Tuesday, April 15, 2008

erotica and pornography

How is erotica different from pornography? (Explain your vote)
  • Erotica has literary or artistic merits; pornography doesn't
  • Erotica is pornography done with style
  • The difference is nebulous and hard to articulate, but it's there
  • There is no difference
  • You can find erotica in the Bible, but not porn

Vote in the poll

Pornography appeals almost exclusively to sexual impulses -- as you say, it's designed specifically for masturbation -- yet I'd contend that titillation, awakening sexual desires and feelings, is a definite intent where erotica is concerned as well.

And erotica can be pretty damn explicit too. "Song of Songs" contains references to oral sex as well as the more garden variety forms of intercourse, and was explicit enough that one of the Medieval Popes was reported to masturbate to it.

How essential is the intent of the work's creator, anyway? "Song of Songs" presumably isn't meant to be pornographic, but its steaminess is evident enough that I remember one NKJV study Bible I had that insisted the book was purely an allegory and not meant to be read by spiritually immature believers. Conversely, it's not impossible to imagine a photographer who looks at Penthouse or Hustler from the perspective of lighting and framing, i.e., evaluating it as trash on its lack of artistic merit rather than on its actual content.

I'm no artist, but my take: The purpose of art is to inspire a reaction of some sort. If you shrug your shoulders in an offhand way and say "Eh, that's nice," the artist may have made a pretty (or ugly) picture, but she has failed as an artist.

Art may inspire you all the way to a transcendental experience, to deep introspection, to anger or to grief ... and yes, even to sexual desire. What you do in response to that inspiration is in large part your responsibility. If your anger leads you to fight injustice, that's good; if it leads you to assassinate the archduke of Sarajevo, that's bad -- but I don't think it's entirely right to blame it on the art as some are wont to do.

(Not that this lets the artist entirely off the hook. There's one piece I can't remember the name of that essentially guides its viewers into an act of voyeurism, by looking through a peephole at an image of a naked person. Though even there you could argue that the artist's goal was not to lead you into voyeurism and peeping tom behavior as much as to comment on how much we already are voyeurs and peeping toms.)

So what is the distinction between erotica and a nude? Again, I'm no artist, but I would say that the difference lies in intent.

With erotica, there is some sexual overtone or intent to the work, even if it's understated and portrayed through something as traditionally nonerotic as eating a bowl of corn flakes. A nude is simply a depiction of the human form, sans clothing. An engineer surely can appreciate the elegance of design that goes into the human form.

That's what the nude in art is, though I daresay anyone can eroticize it even when it's not eroticized by intent, much as we could write an erotic scene about painting a wall, eating corn flakes, or even washing the dishes.

(Ironically, the ones who are most likely to eroticize the nude in art are the ones who are most determined to stamp out pornography, as demonstrated by former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who made putting a drape over Lady Justice's bare breast one of his first official acts.)

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