Guides to Fine Arts Like Painting, Designing, Architecture, Sculpture, Photography and More

By Diane Shubinsky


If you look in the Cambridge Dictionary you will see that pornography is defined as: "books, magazines, films, etc. with no artistic value which describe or show sexual acts or naked people in a way that is intended to be sexually exciting but would be considered unpleasant or offensive by many people." But I find this definition quite vague. What does it mean, "considered unpleasant or offensive by many people." In addition there is a great deal of difference between something being unpleasant and something being offensive. I believe very few people would have difficulties recognizing the vulgar scenes that are depicted in movies or the pictures that are easily available on the internet as porn. But when it comes to some areas it can be difficult to know what is pornography and what is erotic art since the ethnicity and period of time when it is being viewed all shade these views.

The ancient Greeks believed the human body was beautiful and should be clearly shown in all its forms. Consequently in many of their rituals they dispensed with clothing, for example, religious ceremonies were carried out in the nude. And their appreciation of this beauty comes over clearly in their art. Erotic nudity in their art was also fairly common. And yet there were periods in history when nudity in any form was considered indecent and pornographic. Even in 2004, in a small garden center in Hartsville Tennessee, nude statues were considered obscene and so the owner covered them with sarongs. Was this more artistic, less artistic or mere prudery?

The difference between what is regarded as artistic and what is seen as offensive clearly varies with time and between cultures. In Europe and North America in the mid-1800s women wore layers of clothes for fear that any part of their bodies would show. They even wore hats to hide their hair and gloves to hide their hands. In other words they were almost as effectively covered as a woman in a burka is nowadays. It was at this period that Shakespeare was rewritten, and many of his most poetic and artistic speeches were changed for the worse to ensure that there would be no references to sex or the body. It was also at this period that many of the works of art by the impressionist, such as Courbet's "Bathers", a picture that is admired by millions today, were declared indecent.

But while nude adults were considered indecent, nude children at that time were perfectly acceptable. Since children represented innocence and the period before the fall of Adam and Eve they could be photographed naked. And that is just what the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson did. Reverend Dodgson, who is more universally known under his pseudo-name of Lewis Carroll, was an unmarried man who enjoyed the company of children. He dressed little girls up and photographed them in sensual poses or in the nude. The fact that no one thought this strange, or condemned these photographs as pornographic, demonstrates how differentiating between art and pornography is dependent on the culture and times, rather than on any clear principle.

So has the internet corrupted us so that we now see porn in everything and cannot recognize innocence or artistic beauty any more than the Victorians could? In 1880 the French artist Jules Lefebvre's, painting, known as Chloe, was not allowed to be exhibited in the National Gallery because the naked image of the young girl was considered indecent. In 2008, Australian photographer and Artist Bill Henson had his work of a naked 13 year old girl taken down from an Art Gallery in Sydney Australia, due to a public furor and complaints made to the police. Many people wanted Henson charged, but the Australian Classification Board, which control censorship, declared the pictures, "mild and justified." In 2008 Bill Nelson went on YouTube to defend his wife Polixeni Papapetrou's nude photographs of their daughter. And even while the painting of Chloe is now considered art, it seems that the times have not changed and the difference between art and pornography is still unclear.

Professor Elizabeth Grierson takes a sensible approach and probes into what Henson was trying to do. If he was trying to make pornography he would be aiming to sexually arouse his viewers, but if it was art he would be trying to make them reassess and reconsider the world. Artists make us sit up and take notice of the things we have started to take for granted. She concludes that Henson's pictures did not try and stimulate the sexual imagination of the viewer and therefore they are art not pornography. We live in an extreme world where Hilary Swank can turn up to the Oscars in 2010 with a dress that clearly reveals her breasts and she is still regarded as a celebrity, not as a porn star. In such a world it seems common sense has been lost, and breaking boundaries in order to create new artistic forms is automatically open to criticism. Thus despite the supposed openness of the day and age we live in we appear to have come no further than the prude 19th century Victorians. I predict that just as we look at Lefebvre's Chloe nowadays and wonder how these people could ever have thought such beauty to be pornographic, so future generation of Australians will gaze upon Bill Henson's latest work and wonder what all the fuss was about.

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