Arts·Art 101

Art 101: What's the difference between porn and art?

This week, Professor Lise (not really a professor) takes us through this tricky question.

This week, Professor Lise (not really a professor) takes us through this tricky question

Manet's "Olympia" (Getty Images/De Agostini)

Hi, I'm Professor Lise (not really a professor) and this is Art 101 (not really a class). I'm here to talk to you about particular stories from the art world — ideas, oddities, things that need explaining. Things like porn. 

There's been a lot of art about sex, and the distinction between art and pornography can be confusing. So in today's Art 101, we'll try to puzzle out when it's art and when it's something different. Please have your children and your drunk uncle leave the room.

Watch the video:

It's not so straightforward. Professor Lise takes us through this tricky question. 4:53

Sex and art have been bedfellows for a long time. Nudity has been ubiquitous in paintings and sculptures beginning way back in the day — the 130 BC day — with things like the Venus De Milo. From Titian's Venus of Urbino to Michelangelo's David, artists have admired the human form and made some sensual images that are still identifiable as art. 

 

Here's an example of when things get a bit...fuzzier: 

 

Around the 19th century, viewers got wise to the fact that art was investigating sexuality more than sensuality. When Manet's Olympia arrived on the scene in 1863, French audiences were scandalized by this depiction of a sex worker, whose body was less idealized, who was shown in her chambers between clients and who was an actual woman some people recognized from their city. She wasn't nude — the idea that a body exists without clothes, perfected like Venus De Milo — but naked, a real person who has taken their clothes off. Not quite porn but not quite not porn, if you get my drift.

(Just a note: I'm using some pretty Western examples, but other places and cultures like Japan or India have been exploring sex in art for just as long.)

In America, though, in the 1970s artists like Andy Warhol and and Robert Mapplethorpe celebrated sex in a grittier way. Warhol's Sex Parts series pulled back the curtain on private acts and parts, and Mapplethorpe's photography showed bodies in all their sexual glory. So this is where the line maybe gets a bit blurry. What distinguishes porn from art if art shows sexual acts? There are a lot of different theories about this, but let me offer one: 

Art is about sex. Porn is sex. Art is a sort of veil through which we can view the issues of sex and porn is a demonstration, if you will, of the act itself. As time's gone on, the line between art and porn has been even more blurred. Jeff Koons made a very clear point about how sex sells when he created his series Made in Heaven in 1991 — artworks based on actual sex scenes between the artist and his wife.

Also in the 1990s, British artist Tracey Emin didn't show the sex act but shocked her audiences with its ephemera. Her installation Everyone I Have Ever Slept With was a tent that had written on and in it the 102 people she had spent time in bed with. 

And it wasn't quite as sexy as people thought. It even included people not just from sexcapades but those who shared her sleeping space, like lying in bed with her grandmother or having sleepovers with friends. These are works that comment on sex more that represent it, and they make really salient points about what sex lives mean and why we're so obsessed with the subject.

Toronto theatre company Mammalian Diving Reflex casts sexually savvy and sexually active elderly people to make the argument that a sex life continues long after your pension kicks in. And the show also points out that when we think about sex, sometimes we leave people in the margins. Some artists have much more explicitly looked at the act of sex itself. Notorious film director Lars Von trier — known for the most depressing Björk experience ever, Dancing in the Dark — made his epic film Nymphomaniac with actress Charlotte Gainsbourg and a lot of unsimulated sex, raising the question: why would it be important that actors actually be having sex in a graphic scene? Does this fit our filter of art vs. pornography?

In 2006, Sook-Yin Lee starred in Short Bus, a comedy drama that examined the sex lives of a bunch of people in New York City and included some pretty uninhibited sex scenes — and a controversy ensued about whether the movie was art or porn. These conversations themselves made us reflect on what sex means to our culture and how uncomfortable it can be to even talk about.

So when can you say, "But Mom, it's art!" when she catches you looking at something questionable late at night? 

The truth is, the lines are kind of blurry. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said in 1964 when he was trying to make that distinction himself: "I know it when I see it."

Sex happens. A lot, if you're lucky. It's pretty easy to see why it might be fascinating to artists, film directors, poets, dancers, even knitters to make various comments about love, violence, gender or issues of consent or issues of kink. But I'll give you this protip if you're looking for a way to slide some sexy stuff into your art collection: I've just given you about 12 ways you can do it and make a strong argument to your mom that it's just art. 

Hi Mom! See you next time for a less uncomfortable Art 101.