It's Not Porn, It's Art
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description hard-core pornography; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it...
—Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, Jacobellis v. Ohio
It's got lots of naked women (or men) in suggestive poses. But it's thoroughly artistic—I swear! Therefore it can't be considered pornography, and it doesn't matter that it's hidden under my bed.
Pornographic works carry a considerable stigma in the U.S. and (to a lesser extent) in other Western countries. However, a great deal of classic works of art contain nudity (and occasionally, sex acts). For this reason, legally a work of art is not considered pornographic under U.S. obscenity laws; what constitutes "artistic merit" is left somewhat vague.
One result is that fictional characters (and occasionally real people) will try to get away with reading, watching, or creating something that most people would consider pornographic by claiming that the item in question is really a "work of art". For teenage boys (the usual claimant) this never works. Occasionally it's the "artist" making the claim, in which case he or she may or may not get away with it. Bonus points if he insists that the fault is in the viewer, who has a dirty mind.
In either case, the item in question will be something very few people would consider "artistic", unless the trope is being played with. This trope is something of an inversion of Moral Guardians, who are typically presumed wrong—hence why Moral Guardians themselves often use this trope in their works. Compare I Read It for the Articles.
Anime and Manga
- Inverted in Hana Kimi, when Mizuki buys an illustrated book that contains some nude photos. She doesn't want to show it to Sano, claiming she doesn't want him to look at porn, though in this case it really is art.
- In Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai, Sena is caught playing an Eroge called The Sacred Blackstar. She insists that it's art, so Yozora makes her read the dialogue of the last scene out loud.
- Sadly somewhat Truth in Television: many famous antique statues during the late Renaissance / Victorian age in Italy were altered to have leaves covering their genitals. The cast of David at the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum), had a detachable plaster fig leaf, added for visits by Queen Victoria and other important ladies, when it was hung on the figure using two strategically placed hooks; it is now displayed nearby.
- It gets a lot worse with classical depictions of fertility goddesses. Pretty much all of them are shown naked. Some were shown naked and masturbating. Some of the more noteworthy ones were depicted naked, masturbating, and staring directly at the viewer.
- God alone knows how many people have said this about the Venus of Urbino, AKA the painting Mark Twain called the dirtiest in Europe.
- Note, though, that it being made by Romans doesn't mean it can't be porn. Archaeologists have discovered obscene wall-paintings in the ruins of Pompeii. On the walls of brothels. It's Not Porn, It's Advertisement. And there exist Greek vases which were decorated with pictures of people having sex. Since Greek vases often had pictures which demonstrated their contents on them, it's maybe best not to think too closely about that one...
- "How many Greeks does it take to screw in a vase?"
- Not coincidental that "pornography" is from a Greek term meaning "depictions of prostitutes."
- The live shows of performance artist Ann Liv Young feature a lot of nudity and live sex. They are also very very strange. https://web.archive.org/web/20130730043709/http://www.revelinnewyork.com/videos/ann-liv-young
- This is a common topic of discussion of Deviant ART. The webpage allows frontal nudity (since it is considered art) but nothing that seems porn/hentai (example: someone grabbing a naked woman's boob). This leads to some conflict, because some "artists" upload pictures or their model/girlfriend/themselves with their legs opened in a less-than-subtle way; whereas more artistic drawings/photos are rejected because they show person-to-person contact.
- By simply being old, pornography can lapse into art. Ancient pornographic material such as illustrated Kama Sutras, and Japanese booklets are now on display in museums as historical artifacts.
- Around the start of the Impressionist movement Edouard Manet's two paintings "Luncheon In The Grass" and "Olympia" were met with outrage from critics for placing nude women in an everyday setting. Apparently nudity was okay as long as they were goddesses, nymphs, sprites etc but real women nude in paintings was a big no-no.
- Quite a few artists from around the 19th century ran into this problem, I think-at the very least Thomas Eakins got into trouble for this(and a variety of other indiscretions). Sort of what happens when you get the right combination of prudery, the dawn of public art exhibitions, and artist not being dead enough to get away with nudes.
- Likewise, photos of nude women were considered art during photography's heyday as a serious art form, as photography was a recent invention at the time and widely considered a luxury few could afford to maintain. In particular, posing prepubescent girls for nude photos was in vogue when a certain well-known mathematician and writer of nonsense children's literature decided to get in on the photography craze. Unfortunately, Values Dissonance and a lack of cultural context led some independent biographers to believe he had an unhealthy interest in young girls.
- This trope is often emphasized by "erotic fantasy" artists like Frank Frazetta and the husband-wife team of Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell, all "notorious" for their paintings of scantily clad or nude women (and occasionally men) in fantasy settings.
- A really weird version happens in "Scarecrow: Year One." Jonathan Crane is about thirteen years old, and at dinner his very religious grandmother remarks that she looked under his bed, and the terrified and embarrassed look on little Crane's face makes the reader pretty certain Gran found a Playboy - but then she pulls out an anthology of James Joyce short stories. She proceeds to accuse him of masturbating to it and punishes him harshly, as though it really were porn, while little Crane protests, "It's literature, Gran!" May actually be something to that accusation, as Joyce's Letters to Nora were... impressive.
- When Kyle Rayner and Donna Troy broke up, it was for a variety of different reasons. But the thing that kicked it off was Donna Troy walking in on Kyle sketching a topless woman in his apartment and not appreciating his defense of, "But I'm an artist! It's what I do!"
- The issue is discussed in Guarding the Globe, where the Guardians of the Globe attend teammate (and professional photographer) Bulletproof's gallery opening. The pictures are all of a naked woman, and Bulletproof is having sex with her in some of them. Outrun, who is established in later issues to be a sex maniac, ends up buying one of them for her personal enjoyment at home
- High school students in the third Porky's attempt this on the Principal when caught misusing the Audio-Visual Club's equipment to view a stag film. They insist the film cannot be judged without viewing it in its entirety. While the gym teacher isn't buying it one bit, the principal is more than eager to screen it.
- Spielen wir Liebe, possibly the most controversial film of all time, features full frontal nudity and simulated sex between underage participants. The boy and the two girls featured were fourteen and twelve respectively when they made this film. Its defenders have tried—unsuccessfully—to make this argument with the courts in Germany and the Netherlands, where it is now banned as child pornography and the company that released it on DVD has been forced to recall every copy it could. (This has not stopped rips of it—for better or for worse—from remaining available on the internet.)
- In Throw Momma from the Train, Billy Crystal plays a creative writing professor whose students have the barest concept of stringing a sentence together in the first place. During class they critique a man's work entitled "100 Girls I'd Like to Pork" (literally just a list with accompanying pictures and no story at all) which the "author" declares to be a coffee table book. "This isn't literature!" argues Billy Crystal, to which the guy says something like "Well, it's a fantasy, like Melville, and this is my white whale." Another classmate declares it "very brave."
- Humorously, in the second-to-last scene when Billy Crystal's character is just about to finish his novel, you can see that same student's book in printed form on the desk. The title was changed and sounds very artistic, and has a colorful, almost mythological in tone cover illustration. You might not even notice it without the passing remark deVito's character makes, which just makes it even funnier.
- The Big Lebowski: "I deal in publishing. Entertainment."
- "So which one is Logjammin'?"
- Mark is an art dealer in Love Actually, whose gallery showcased a series of Christmas themed nudes. He said the trope name to a bunch school girls giggling at the photograph of nude carolers. What was funnier is that a deleted scene showed that Mark’s first comment when he opened the pictures:
Mark: Oh my God. It’s Porn.
- Nightwatching is allegedly about Rembrandt's angst whilst painting his most famous work. Being a painter, this manifests as an awful lot of sex, drinking, sex, swearing and sex. And sitting around naked.
- Happened a lot in Bravo's Reality Show Work of Art, about finding the next great artist. Taken to new heights when one contestant actually came on his artwork (the piece was about the time when he came at a Disney movie).
- In the 1970s, there was a deliberate movement to create 'Art Porn' films, the most famous of which was The Story of O.
- The work of Andrew Blake from the late 1980s onward continued this movement, to the point that some of his "artistic pornographic" films are so artistic that they stop being very sexy.
- The American film distribution company Vinegar Syndrome argued that while they were indeed established to restore and distribute X-rated media, they emphasized that they are not a part of the pornographic industry, stating: "We are film archivists who happen to focus on preserving sex films" and that they curate and restore those they deem to "provide value" rather than the run-of-the-mill DVD one can find off a sex shop.
- One of the counter-arguments brought in favour of the controversial 2020 French coming-of-age-film Mignonnes (Cuties) when Netflix was indicted by a grand jury in Tyler County, Texas for distributing child pornography (due in part to a questionable scene showing the protagonist's genitals) was the award it garnered in the Sundance Film Festival, arguing that the film had redeeming artistic value contrary to critics' characterization of the film as a shameless piece of paedophilia.
- C. S. Lewis' allegory "The Pilgrim's Regress". The singer in question is Mr. Phally, who is squeezed in between Victoriana and Glugly.
- Discussed in the Discworld novel Thud!—it's noted that the Stripperific clothing of exotic dancers is logically more obscene than "great art" showing completely naked women, on the account of (according to Sergeant Colon) the dancers having "No urns", or Plinths, or cupids in their presence.
- And again in Wintersmith, although when Nanny Ogg says the presence of cupids shows it's Art, and not just women with no clothes on, Granny Weatherwax sniffs, "Well, they're not foolin' me."
- Guy Blod, a sculptor in Left Behind, decides an appropriate memorial for the late Antichrist would be an enormous, highly-detailed metal nude. He reacts this way to "Tribulation Saints" who find the statue unsettling. (No one else cares; by this point in the series, all television is either porn or Gorn. Even the news.)
- Used as an excuse by the Anti-Hero in Eric Ambler's novel The Light of Day. At one point in his life, he published illegal pornography of no literary value in several European countries and got prosecuted for it. When questioned about this by the Turkish police, he engages in sophistry and references the previous banning of works like Lady Chatterley's Lover (which had just been allowed to be published in England at the time Ambler's novel was written).
- In Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, conservative Senator Rosewater is quite proud that he created a law that defines what is obscene and not art. If it has pubic hair, it's pornography. (Note that this was before the modern custom of porn stars shaving off their pubic hair).
- From one of Dave Barry's books:
"So, you claim this film expresses an environmentalist theme?"
- Henry Miller was irritated by both the people who hated his books as porn, and the people who loved them as porn. His own argument was that sex is an important part of life and he didn't want to leave it out any more than he'd leave out anything else important.
- William S. Burroughs makes a sly nod this trope in his book Naked Lunch (which was itself on trial for being pornographic, but later found to have redeeming merit) with the character of The Great Slashtubitch, an "impresario of blue movies and short-wave TV" who takes pornography very seriously as an art form. Disgusted by "counterfeit orgasm", he thinks it takes "sincerity and art, and devotion" for actors to work in his films in lieu of "shoddy trickery" like "dubbed gasps, rubber turds and vials of milk concealed in the ear and shots of yohimbine sneaked in the wings". Slashtubitch appears again in Burroughs' later book The Wild Boys, spelled Slastobitch and elaborates upon his position.
Slastobitch: The new look in blue movies stresses story and character. This is the space age and sex movies must express the longing to escape from flesh through sex. The way in is the way through . . . The scene where Johnny has crabs and mark makes him undress . . . Who are these boys? Where will they go? They will become astronauts playing the part of the American married idiots until the moment they take off on a Gemini expedition bound for Mars disconnect and lave the earth behind forever . . .
- Umberto Eco wrote an essay in the '70s about how to tell films with artistic value from porn. He argued that porn movies always contain a lot of Padding before sex scenes to titillate the audience.
- 30 Rock: in the episode "Cougars", Frank's poorly rendered painting of a mermaid had to have the breasts covered for Standards, yet the outside of 30 Rockefeller Center is covered with carvings of topless women which are shown every week in the title sequence.
- Boston Legal has a university professor accused of soliciting prostitution under the guise of "research". He had made a video of himself with the prostitute that the prosecution is going to use as evidence. But, taking advantage of the odd American legal rule, his own lawyers argue that he actually was creating pornography and was therefore protected under the First Amendment. If it's porn, it's not prostitution and therefore not a crime!
- Coupling: "Inferno". While the video in question was undoubtedly pornographic (its full name was Lesbian Spank Inferno), Steve tries to present it as a feminist art movie with underlying social critique. An inversion occurs immediately afterward. When he fails to convince the others of this angle, he starts to rant that it doesn't matter, since every invention and scientific progress (including fire, the printing press and the internet) had only one purpose: to enable men to see naked female bottoms.
- Played for laughs in Chappelle's Show, when Dave becomes Oprah Winfrey's "baby's daddy." Oprah doesn't bat an eye when she sees him painting a portrait with a gorgeous nude model, but after she leaves we see that he's just painting a big-boobed stick figure on the canvas.
- In a 3rd Rock from the Sun episode, Dick struggled to differentiate art and smut:
Dick: She's nakeder than they are; why is this for aesthetic appreciation and this for arousal?
- In the final season three episode of Blackadder, Edmund mentions (among a few other things he's extorting out of the Prince) the "highly artistic but also highly illegal set of French lithographs". He describes them as a "sack of French porn" about thirty seconds later, so whether they're porn, artistic or they fall into that grey area in the middle is left up to the viewer.
- Also worth mentioning is that the compromising paintings of The Bishop of Bath & Wells could potentially form the basis of an exhibition of challenging young artists.
- In The Office, Ryan attempts to pass off his amateur black-and-white photos as "artistic"; one is a topless photo of his ex(?)-girlfriend Kelly, which Ryan says is about "exposure in the workplace".
- Inverted out-of-universe in the DVD commentary of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Once More With Feeling," an episode nominated for an Emmy. The Writer/Director's Commentary literally stated "This is basically... porn," when discussing the lyrics to a certain song. (Nothing graphic, but explicit as anything).
"You make me com...plete."
- And this happens while the singer is floating in the air on her back and her girlfriend has just disappeared out of frame.
- On Three's Company, Jack answers an ad for a modeling job, only to find out that the photographer wants him to pose naked for a Playboy-esque magazine. But he insists on calling it "nude."
Jack: What's the difference?
- From an episode of Bottom, as Eddie tries to defend his purchase of an old porn magazine as an 'investment':
Richie: It doesn't matter how you art it up, Eddie, it's still a... "jazz mag".
- It's later revealed that porn or art, Richie uses both for the same purpose.
- Happened a lot in Bravo's Reality Show Work of Art, about finding the next great artist. Taken to new heights when one contestant actually came on his artwork (the piece was about the time when he came to a Disney movie).
- This is basically the entire plot of the Parks and Recreation episode, "Jerry's Painting." The Justice Stewart quote is cited in this scene.
- In Party Down, actor Steve Guttenberg owns a painting of a erect nude man holding a porcupine. The profound artistic value of the artwork is summed up by the following statement: "He wants to have sex with the porcupine. But he can't."
- The Dead Kennedys included a print of H.R. Giger's painting "Penis Landscape" (which depicted a wall of penises entering a wall of vaginas) with their landmark album Frankenchrist. Members of the band were charged with Distributing Harmful Matter to Minors based on this, and though the case did not result in a conviction (the painting was, finally, ruled "art" and not "porn"), the band's Alternative Tentacles record label was driven almost to bankruptcy because of trial costs.
- In the Goon Show, Major Bloodnok would regularly be involved in the illegal distribution of "photographs for Art Lovers" which would, at the very least be concealed within a brown paper bag.
- This is how the nude revues at the Windmill Theatre in London came about. The Lord Chamberlain, at that time the national censor, was forced to rule that since naked statues were allowed on public display, naked women could appear on stage as long as they didn't move. If they moved, they were obviously not statues, and therefore, "rude".
- Grand Theft Auto Vice City. This is mentioned in the cutscene for the first porn studio mission. After walking onto the set and before revealing he's the new boss, Tommy starts yelling at director Steve Scott about the various props on the set.
Tommy: Why'd you get into this business, ya prick? Huh? For the pussy, that's why. What is this?
- Then as it cuts back into the gameplay, Tommy says "What's that guy think this is? Some free art crap? Jeez, like anyone ever watched movies about fish."
- Played with again in Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony. When Luis teases Gay Tony about the phallic statues in his apartment, he quotes the trope title verbatim.
- The video game Turgor (known to English-speakers as The Void). Even though you spend a large amount of the game watching nude women seductively posing for you, the majority of critics thought saw it as a serious piece of art, and thought the Fan Service actually served a thematic purpose. It could be that the nudity is just as prominent, or that the gameplay requires patience and careful planning, or just the fact that true art is offensive, incomprehensible, and foreign, but few have accused it of being purely a vehicle for Fan Service.
- Highlighted in this Candi strip.
- Parodied in Sluggy Freelance. The character Bert is a misunderstood, crotchety old artist.
My world is a crotch!
- Homestuck's Equius Zahhak owns a collection of NUDE MUSCLEBEAST PORTRAITS. His opinion on the matter:
These striking depictions of the EXQUISITE FAUNA native to Alternia remind you of the PUREST PHYSICAL IDEAL that must be sought by anyone who professes a LOVE OF STRENGTH. When those of lesser bloodlines turn up their uncultured noses at such stunning material, it MAKES YOU FURIOUS.
- The other trolls seem to consider the portraits to be fine art as well, possibly because trolls don't reproduce that way. To them, it's about as pornographic as a flower.
- Lampshaded in Brawl in the Family in a Waluigi strip. Daisy sees a picture of a butt on the wall and is disgusted, but Luigi tells her it's a painting of a butt, which makes all the difference, apparently. Doubles as a reference to the painting The Treachery Of Images.
- In a non-canon El Goonish Shive comic, Susan catches Sarah looking at nude photos, but Sarah assures her that it's only for art reference.
- Dave Kelly's webcomic from 2000, simply entitled Smut, was nothing but drawings of strange cartoon characters having sex while saying strange things. It's still unknown whether or not it was meant to parody this trope or is playing it very straight.
- Bender and the Ship's computer have an argument concerning this subject in an episode of Futurama.
Bender: If you need me, I'll be in my room appreciating "controversial art!"
- An episode of The Simpsons played with this; the "pornographic" work in question was Michelangelo's David. It goes something like this: Marge has successfully crusaded to get cartoon violence off the air. When her fellow Moral Guardians come to her to complain about David, she says she's okay with it because it's art. A bit later, Roger Meyers Jr. (the head of Itchy and Scratchy) confronts her on a news interview show and asks her how she can be for one form of expression and against another. She isn't able to give a satisfactory answer, so society declares her protest invalid and hypocritical and lets animated violence return (to the delight of Springfield's children).
- Family Guy gives us this joke in the first season:
Peter: What's the difference between pornography and art? ... A government grant!
- In US law, one of the few ways that a work can be banned is if it's declared "obscene". One of the requirements of being declared obscene is that it has no artistic value. In other words, porn depicting naked people can be banned but art depicting naked people can not. This distinction has never been made clear, with "I know it when I see it" being the precedent. This has earned the nick name "the limp dick test" in some legal circles.
- ↑ leading to phrases like "I am no gynecologist, so how come I am always looking at pussy here?"