Sep 102011

By TM Bernard

The first time I discovered the salacious attraction of porn I was young, perhaps eight. A friend next door found a pack of playing cards with pornographic images on them in her parent’s room, and a group of us huddled in hushed wonderment – filled with fear, fascination and disgust – staring at the photos of men and women engaged in various sex acts. Of course, this was the sort of secret no child could keep, and once my mother found out, she banned me from playing there ever again. I was furious, and secretly glad for it. It was scary.

The next time I ran across nude photos of men and women, we were visiting a friend in a remote, artistic community, the sort of town to have an eclectic and independent bookstore. That’s where I encountered a coffee table book devoted to ‘Nudes.’ Big, bold and filled with hundreds of photos of men, women and children, I sat for a long time on the floor, mesmerized. Instinctively, I knew these were okay to look at; these were different. At the time, I couldn’t explain why.

In the Eye of the Beholder

The continuum of art and porn has fuzzy boundaries. In general, one could say that in art, subjects are honored; in porn, they are (usually) not (I say usually based on the emergence of sex-positive, female centered productions). Most of us are titillated by what we see, even if we don’t want to admit it; it’s important to recognize however, that not all scenes offend.
Could one reason depend on whether the object of our visual lust is naked vs. nude? This idea occurred to me after reading a very unlikely article, wholly unrelated to erotica, by the theologian, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson. According to him, there is a difference.

“‘Nudity’ is a state of personal intimacy and trust, without pretense or artifice,” he has written. “‘Nakedness’, on the other hand, entails more than an absence of clothing – it is a mental state (both for the person lacking garments and for those observing the undressed body).”

What’s more, Artson believes that, “to be naked is to lack an element of protection, to be stripped of dignity or decency. Nakedness is about objectification, reducing a person to a mere object to be appraised, to be used.”

If this is the case, then art elevates the nude – photographer, subject and viewer as well – so that we are left with a sense of awe and appreciation for the human form. It appeals to our higher mind. Yes, it is evocative, and quite often we may have a sexual response to it, but that is secondary to rendering us free from shame and embarrassment. Nudity sanctifies the human body, and is therefore art. Pornography exploits the human body, and is therefore not.
Porn, Erotica or Art?

Is this the complete story? The past few years have seen a growing demand for ‘better porn.’ Some viewers want more art in their jollies; aroused by the voyeuristic pleasure of watching others, they prefer class over crass when it comes to private affairs. It’s food for thought: if exploitation was taken out of the mix, and if tenderness, intimacy and awe were put it, than what might we find ourselves enjoying?

Erotica is hardly new. From prehistoric sketches of female forms on cave walls to Japanese shunga, humanity has been codifying coitus with sticks, ink and passion. Eduoard-Henri Avril (21 May 1843–1928) was a French painter and commercial artist who illustrated erotica literature under the pseudonym Paul Avril. His illustrations show men and women, monogamous and not, enjoying their sexual unions; not appropriate for children, but tame compared to that deck of cards a group of kids discovered 30 years ago.

Notice the rapture on the faces of the women, something not usually something seen today, where everything is hot and furious, and a woman’s pleasure is often depicted as secondary to the man’s (and the viewers’). What’s more, the images reveal a total lack of pretense or shame. Whatever is being shared and experienced together is mutual and pleasurable. Natural landscapes and plush settings draw viewers in, not just as voyeurs to the couplings on the page, but also as willing participants. Who wouldn’t want to lounge and love in these surroundings?

Perhaps at the time they were distributed, in the late 1800s, the establishment was outraged. Today, Avril’s creations are a colorful expression of sexuality from a bygone era, as well as evidence that lines between art and pornography have been blurred before.