Thursday, January 09, 2014

Can Pornography be Art?

Autoportrait (1980)
Robert Mappelthorpe

In The Invisible Dragon, Dave Hickey tells why he decided to write on beauty, saying that the "actual occasion for . . . writing anything about beauty was the plague of intellectual dishonesty that affected every aspect of the controversy surrounding the public exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe's beautiful, pornographic photographs" (5% into ebook). But can art be pornographic? Can pornography be art? Roger Scruton, in his book on Beauty, has this to say on the nature of pornography:
In distinguishing the erotic and the pornographic we are really distinguishing two kinds of interest: interest in the embodied person and interest in the body - and, in the sense that I intend, these interests are incompatible . . . . Normal desire is an inter-personal emotion. Its aim is a free and mutual surrender, which is also a uniting of two individuals, of you and me -- through our bodies, certainly, but not merely as our bodies. Normal desire is a person to person response, one that seeks the selfhood that it gives. Objects can be substituted for each other, subjects not. Subjects, as Kant persuasively argued, are free individuals; their non-substitutability belongs to what they essentially are. Pornography, like slavery, is a denial of the human subject, a way of negating the moral demand that free beings must treat each other as ends in themselves. (Roger Scruton, Beauty, page 159)
Scruton goes on to say that "Pornography addresses a fantasy interest, while erotic art addresses an interest of the imagination," to which he adds that "[t]he purpose of pornography is to arouse vicarious desire; the purpose of erotic art is to portray the sexual desire of the people pictured within it" (page 159) but doing so without arousing the viewer's sexual desire. A few pages later, he adds:
[P]ornography lies outside the realm of art, . . . [for] it is incapable of beauty in itself and desecrates the beauty of the people displayed in it. The pornographic image is like a magic wand that turns subjects into objects, people into things -- and thereby disenchants them, destroying the source of their beauty. (Roger Scruton, Beauty, page 162-163)
Hickey and Scruton would seem to disagree . . . unless Mapplethorpe's images are beautiful but not pornographic, despite Hickey's words -- and I, by the way, have seen Mapplethorpe's striking photographs, but I was not aroused to any vicarious desire, so perhaps they're not truly porn . . .



At 9:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Normal desire is a person to person response, one that seeks the selfhood that it gives."

This is quite a judgment, and one without any empirical or statistical support, of course. Scruton seems unaware that there are ordinary men and women who sometimes or even often desire utilitarian sex or fantasy sex with a partner who is willing and not physically repulsive to the eye of the beholder. My definition of erotica versus pornography is the opposite of Scruton's: erotic images arouse while pornograpjic ones do not. Our differing opinions may owe to gender. Many though not all women may agree with me while many though not all men may agree with Scruton.


At 2:41 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Scruton's "norm," I think, is not a statistical one, rather a moral one, so he's not unaware of how sex is used in other ways.

Pornographic images are meant to arouse, but that doesn't mean that they always succeed. In fact, there's a large porn industry precisely because those who consume it constantly need new images, as the old images lose their ability to arouse, but without shedding their status as porn.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:52 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

I think we need to go to "ordinary language" and the use of the terms to identify the distinction. That is, the definition/characterization of the distinction is to be found in the way such phrases are actually used and understood in ordinary speech practices. The distinctions of aestheticians can give us interesting and perhaps useful material to ponder, but their propositions remain subjective, and philosophically "indifferent matters."

At 1:54 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

I don't think you can characterize Mapplethorpe's work through some set of aesthetic formulations and consequent deductions. In Mapplethorpe's case especially, the question is pure politics.

At 1:59 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

In a purer analytic formulation, we might ask ourselves: "How do we respond to Mapplethorpe's art? What is the appropriate response? Is there one? How do we know what it is? How could we know what it is?"

At 7:49 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

A similar problem of subjectivity besets analytic philosophy -- it must begin with something assumed, and that something is subjective.

Moreover, every formal system suffers from a problem Gödel identified, namely, that all such systems are either contradictory or incomplete.

Analytic philosophy is fine for arguing rigorously, but it has its limits, and its denial of truth-value to things outside of its formalism is problematic.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:13 PM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

I am having difficulty following this. Can you give me an example?


At 1:00 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Take the self-referential statement, "This sentence cannot be expressed within the formal system of logic positivism."

If it can be expressed in that system, then the system has expressed a contradiction, and if it cannot be expressed in that system, then a true statement exists outside of the system.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:47 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Could you give me an another example, please? I still can't follow you.

I am reminded by your statement of the argument against cultural relativism:

All values are relative, but there are some people who don't believe this to be true; therefore, relative to these people values are not relative, so if it is true all values are relative then values are also not relative.

At 6:02 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Others can explain Gödel's_incompleteness_theorems better than I, e.g.:

"For each consistent formal theory T having the required small amount of number theory, the corresponding Gödel sentence G asserts: "G cannot be proved within the theory T". This interpretation of G leads to the following informal analysis. If G were provable under the axioms and rules of inference of T, then T would have a theorem, G, which effectively contradicts itself, and thus the theory T would be inconsistent. This means that if the theory T is consistent then G cannot be proved within it, and so the theory T is incomplete. Moreover, the claim G makes about its own unprovability is correct. In this sense G is not only unprovable but true, and provability-within-the-theory-T is not the same as truth. This informal analysis can be formalized to make a rigorous proof of the incompleteness theorem"

Jeffery Hodges

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