Art & Literature

Art or Porn? The Question of Erotic Art

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Le Musee de l’Erotisme in Paris is probably not a place you would want to go with your parents. Featuring erotic art and pornography from many different cultures, countries and time periods, giant phalluses and naked bodies grab the eye from every corner. A celebration of love, lust and lube, it is erotic art’s answer to the Louvre, a temple devoted to the human body and the art of sex.

There has always been a fine line between art and pornography, but where does that line begin and end? What makes an ancient Roman fresco depicting a threesome any different from an Internet porn video featuring a pneumatic blonde and two bodybuilders?

The usual distinction between art and pornography is that pornography is created to inspire sexual pleasure whereas art is not. Even if the painting is of a nude, that staple of the art world, it is not considered erotic art unless the subject is engaging in some kind of sexual activity. A statue of the Roman god Pan is an acceptable item to feature in a respectable museum for example. Pan engaging merrily in amorous activity with a goat however is considered erotic art, not pornography. But what is the difference?

Pornography was first defined in a dictionary in 1864 as a “licentious painting employed to decorate the walls of rooms sacred to Bacchanalian orgies, examples of which exist in Pompeii.” Many wall paintings featuring erotic scenes of different sexual positions were found in the ruins of a building believed to have been a brothel in Pompeii. It is not known whether they served as adverts for the various services on offer or simply to enhance the sexual experience.

These were a rudimentary form of pornography, given by time the more respectable title of erotic art, the word pornography nowadays conjuring up images of tattooed porn stars writhing around performing acts that would have made any Roman prostitute blush.

So can it be assumed that pornography is defined by its audience, in brothels or at a computer, an audience searching for sexual gratification? More intriguing than the Pompeii brothel wall paintings are the frescoes found in the Pompeii suburban baths in the early 1990s. Found in the changing rooms of the baths, these frescoes showing threesomes and cunnilingus would have been seen by both males and females, and their function is unknown.

In an environment where people would not have been searching for immediate sexual gratification, these paintings can be defined as erotic art, as they appear to serve no other purpose than to celebrate the experience.

The answer to what separates erotic art and pornography is a difficult, and also a subjective one. A supple porn star showing how far she can get her legs behind her head may be considered art to one person, filth to another. What is sure however, is that both erotic art and pornography are here to stay.

For thousands of years the human race has been fascinated by sex, and it influences and filters down to every creative medium, from trashy chick lit novels and the Bible, to sculpture and photography.

So if you’re ever caught with a naked lady or man on your screen, simply put on your most serious academic face and proclaim “It’s art.”

Originally published on The Yorker 4th June 2010

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