Art, naked people, and porn: The great debate. A multi part series.

Lots of times I see people posting a comment on an image onin a thread that starts out “I don’t want to start and art vs porn debate but…” Well lets put on the adult pants and have that debate like civilized people. It’s one worth having and there are very interesting places to explore in the discussion.

I think the easiest definition of art and porn correlate with mind and body. Art inspires thought and porn elicits arousal. The problem comes in the grey area where a work does both and arouses and makes one think. This intersection is often referred to as “Erotica.”

Obviously not all depictions of naked people are porn. Michael Angelo’s “David” is stark nude and arguing that it’s porn would make one look inane at best. There are countless examples over the course of human history where artists depicted the nude human for and it’s not porn. In fact the earliest piece of art ever discovered, The Venus of Willendorf, is a nude female sculpture believed to represent fertility.

A problem emerges with porn because the vast majority of it involves some aspect of being naked. So were is the line? Some art is naked, and most porn is, so how does one tell nude art from porn. The answer is that it’s not a line, it’s a gray area that moves from person to person and the aggregate consensus also moves over time. To complicate matters more, some people purposely mix the two.

I’ve said in critiques and on forums that it’s my personal belief that if you want a nude image to work as art, you have to ratchet up the artiness of the piece in direct correlation with the explicitness. If the subject while nude remain modest and mostly covered, it doesn’t take much “arting up” to convince a viewer that it’s intended to arouse more thought than libido. If, on the other end of the spectrum, a piece of art like Dahmane’s “Porn Art” series (book linked above) depicts actual intercourse, you better have bucket loads of artiness to convince a viewer that they should be thinking (which I believe Dahmane does very well).

This leads to the more difficult to answer question of “What is artiness or arting it up?” Bruce Pinkard has a list in his book “The Nude: a Complete Photography Course” on page 117 that I’ll use bits from but it’s all together too wishy washy for my tastes. Things that I consider artiness, artful, or whatever you want to call it (in no particular order):

Paradox or incongruent-ness:
Something is out of place, reality is unhinged, there is context but one we’re not used to or have difficulty believing in.

Theater or styling:
The piece is strongly rooted in a different time or place and an emphasis is placed on the unusualness of that time and place. It’s not here, it’s not now, and it’s interesting. Sometimes hints of an outside world exist within the image.

Social Commentary:
Something is being said and examined about an aspect of our lives, society, or culture and seeks to incite thought and possibly change around that aspect.

Minimalism:
The art is in what’s not revealed.

Avante Guarde:
Extremely original, makes you wonder how the piece was even thought of it’s so outside the box.

Surprise:
A new way of looking at something, a different angle, crop, etc. that make it appears as something else. “Bodyscapes” are often a form of surprise in nude art. It looks like the undulating landscape of an alien planet, but “Surprise!” there’s a naval.

Mood:
There’s an inner strength, vulnerability, melancholy, elation, coyness, brashness, etc. that permeates the piece.

Our world:
Possibly the most nebulous one so far, but environmental nudes that display the human form in harmony or juxtaposition with the surroundings would fall into this category.

Process:
I’m almost tempted not to include this because one can lean on it a little too heavily. Process alone doesn’t make something artistic but some processes lend themselves to more artistic interpretations. The simplest is black and white. The absence of color reads more like something timeless and unreal.

Movement or Tension:
Movement in an image implies a direction or momentum. Conversely tension is a desire to move but an inability to do so.

Triteness:
This is something that detracts from the artfulness of a piece. Corniness or cliche is another example of being trite. Examples would include girls with guitars, guns, caution tape, angel wings, railroad tracks, mermaids, etc. One can make a good piece of art of a subject that is more commonly cliche, but man, it’s some work.

Well, there may be more areas of artful-ness but I think these are the big ones, if I missed something, feel free to comment. Hopefully in sharing my framework for interpreting nude art (or nudes that are claimed to be art) we can have more rational discussions on the differences and intersections of art and porn. Next I’ll dive into fashion, glamour, and where they rub up against art and porn. Finally in a third part I’ll discuss the artistic merits (or lack there of) of some published and perhaps lesser know photographers.