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Flipping the Art and Porn Script

Imagine a gorgeous woman sitting in a hotel room with a single video camera hanging above the bed; the green “recording” light is already blinking. A middle aged, average-looking man knocks on the door and is met by the woman, who is carrying two glasses of wine. After some small talk about the contractual nature of their evening, they undress and begin to have sex in what can only be described as “every imaginable position.”

Sounds like a typical porn film.

What isn’t typical is that the video was shown at the Friedrich Petzel Gallery in the Upper East Side of Manhattan as a part of Andrea Fraser’s most successful and controversial pieces of art ”Untitled” (2003). Fraser herself was the woman in the video, and the man from the hotel room was an American art collector who had bid $20,000 to be a part of the, errrr… “work of art.”

While the arrangement between Fraser and the collector can easily be described as prostitution, and the contents of the video identical to most of the hard-core pornography I’ve seen in my life, somehow this piece looks and feels like art.

 

Too salacious for the mainstream

A decade later, the debate over porn and art reignited in the mainstream with the release of “Blue is the Warmest Color,” a French film from director Abdellatif Kechiche about a young woman’s search for companionship, sexual fulfillment and position in the world. The film features salaciously long sex scenes between two young women and is shot from angles that put anatomy front and center. While the critics tore the movie apart with justifications of their dissent—ranging from rage at the patriarchy to gratuitous indecency—it was clear the movie made people feel uncomfortable. Despite that fact, it was dearly loved by millions of viewers and won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013.

So where can the line between art and pornography be drawn? And who is drawing that line—the artist or me?

While it may seem like just another navel-gazing conversation for entitled art aficionados and hipsters, the argument of who gets to decide whether art is pornographic or porn is artistic has real implications.

 

The law against porn

You see, while all expressions of art are considered free speech and allow artists to explore taboo, controversial and unsavory subject matter without fear of retribution, if the work is considered pornographic, they are not protected by the law.

Artists like Robert Mapplethorpe have been arrested and criminally charged for obscenity because of their public art exhibits. Recently, a female performance artist was arrested for lying naked at the Musee d’Orsay in front of Manet’s Olympia, a painting that itself was decried for being pornographic when it was painted in 1865. Oh, the irony.

Andrea Fraser intended her piece to be a social commentary on the relationship between an artist and a collector. It had very little to do with the sex itself, which was simply the tool she used to paint the picture of the banality of transactional relationships.

While the artist can shape and direct the conversation around her work, her perspective isn’t the only one that has to be considered.

 

Can porn be art?

Outside a Manhattan art gallery or the Cannes Film Festival, you have to wonder how many producers of pornography convince themselves that they are creating provocative and raw works of art. Probably more than we’d like to think.

For that reason, I’m glad it’s not the artists alone who have the power to identify their work as art; it’s the viewer’s experience of the work in the moment that shapes the value of the work.

Does an erotic film make you reflect on your own sexuality or just want to jerk off? Maybe both. It’s the complexity and multi-dimension of the experience that sets art apart from its kitschy but functional alternative.

 

The functional vs the creative

Pornography leaves little to the imagination. Regardless of the intention of the artist, for the viewer it produces a singular reaction that bypasses the brain and titillates exclusively below the waist. It doesn’t rely on artistic quality, nuance or storytelling, but is an unambiguous depiction of the sexual act itself. It’s uncomplex and utilitarian.

Art can be arousing, but it’s not the sole purpose of the piece or the encounter. Arousal is one strand of an experiential knot that makes us think, imagine, emote, doubt our perceptions and come back for more. It’s not the quick fix, it’s the slow unfolding of a complex sexual reaction. The very fact that Andrea Fraser’s “Unknown” and “Warm is the Bluest Color” were so controversial and thought-provoking proves that they were art.

 

Let’s start with an open conversation

I don’t claim to be an expert in art or porn (although I spend a fair amount of time with both), but this conversation is an important one. We are quickly becoming more immune to shocking and hypersexualized images, and our obsession with busyness makes us opt for quick bursts of stimulation, rather than the slow and complicated experience of consuming difficult art.

I believe porn has a functional place in the bedroom, but can be dangerous when it’s confused with art. Knowing the difference is a sloppy and subjective business, but a conversation we need to keep having.

In the paraphrased words of Justice Potter Stewart, who oversaw the Supreme Court hearing on this topic, I have to agree that, “I cannot define pornography—but I know it when I see it …”


This article was originally published in Maine Women’s Magazine – July 2016 by RLP writer, Emily Straubel.