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Beware the porn evangelists Why is porn for kids being seriously debated?

La Cicciolina advertising Pornhub's 'Classic Nudes' — an online guide to the wank-fodder potential in museum

La Cicciolina advertising Pornhub's 'Classic Nudes' — an online guide to the wank-fodder potential in museum


August 4, 2021   6 mins

In 1914, Canadian Suffragette Mary Richardson walked into the National Gallery and attacked Vélasquez’s Rokeby Venus several times with an axe. “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history,” Richardson said later, “as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history.”

Richardson was more concerned with women’s representation in the electorate than in art galleries. But the two are intimately connected — at least as far as modern art criticism is concerned. In Ways of Seeing, his 1972 classic on art and perception, John Berger argued that in the Western tradition of painting, women are stripped of agency, even as viewing them as objects confers agency on the (presumed male) viewer. In this worldview, Berger says, “Men act and women appear”; women are never just unselfconsciously “naked”, they’re always “nude”, which he defined as “to be seen naked by others, not recognizing oneself”.

Perhaps, then, Richardson was onto something. If being painted as an object strips women of agency, artworks such as the Rokeby Venus argue against the idea that women are people with agency, and as such should be able to vote.

A chorus of voices has since joined Berger in arguing that “artistic” objectification of women is on a continuum with the pornographic sort, and both are at war with women’s political representation. At the same time, fine art has increasingly become more sexually explicit. Now, we’ve reached the endpoint of this convergence: full reverse takeover of art by the porn industry.

This reached a nadir with the launch by online porn colossus Pornhub of “Classic Nudes”, an online guide to the wank-fodder potential in museums. But hidden between the relentlessly cynical lines of this cursed website lurks a counter-revolutionary longing for the one thing pornography can’t offer: erotic restraint.

I really feel for the anonymous individual who wrote the text for “Classic Nudes” (I worked for some years as a commercial copywriter). To get the gig, you would need a working knowledge of art history, which for most people comes with a love of fine art, and a capacity to think seriously about the subject. Imagine spending a fortune for a BA or MA in this field, only to find yourself making rent by writing about the “super-obvious sexual imagery” in Salvatore Viniegra’s 1891 painting of  the first kiss between Adam and Eve, noting the way Eve’s hair covers “Adam’s Garden of Eden” and the way the “massive snake” in Adam’s hand represents his “old testament”.

Imagine, too, introducing Luca Giordano’s 1696 Bathsheba at her Bath with a potted account of the biblical story of King David and “B.C. hottie Bathsheba”, that takes in David’s “total dick move” of getting Bathsheba “knocked up” before sending her husband to be killed in a war. And imagine capering thus across theology, ancient history and the intensely human and tragically complex field of commitment, jealousy and desire, to conclude blithely that “the real story here is about Bathsheba’s smoking curves”.

And yet the real real story here is not Bathsheba’s curves, but how difficult it has become to imagine a painting being about anything other than those curves. This stunted imaginative state has in fact been some time in the making.

Even as Viniegra was painting suggestive images of Adam and Eve, other painting schools were pushing at the constraints of realistic figurative art. Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism and Vorticism (among others) all responded to the increasingly high-tech modern world with less photo-realistic paintings.

The most notorious opponent of all this early 20th-century boundary-pushing is probably Adolf Hitler. A keen painter, Hitler detested abstract art, which he felt propagated the degenerate visions of inferior races into the cultural mainstream.

The 1937 ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition Hitler organised set out to collect and denounce examples of such aesthetic corruption. The event was wildly popular, albeit not for the reasons Hitler intended: the “degenerate” designation attracted visitors and many loved the paintings. The tension this set up, between the repressive forces of order and the liberatory force of boundary-pushing art, produced the template for every controversy-courting art exhibition since.

It also left anyone who wished to defend norms or boundaries standing uncomfortably close to a true monster. The presumption was thus tilted inexorably for the other camp: more tradition-smashing. But this in turn created a dilemma.

For one tradition challenged by 20th-century art, whether in the John Berger or Art Activist Barbie style, has been the representation of women as “nude”. But another tradition in need of smashing was the one that nudes, while nude, must be tastefully so. The result was that even as feminists denounced the “male gaze” in visual art as dehumanising and porn-adjacent, other corners of visual art became steadily more sexually explicit.

In 1998, for example, the West Midlands Police paedophile and pornography unit mounted a (doomed) court case against the University of Central England for displaying two “obscene”’ photos by Robert Mapplethorpe. Fast-forward another decade and a half, and the convergence was still more advanced: Paul McCarthy’s installation “WS” featured a half-dressed Snow White in what looks a great deal like the early stages of a gangbang with the Seven Dwarfs.

A couple of years later, performance artist Emma Sulkowicz appeared in Ceci C’est Pas Un Viol (“This Is Not A Rape”). This 8-minute video recorded Sulkowicz having sex with an anonymous actor in scenes that appeared to begin consensually but ended in what looked like non-consensual anal rape.

If you’ve drunk the 20th-century boundary-pushing Kool-Aid, either as an artist or a pornographer or — like Emma Sulkowicz — both, there’s no reason why this shouldn’t all be fine. From this perspective we can argue, with art historian Julia Friedman, that “Classic Nudes” is a route into fine art: “a democratizing project, one that could expand the museum-going audience by engaging their interest”.

And there are plenty for whom pushing everyone’s boundaries on acceptable levels of explicitly sexual imagery seems not just to be an acceptable part of culture, but something more like evangelism. Back in 2015, Richard Dawkins suggested that we might “beam erotic videos to theocracies”, seemingly on the assumption that viewing porn would help such benighted places break out of their hidebound superstitions.

And just last week, nepotism enjoyer and liberal arch-troll Flora Gill tweeted that we should produce “entry level porn” for children. This suggestion, though roundly condemned and swiftly deleted, nonetheless reappeared a few days later for debate on Woman’s Hour, suggesting an elite Overton window just itching to sidle ever further in the direction of porn-as-moral-crusade.

For it remains widely received opinion that openness is good by definition: a view also shared by Pornhub’s art guide. Here, what’s hidden is assumed only to be so because of the type of superstition Richard Dawkins would like to see cleansed from “theocracies” through the transmission of porn.

Rembrandt’s Woman Bathing In A Stream (1654), for example, in which a woman lifts her petticoats to paddle, is described by our Pornhub copywriter as “a precursor to the sort of porn that starts with a romantic bubble bath and ends in unspeakable things being done with a rubber duck”. Rembrandt’s gentle riverside eroticism, then, is a primitive precursor to more mature works of slippery-when-wet horndoggery such as, say, “Naturally Busty Gabbie’s Sensual Bathtub Sex”.

Of Rubens’s Nymphs and Satyrs (1615), Pornhub tells us it was created by a society “certainly orgy-curious, but also frustratingly constrained by the strict religious order of the day”. Clearly the 17th century would have been greatly improved by access to Richard Dawkins-approved pornography. What struck me about it, though, and what leaks from every jaded paragraph penned by Pornhub’s tragically suborned art historian, is the implicit admission it makes: openness kills eroticism.

Rubens’s world might have been “frustratingly constrained”, but that constraint also delivers the painting’s erotic charge. The same applies to every innuendo pointed out by Classic Nudes: every half-glimpsed crotch, every frilly dress suggesting vaginal lips, every hand caressing a snake. The power lies, precisely, in not saying the quiet part out loud. The dividing line between art and porn may shift as cultural taboos change; but what distinguishes art from porn is its relationship to boundaries.

Art dances with boundaries; porn hates and seeks to destroy them. And this isn’t a static condition, but a process, for consumers as well as producers. Studies have shown porn consumers have to go looking for ever more forbidden taboos in order to keep getting the same frisson of transgression.

In his proposal for porn evangelism, Richard Dawkins added that of course such content should be “gentle, woman-respecting eroticism”. Gill likewise argues that the point of providing curated porn to children is because at least that’s better than the “violent, hardcore” variety.

So evangelism should employ nice porn, not (as Dawkins puts it) the “violent, woman-hating” sort we see so often on, er, Pornhub, where common tags include “raped teen” and “crying teen”. But what the proponents of openness refuse to acknowledge is that their commitment to boundary-smashing inexorably finds itself, whether in art or porn, precisely in the monstrous places they’re so keen to disavow.

Instead of nodding politely, like the producers of Woman’s Hour, to the proposal that we foster yet more “openness”, we should listen to the poignant message-in-a-bottle conveyed by Pornhub’s Classic Nudes: constrained eroticism is infinitely sexier than the sort that’s on display for everyone. And the alternative will always, inexorably, end up producing abominations. Perhaps next time they’ll even call it art.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago

Much confusion in this piece. First, art and porn. No, art is not “porn adjacent”. Neither the Rokeby Venus nor the David of Michelangelo are there to provoke arousal and generally they do not. In the first place they are not “aroused” themselves; in the second, they adopt postures of dignity and / or modesty which repel such a response – like habitual nudists, they “wear” their nudity like a suit of clothes. In the third place, being works of art, the eye of the beholder flickers between the phenomenon represented and the stony or painterly fact of the representation, marvelling at the dignified splendours of the first as revealed by the artistic genius of the second. This is the great pleasure of art, the strange double register of that dash of white paint as a gleam of love in a human eye. Finally, on this point, the nude thus conceived is in fact the antidote to porn, because it evokes a detached, disinterested, appreciative and above all charitable sense of our humanity. We see beauty – beauty that must die, as Keats says, and mingled with our admiration is pity for our common lot. This explains the equally established academic tradition of the elderly nude – the St Jerome, for instance. Yes, as Lord Clark says, the nude has a sensual aspect but – again – sensual, not sexual; erotic, perhaps, but at a distance. The whole relationship between this detached, compassionate, pitying, disinterested even tragic notion of human beauty and the deeper impulses of desire to which it relates is explored – as people will recall – in “Death in Venice”. But those who claim that the old artist is simply a predator in pursuit of “ass” expose the sorry paucity of their experience and imagination – qualities which are equally on show among the shrill harpies of the left and the cynical fools of the “adult” entertainment industry.

Don Lightband
Don Lightband
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

However, you must admit, surely, that *without* the ass things would look pretty bleak? And whyever would you believe that “postures of dignity and/or modesty” must always repel arousal? I honestly think it might be you who is demonstrating shortcomings in the imaginative department, and covering them up with rather pompous language?

Last edited 2 years ago by Don Lightband
Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago
Reply to  Don Lightband

Well, next time I find somebody fumbling with his trousers at the National Gallery, I’ll know it’s you.

Fredrick Urbanelli
Fredrick Urbanelli
2 years ago

I generally appreciate Ms. Harrington’s essays, but she’s gone a bit off into fantasyland here, I’m afraid. She just seems to be hammering away rather absent-mindedly at one of her favorite preoccupations (porn) and attempting to establish very dubious connections to….what, in fact? The article is a real mess, Mary. It needs serious cleaning up and a bit of coherent thought. An art historian you are most certainly not.

Marco S
Marco S
2 years ago

I am sorry I don’t follow the article at all

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Sorry but WTF is “agency”? I know it’s the left’s new word, but what does it mean that an existing word doesn’t already mean?
And nothing to say about thousands of years of male nudes?

Last edited 2 years ago by Jon Redman
Gordon Black
Gordon Black
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Agency is a temporally embedded process that encompasses three different constitutive elements: iteration, projectivity and practical evaluation … don’t you know?

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

But David Lammy uses the word agency and he’s far too thick to understand it if that’s what it means.

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

It’s that property that the left deny that their favoured identity groups have in order to excuse their poor choices. It’s always someone else’s fault – someone white, male, Western civilisation etc.

Basically, the bigotry of low expectations.

Alex Stonor
Alex Stonor
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

It’s linked to social capital.

Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
2 years ago

Very nice essay, Mary, and thanks for cutting the “tragically suborned art historian” some slack.
And, yes. Leaving /something/ to the imagination does restore, rather than dissipate, something of the erotic charge.

Stephen Rose
Stephen Rose
2 years ago

Interesting article, and I find myself engaged with both commentators. The pornhub thing reminds me more of “tableau vivant” or the sort of sex shows you had to go to Copenhagen in the sixties to see. Both might use the established image of a classical painting /sculpture but with none of the transformative nature of creativity. The divine, is common to great art, abstract or figurative.
If I may talk about making, there is an assumption that figurative art is all direct observation, many of the great artists, worked from a meagre drawing, latterly photographs , cast or another painting. The availability of models, due to socialital prohibition, was limited to workmen and/or prostitutes. Many male bodies provide the model for female figures.
So the images often come from the inner eye.
The idea of pure objectivity in image making, seems impossible outside of passport photos or facial recognition technology. The subjective is always present,like in current political philosophy.
It is that conforming to the subject, then detaching, then engaging again that might truly be seen as erotic. A dance if you will. I paint very few nudes, but if they happen it is after several clothed portraits, when trust and friendship has been established. Sometimes it is even at the request of the sitter. The nude, as pointed out in the comments doesn’t exist purely for arousal, but to embody civic virtue or piety or wisdom. These distinctions have been lost, as has the possibility of the eroticism of human feeling.

Andrew Roman
Andrew Roman
2 years ago

I get it. Art = good nudes and Porn = bad nudes. What makes Porn bad is that it is in bad taste while Art is in good taste. And the distinction between the two lies in the groin of the beholder.

Perhaps the time is long past when we should stop using the word “Porn” as it is just a vacuous synonym for bad erotica that the writer doesn’t like and believes that others shouldn’t like either.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Roman

the shallowness of youth is perfectly displayed in your post, you just do not get it, do you? Nor do your up voters.

Satyam Nagwekar
Satyam Nagwekar
2 years ago

While Mary has some good perspectives, I have observed that her articles are often alarmist in nature. The proclamation that “The dividing line between art and porn is blurring” is a bit preposterous. The headline, as usual, is the all too familiar ‘humanity-defining I told you so’ fare that got me shaking my head before reading the piece.

Peter Branagan
Peter Branagan
2 years ago

OMG this article is indescribably boring. Snuzzzzzzzzzzz

Marco S
Marco S
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter Branagan

the article and most of the replies take away any pleasurable thought i might have had!!

Don Lightband
Don Lightband
2 years ago

What Mary says about the multifarious relations between thrill & transgression etc is of course ‘right on the money’, if you’ll .pardon the expression, but i don’t think she fully realizes just *how* right she is. For if we consider the great formless interdiction that lies from day one over everything humanity does and can ever do, and by which humanity is really defined, then I’m not so sure she’d be so worried about boundaries being lost and eroticism along with them. For the biggest, most fundamental boundary is that created by necessary rivalry between the founding and inevitably fragile communally *centered* scene, and the consequently now intimate, ‘private’ scene. IOW, human sexual activity is erotic precisely to the degree it is tied to, that it entails, *representation*. The power or thrill of transgression can only come subsequent to that. IOW, pornography of any description is as dependent on the existence of the sacred&significant as anything else one might care to name. The one-to-many, *scenic* configuration prevails even in the very midst of the most intimate one-on-one.. Mary’s apparent hope for the return of barely glimpsed, suggested vaginal lips etc does not even come close to appreciating the power.of the human sacred to generate fresh significance at every steo..

Last edited 2 years ago by Don Lightband
Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago
Reply to  Don Lightband

Rather “pompous language”, wouldn’t you say?

Last edited 2 years ago by Simon Denis
Don Lightband
Don Lightband
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Not at all, Kamarad! I’ve tried to say something very big and basic as minimally and without fuss as i can

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago
Reply to  Don Lightband

Then you’ve failed.

Don Lightband
Don Lightband
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

In what way? Please try to be constructive if you possibly can

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Don Lightband

What?

Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
2 years ago

I always enjoy Mary’s thoughtful and beautifully written articles, but I’m struggling to discern a coherent argument in this rather confusing hotpotch of tenuous analogies and art-historical reflections.
Can’t we just agree that most 2nd wave feminists hate pornography with a vengeance, and probably not without good reason?
PS: I’m delighted that UnHerd has so many excellent female writers, but they do seem to confine themselves to ostenstibly feminist issues.

Last edited 2 years ago by Eddie Johnson
Julie Kemp
Julie Kemp
2 years ago

Great essay Mary. Totally agree with all the nuance – re borders and crossing the line into degradation of the ‘fine’. I come back to the proliferation of sexing out as just another display of easy profanity and misplaced savvy re transcending (= high release) rather than release/climax (= slumber.) Eve knew this! That’s why she gave the ‘apple’ to ‘Adam’.

Don Lightband
Don Lightband
2 years ago

There’s no other word for it. The reaction to what i initially wrote here is downright deplorable. It’s like you chaps are so firmly and smugly wedged up what you suppose to be yr own aesthetic wazoos you cannot even conceive of the anthropological! Whence any and all of this prepossession by sexual scenicity might have actually come, and how we may most cleanly and minimally theorize that. A particularly vexatious little pox on all of your houses, say i

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago
Reply to  Don Lightband

Hey – not on my house, I hope. I’ll give you an upvote. I thought you made a valid point – not the whole story, but a valid point.