Art & Pornography: Philosophical Essays  

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"Jerrold Levinson and Hans Maes have been in the very centre of the discussion, holding opposite views on whether pornography can be art. In the introduction they point out that pornography's bad reputation is largely responsible for the lack of interest aestheticians showed it in the past. It seems that even if there are some pornographic works which are aesthetically rewarding, and there is some art that flirts with porn, they are very rare. Philosophers of art only recently started asking why the overlap is so small, but once the discussion started it seemed to grow in popularity every day, and it`s good to see some of its main topics explored more in depth in a book"[1] --Simon Fokt

Related e



Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Art & Pornography: Philosophical Essays (2012) is a book on the porn/art debate edited by Hans Maes and Jerrold Levinson. On the cover is Terre érotique by André Masson, the wooden panel covering L'origine du monde by Courbet. The book features texts first brought at the "Aesthetics, Art and Pornography: An Interdisciplinary Conference" at the Institute of Philosophy, University of London held on June 16-18, 2011.


From the publisher

This book presents a series of essays which investigate the artistic status and aesthetic dimension of pornographic pictures, films, and literature, and explores the distinction, if there is any, between pornography and erotic art. Is there any overlap between art and pornography, or are the two mutually exclusive? If they are, why is that? If they are not, how might we characterize pornographic art or artistic pornography, and how might pornographic art be distinguished, if at all, from erotic art? Can there be aesthetic experience of pornography? What are some of the psychological, social, and political consequences of the creation and appreciation of erotic art or artistic pornography? Leading scholars from around the world address these questions, and more, and bring together different aesthetic perspectives and approaches to this widely consumed, increasingly visible, yet aesthetically underexplored cultural domain.

Review by Gemma Arguello Manresa of the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Lerma

reproduced here for research purposes

Art and Pornography explores various philosophical problems raised by the relationship between pornography and art. Traditionally, pornography has been analyzed from the point of view of feminism, post-feminism, and gender studies, which attend to its moral implications for gender roles and social behaviours. However, after Susan Sontag’s seminal essay ‘The Pornographic Imagination’, few philosophers have questioned whether pornographic works have any artistic merit. This book, edited by Hans Maes and Jerrold Levinson, shows different aspects of this problem that until now had not been fully analyzed.

The book is divided into four sections. Most of the articles argue in favour of or against pornography as art or pornographic art. Many arguments given are based on a distinction between pornography, which aims to elicit sexual arousal through sexually-explicit representations, and erotic art representations, which in contrast do not intend to elicit such a response but instead aim at major aesthetic ones.

Part I explores many of the arguments surrounding this distinction of aims. It begins with an essay by Hans Maes, in which he elaborates on many of the arguments sustaining that art and pornography are incompatible in virtue of pornography’s representing sexual explicitness (18), its moral status (19–20), its artistic quality (20–22) and its prescribed responses (22–24). Such arguments are unproblematic for erotic art, and the rest of the authors put emphasis on one or more these issues. However, Maes gives reasonable counterarguments for each point. The most important, following Kendall Walton's ‘Categories of Art’ (1970), is that pornography and art are not necessary mutually exclusive, according to the way a work plays with standard, variable, and contra-standard features of a relevant artistic category. For Maes, there are some cases that play with standard and contra-standard features relevant to not only erotic art, but also to pornographic art. Unfortunately, Maes does not give convincing arguments in defence of the category of pornographic art, simply saying that its merit is relative to the features we highlight when we approach such works. However, he gives an interesting analysis of most of the arguments we can find in the book that should be considered further defences or rejections of the category of pornographic art.

In a completely different vein, Alex Neill gives his interpretation of Schopenhauer's aesthetics in order to argue that erotic art presents the same kind of tension as the sublime aesthetic experience. Later, David Davies develops a very interesting approach to pornographic art. He dissents from Jerrold Levinson, who denies in ‘Erotic Art and Pornographic Pictures’ (2005) the artistic status of pornographic representations, on the grounds that they are transparent because, unlike erotic art, the receiver attends to what is represented rather than to the medium, in order to get sexual arousal. In contrast, Davies defends an intended-response-oriented approach in order to argue that pornographic art is possible and that it might function in a similar way to religious or political artworks. Following his own proposal in "Art as Performance" (2004), Davies claims that art appreciation requires the receiver to regard the work in virtue of its artistic vehicle, which is constituted by the way the assemblage of the work’s elements articulate the intended function of its content. For that reason, for Davies, if a pornographic representation is articulated in such a way, and if there is, as such, a receiver’s artistic regard that is a ‘precondition to the intended satisfaction of the non-artistic interest’ (79), then the representation might count as art. In the following chapter Jerrold Levinson responds to Davies. He argues that Davies’ proposal is too inclusive, since it can comprise any artefact that embodies meaning. On the contrary, for Levinson pornography is in conflict with any artistic function, whereas, i.e., religious art is not, for the same reasons he has given in previous work (2005). Hopefully the Davies–Levinson debate will reignite discussion on the role played by the presence of non-artistic functions in artworks. Part II provides insightful reflection on the fictional status of some pornographic representations and the relation between pornography and imaginary mental states. Previously Roger Scruton in ‘Flesh from the Butcher: How to Distinguish Eroticism from Pornography’ (2005) analysed fantasy and imagination in relation to erotic art and pornography. This book provides some novel approaches. Two of the most interesting are those provided by Cain Todd and Kathleen Stock. Cain Todd distinguishes non-fictional pornography, which is transparent, from fictional pornography, which presents a fictional narrative ‘where fictional actions and events are represented for us to be imaginatively engaged with’ (107). Using Gregory Currie’s analysis of I-desires (desiring in imagination) regarding fictions, Cain Todd explores the role these kind of desires play in imaginative engagement with what he defines as fictional pornography and how they might let this sort of pornography entail a cognitive value in relation to our real desires. His approach is appealing. However, he takes for granted that de se imagining (imagining from the inside) is the way we imaginatively engage with fictions. In the following chapter Kathleen Stock explores the limits of this concept. She explores whether pornography can be understood as ‘imagining something about oneself’. Looking to the work of François Recanti in Imagining De Se (2007), Stock explores different kinds of de se imagining in relation to fiction: explicit de se imagining, implicit de se imagining (from the inside), and imagining that there is x-ing (117–18). She provides arguments against the common view that the second is the only way we can imaginatively engage with fictions. Regarding emotional responses to fictions, she sustains that fictions represent affective properties that are appropriately imagined; however, aroused responses, i.e. of particularly erotic properties, do not involve de se imagining but are experienced ‘as out there, in the world’. Stock’s approach is interesting not only with regard to art and pornography but also to the paradox of fiction, and this article advances on arguments she has put forward in previous papers.

Part II concludes with an article by Christy Mag Uidhir and Henry John Pratt. In ‘Why Pornography Can't Be Art’ (2009), Mag Uidhir provided arguments for rejecting pornographic art based on his distinction between artistic manner-specificity and pornographic manner-inspecificity. Maes provides counterarguments to this position (37). However, in this paper Mag Uidhir and Pratt concede that there are works that are on the pornographic edge (i.e. Hentai films). These kinds of works are incidentally porn but constitutively fiction, so they fail to satisfy their function as porn, that is, satisfying sexual arousal. Unfortunately, Uidhir and Pratt’s minimal characterization of fiction (150), in contrast with Stock and Cain Todd, does not explain what kind of imaginative attitude a fiction invites the audience to have. However, their arguments may be interesting to explore in the context of the Davies–Levinson discussion about the role of a non-artistic functions in art.

Part III presents discussion of different art-forms. Petra Van Brabandt and Jesse Prinz analyse films and offer empirical evidence against those who argue that there are a limited number of aesthetic responses and emotions, in order to defend the idea that feeling sexual arousal is one such valid response. Nevertheless, they argue that pornography can be art only if it is used as a means of creative expression. Unfortunately they do not explain which aesthetic properties a work needs in order to count as art or even in order to be counted as creative. After this, Bence Nanay uses the photographic series Distortions by André Kertész to illustrate his position. Using a well-known distinction between the recognitional (‘the what’) and the configurational aspects (‘the how’) of pictorial representations, he analyses the series in order to argue, with Levinson, that the configurational properties of Kertész’s work enhance the aesthetic experience of the pictures, making the recognitional aspects irrelevant in contrast to pornographic representations where those aspects are significant. Finally, Michael Newall analyses pornography in literature from the point of view of the transgression of morals and discusses how pornographic representations can arouse disgust, moral disgust or even laughter. Last, in Part IV we find original approaches to the traditional discussion of pornography, morals, and gender. Most of the positions presented in this book do not question the category of erotic art, but this section does, at least from the point of view of those that have supported their arguments by turning to the moral realm.

Brandon Cooke gives an interesting view on the discussion about the fictional status of pornographic representations. He provides arguments against the distinction between pornography and erotic art based on morals, emphasizing analysis of a work’s particular features and the noncorrespondence between fictions and actions. After this, Andrew Kania recognizes that there are different modes of reception and, like Davies, compares pornographic representations to religious art. For him, as for Prinz and Brabandt, it is possible to experience sexual arousal and at the same time to appreciate the artistic use of a medium.

Next, A.W. Eaton elaborates on an interesting critique of feminist approaches to the problem, expanding the discussion to what she calls ‘methodological individualism’ (300) through the analysis of specific works, in the same vain as Brandon Cooke. Following Martha Nussbaum and Rae Langton Eaton, Eaton disputes some feminist critique for not considering the objectification of the female nude in many artistic representations, including erotic art. She analyses female nude representation and challenges the notion of erotic in art history as ‘morally permissible’, showing what pornography and erotic art have in common. Finally, Elisabeth Schellekens proposes an approach to voyeurism in art. She argues that voyeuristic representations, which are depicted as intimate acts, can be morally problematic just like porn.

Although most of the discussions of pornography in this book are concerned with the way in which sexual explicitness and the intended sexual arousal pornographic representations aim to induce affect their artistic status, it suggests number of interesting approaches to moral concerns. Despite the fact that the role played by art criticism in the reception of artworks that show sexually explicit scenes is unacknowledged, this book contributes to reflection not only on pornography but also on the artistic and fictional status of many representations and the relation between ethical and aesthetic evaluation. By introducing the relation between art and pornography, the book leaves many topics open for further discussion.


Table of contents

Introduction / Hans Maes and Jerrold Levinson

  • "bad art", "bad aesthetic reputation" --p2
  • "But this rehabilitation of sex leads us to raise what has become one of the most important questions confronting art and the criticism of art in our time: that of the difference, if there is one, between erotic art and pornography." --Beauty (book), Scruton p3
  • "One could argue that pornographic works, by definition, lack any significant artistic or aesthetic aspect." --p4
  • pornography is "explicit, exploitative, formulaic, arousing." --p4

1. Pornography, erotica, and art

Who Says Pornography Can't be Art? / Hans Maes

"Who Says Pornography Can't be Art?"

  • The difference between artistic and pornographic representations can be drawn along the lines of 1) representational content (explicitness, aggressiveness), 2), moral status ("charientically flawed", exploitative, harmful, objectification) 3), artistic qualities (one dimensional, formulaic, monotonous, mass produced, ugly, pornotopian) and 4) prescribed response (unimaginative).
  • "shameful gaze" in Luc Bovens--p18
  • "charientic" --p19
  • "Pornography is the royal road to the cultural psyche (as for Freud, dreams were the route to the unconscious)." --Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America, Laura Kipnis, [cfr Everybody Lies]
  • Bathsheba at Her Bath (Rembrandt) --p 24
  • "art and pornography are mutually exclusive" --p24
  • counterexamples:
  • Nymphe de Fontainebleau ("Art, Oppression, and the Autonomy of Aesthetics" (2002) by Curtis Brown)
  • Normative stipulative definitions by George P. Elliott and Fred Berger and Miller test (does not exclude the obscene)
  • "pornography is a non-evaluative concept that allows for a purely descriptive definition (unlike, say, the concept of 'kitsch')" --p30 [Not true!, just like kitsch is a pejorative term and both are thick concepts ]
  • Michael Rea's definition --p30-1
  • Bernard Williams's definition --p31
  • Levinson makes a difference between "sexual arousal" and "sexual stimulation" --p32: "According to Levinson, pornographic representations are essentially aimed at sexual arousal, whereas erotic images are aimed at sexual stimulation. The former he describes as ‘the physiological state that is prelude and prerequisite to sexual release’ whereas the latter should be understood as ‘the inducing of sexual thoughts, feelings, imaginings, or desires’" ("Erotic Art and Pornographic Pictures").
  • "there is no such thing as abstract pornography" --p33 [see machine learning porn ]
  • "Almost everyone seems to agree that pornography is a subcategory of the class of representations"
  • "sexually explicit representational content" exception: "magazines directed at "bondage fetishists (or shoe fetishists) need not be explicit to be arousing, which seems to indicate that sexual explicitness is not a necessary condition for something to count as pornography." --p33
  • contra Uidhir's manner specificity argument --p34-38 (cfr. Toulouse-Lautrec's advertising posters, Eisenstein's films)
  • "To some, the whole debate may seem like the philosophical equivalent of shadowboxing" --p.38
  • "(it is quite revealing, for instance, that there is not a single art historical book that carries the phrase ‘pornographic art’ in its title). This needs to change." --p40, emphasis mine
  • Critical discussions of Louis Paul Boon’s “Mieke Maaike's Obscene Jeugd” (1971), Alain Robbe-Grillet “Un Roman Sentimental” (2009), Nicholson Baker’s “House of Holes” (2011) will refer to other novels by the same author or to some classics of erotic literature, but rarely does one find a meaningful or extensive comparison with examples of pulp pornography that were a direct source of inspiration for these authors.
  • the conclusion is: let us "rescue this much-maligned genre from the clutches of the seedy porn-barons."
  • Up to this point in the book, the word masturbation has been used once (p20) and will be used five times in total for the book's entirety
  • [Maes laments ghettoization of producers of porn art]

The pornographic, the erotic, the charming, and the sublime / Alex Neill

On Schopenhauer's Reizende, see Schopenhauer's aesthetics, pornography is not [hardly?] mentioned here

Pornography, art, and the intended response of the receiver / David Davies

"Levinson, like Kieran, takes an artistic interest in a content-bearing manifold to be an interest in its form and the relation of form to content,' the way content is embodied in form, the way medium has been employed to convey content' (2005: 232). For the sake of clarity, I shall term this an artistic interest in the Levinsonian sense, or an 'L-artistic interest', to distinguish it from what I shall later term an 'artistic regard'."

Is pornographic art comparable to religious art? / Jerrold Levinson

  • See religious art
  • "If ... one wants only to affirm that some works of art can have a significant pornographic character without ceasing to be art ... there is little objection to be made." ... but counting "porn as art simply because they might be appreciated for [aesthetic] properties" is "unhelpful." --p. 83-4

2. Pornography, imagination, and fiction

Imagination, fantasy, and sexual desire / Cain Todd

Pornography and imagining about oneself / Kathleen Stock

Pornography at the edge: depiction, fiction, and sexual predilection / Christy Mag Uidhir and Henry John Pratt

3. Pornography, medium, and genre

Why do porn films suck? / Petra van Brabandt and Jesse Prinz

Anti-pornography: André Kertész's Distortions / Bence Nanay

An aesthetics of transgressive pornography / Michael Newall

4. Pornography, ethics, and feminism

On the ethical distinction between art and pornography / Brandon Cooke

Concepts of pornography: aesthetics, feminism, and methodology / Andrew Kania

What's wrong with the (female) nude? : a feminist perspective on art and pornography / A. W. Eaton

A. W. Eaton

Taking a moral perspective: on voyeurism in art / Elisabeth Schellekens

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