At What Stage Does Art Become Pornography?

David de Souza

David de Souza

This article was published in June 2014.

Have you wondered at what point can nude photography be considered art, as opposed to pornography? Pornography in the pejorative, is associated with explicit depictions of the sexual act. Alice Walker had once said, “Deliver me from writers who say the way they live doesn’t matter. I’m not sure a bad person can write a good book. If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for.” Having said that, there have been ‘terrible’ people who’ve made great art.

So that, in essence, is the polarity. All of us have resident within us, the human, the animal and the divine or sacred. Individual or mob violence is a tendency that comes out of our animal side, compassion from the sacred, staying non committal, neutral is perhaps our human, sitting on the fence, side.

The difference and similarity would be akin to love and lust. If we can remove morality for a minute, it might get a little simpler to understand. Human beings have a heritage of making judgments and often what has been handed down as good and bad remain our sacred tenets. Friedrich Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols exhorts us to examine our values and see if they ring true.

A lot has to do with motives. Why are you making the photograph to start with? So even at the concept, ideological, wish level, it is crucial to know one’s motives. Before anyone else has seen the photograph, it could be art or vulgarity depending on that single test. But that is not the end of the line, just the start. A photograph when it becomes public has to fit into a sensibility. One culture would consider a photograph vulgar or pornographic, while another may not. Subjectivity comes with its own filters, morality, social mores and prejudice.

The point at which the photograph shifts from art to pornography could be several depending on who is viewing it. A general rule of societal thumb is when a group of people at a certain space and time become offended, the object of their disdain, ‘for them’, becomes vulgar. If a photograph is exploitative, it veers towards the pornographic, regardless of space, time or society.

The recent Aseem Trivedi cartoon controversy seems to have highlighted a few aspects of how we can subvert the main issue depending on our own pomposity. At that point in time, it was not up to the TV channels and their experts to ordain whether the cartoon was ‘art’ or ‘porn’. That was not the issue of contention—what was—did it merit being seditious? There seemed to have been total agreement that it didn’t. At another point in time when debating what is art and what is not, the cartoon could have come up for scrutiny then.

M F Husain’s Saraswati and Bharatmata along with Andreas Serrano’s Piss Christ have a common element. The museum in Melbourne was vandalised by right-wing fundamentalist Christians, in protest of a not-too-brilliant image of a crucifix in an amber liquid. But go beyond the obvious, what if Serrano did not have a title to his photograph, some devout Christian might even have thought it worthy of veneration in their home, what if the image was called Honey Christ? What if it was dipped in honey and called Piss Christ?

Many what ifs and as the answer oscillates from ‘art’ to ‘offensive’, notice that the image has not changed at all… only one’s perception. It might be crucial to check on Sorenno’s antecedents and his track record, would it change things to discover that he might be a devout and practising Christian? If you saw a pair of perfect, sensuous breasts in a magazine, half the population could swing either way, but what if you then discover a sign at the bottom that reads, “Early examination prevents cancer,” would the context change the content?

Eventually art is not necessarily to be ‘liked’, art and artists’ roles are to challenge our perceptions of the world and ourselves. It holds a mirror to us and often, our warts and our insecurities show up. Shall we be content to be unaware of our isness and bury our heads in the sand?

Most often historically, it is politics and those vested interests that create schisms and intolerance of one set of people over another. If we could borrow the sensibilities of the ‘other’, would our world view be that much more enhanced or diminished?

The nude human form is the most challenging subject there is. Because it’s all to do with perception. The human form laid bare of time and space, suddenly becomes eternal, divested of pretensions and fashions. It’s got the emotional quotient that anyone from anywhere can relate to and identify with. The photograph does not need a title and explanation. It might be difficult to get emotional or attached to a pressure cooker, but the human form is quite another issue. How one deals from behind that eyepiece with one’s humanity is the process to greater potential.

There are several countries in Europe and South America and even some in Asia that have pornographic channels along with porno magazines and DVDs that are free to view and buy, if you are above legal age. Pornography has become so undeniable that reputed universities offer a study of the subject. It is such a far cry from our country where mere ‘sex education’ is such a hotly debated subject in the Parliament, where the objectors to the education outnumber those who are for it. If a proper scientific, sexual survey was done in our country it would then expose what everyone sort of surmises, that our sexual misconduct and crimes would then show us up and dent our ersatz pride for who we truly are, and that would not be acceptable. Hypocrisy is one of our many legacies.

Hypocrisy can be pornographic.

About David de Souza
David enjoys making photographs of subjects of special interest to him, entirely for his own delectation. Many ask him what he intends to do with these photos and he most 
often only manages an incoherent answer. An active educationist with a unique teaching style, his recent interests have been as varied as mythology, dreams and 3D.

Tags: david de souza, Visual Musings, interviews, Photography and pornography, M F Husain, Andreas Serrano, Controversy, Perspectives, Opinions