and depictions of sex cannot be artistic. But any artist of erotic themes knows this is a devious lie.

There are actually two axes at work here, and not just one - between art and porn. One of these axes is artistic quality, and the other is sexual explicitness. You can have artistic works that are sexually explicit, just as you can have "garbage" that is not sexual in nature.


It seems to me that whether a critic is campaigning against the artistic value of the work, or its sexually explicit nature, these two axes often become conflated, making it hard to construct a defense. When the critic really despises the audacity of the artist to depict sexual themes, he falls back on the criticism that it is pornography, and thus not art. But the question of whether or not it is art is immaterial. Really, his complaint is nothing to do with art, and everything to do with porn.

This lends an air of legitimacy to the criticism of erotic works that other types of works are not exposed to. You can complain about the un-artistic quality of somebody's non-sexually explicit work, but there is no real fear of it being censored because it is not "artistic enough". There is, however, just such a threat - no matter how artistic the work in question is - if it's accused of being "too sexy".


As an artist, I think we should concern ourselves more with the artistic quality of the work (not necessarily censoring unskilled works, but encouraging the artists to strive to improve their craft), and not the nature of the themes displayed, even if they are sexual. And if we still have to censor sexually explicit art (probably for legal reasons), I'd like people to stop conflating sexual explicitness with a lack of artistic quality, marginalizing a whole subgenre (and its purveyors) of artistic, erotic works.

If you see something sexually explicit (or implicit) that offends you, don't complain that it's "not art". That should not be a foregone conclusion; and anyway, whether it's art or not should be a non sequitur on a site like this (and if we're on a site where it matters whether it's art or not, then you should complain about nonsexual works that are insufficiently artistic in equal measure). And if what you're truly concerned about is the quality of the art (e.g., you don't mind skilled erotic art, but are offended by the proverbial "dick pic"), then the word "pornography" should not even enter your vocabulary.


What I often see is that "artistic nudes" that are nonsexual in nature are considered art, but if there is, say, an erection involved, it suddenly "becomes" pornography. Not because it's any less skilled a work than the other nudes, but because it contains material of a sexual nature. And at the same time you have more prudish artists railing against the nonsexual artistic nudes because they consider them to be pornographic! And all of this gets jumbled together into a cacophony of complaints about porn infiltrating an art site (even though it's a site that explicitly refrains from judging works on their artistic merit, while also explicitly restricting works of a pornographic nature).

Is it too much for me to ask for us all to get on board with some common language? We don't all have to agree about what is good or bad, nor what should be accepted on this site or not. "Art" and "porn" are both nebulous concepts, and the lines that we draw are necessarily going to be subjective. But can we say what we mean and mean what we say, and closely examine our own reasons for being uncomfortable with something we see, and strive to exhibit maturity in the face of diverse viewpoints, as is necessary if we are to behave like adults in what is ostensibly a free society? Or are my standards for Homo sapiens simply too high?

So, in conclusion, "art" and "porn" are not really opposite ends of a spectrum; they lie on a field separated by two independent axes: artistic quality, and sexual explicitness. Let me leave you with a visual demonstration:

The Orthogonality of Art and Porn by zharth
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SunnyJohansen's avatar
First, please know I'm on your side.
"At its core, the word 'pornography' refers to materials of a sexual nature."
No.  LOTS of materials of a sexual nature do not meet the LEGAL definition of porn which is very clear:  "Anything showing or describing insertion of anything into anything, bodily fluids or anything illegal."

As an example, I've seen your photos and they are not porn according to the above LEGAL definition.  And the word "explicit" is wide open to interpretation.  For that reason, I often blow off people who use that word.

I'm also real sick of morons who call something porn when all they see is nudity.  Those people are all over this site.  (You haven't done that, and wouldn't.)
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zharth's avatar
zharthProfessional Photographer
I have a question. Where did you get this legal definition of pornography? (The "or anything illegal" part is particularly odd).

I also have a comment. What legally constitutes pornography and what colloquially constitutes "pornography" are two different things. I know I want people to use common language, but I did say these were nebulous terms, and they do have multiple definitions. What is the advantage of sticking to a legal definition when we're not talking about crimes(?), but trying to accurately categorize the content of works? (I don't like giving the law the final say, because the law often doesn't accurately describe reality). What word do you use to describe "materials of a sexual nature" that are not pornography?

There is hardcore pornography, and then there is softcore pornography. Would you say that softcore pornography is not pornography? The difference between explicit and implicit is that explicit shows and implicit merely implies. In the case of nudity it's the difference between a person holding a towel in front of themselves, and a person whose genitalia is on full display. Some would call that "graphic" nudity. In the case of "materials of a sexual nature", there's a difference between graphic depictions of the act (where you can see the body parts in action), and the mere implication of sexual activity (e.g., two bodies grinding against each other, but with their genitalia obscured by posing and camera angle).

Example: my deviation Oral Fixation is a depiction of explicit nudity, but only implicit sexuality.

Regardless, in either case, these materials can be artistic or not (which is my point). It is not a question of whether the work in question is art or porn. Whether or not it's art is immaterial in terms of whether it belongs on this site. And whether or not any given viewer interprets it in a sexual manner is similarly immaterial - the only true determining factor is whether it falls afoul of deviantART's rules on what constitutes "pornography" - which are actually quite clearly defined.
boronk's avatar
boronkHobbyist General Artist
I approve :D
zharth's avatar
zharthProfessional Photographer
:highfive:
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