‘Not on public display’

The art/porn debate

Authored by: Gary Needham

The Routledge Companion to Media, Sex and Sexuality

Print publication date:  August  2017
Online publication date:  August  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138777217
eBook ISBN: 9781315168302
Adobe ISBN:


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As someone who likes both art and pornography, I have never been troubled by the way that those categories are treated by others like oil and water, or like the abject contiguity of fluids in Andres Serrano’s Blood and Semen II (1990). There is a good deal of either/or thinking, policing and regulating, disavowal, even outlawing, that keeps art and pornography at odds with one another. As a teenager in the dark decades of 1980s UK censorship, when hardcore pornography was still illegal and sexual representations heavily regulated (especially gay ones), I knew you could find sexually explicit content in art books. Much to my disappointment, someone had already ripped the good pages from one Robert Mapplethorpe book in Glasgow’s public library, leaving me with nothing but flower stems, portraits and classical nudes. I recently purchased from London bookshop Foyles the visual culture magazine Kaleidescope’s ‘Art & Sex Edition’ (2015) – note, ‘sex’ rather than ‘pornography’ is used here – which offers a good survey of contemporary artists working in different media who take sex and pornography as their subject. On page 146, an image by photographer Jeff Burton called Untitled #211 (Hand in Butt) (2006) depicts a male gay porn actor with his arm twisted behind his back inserting his own fist inside his ass. In the UK, legislation on ‘extreme pornography’ has declared that if you or I – as lay people, not artists – produce, own or circulate an image of anal fisting, we could be in trouble with the law; fisting is effectively banned from pornographic magazines and films available from retail outlets. However, if we know where to look, Kaleidescope presents us with an ‘extreme image’ on the high street. What allows the reproduction of Jeff Burton’s photograph in an art context when that image depicts an act that is otherwise illegal in pornography in the UK? This is a question that ebbs at the fragile boundary of what distinguishes, or in some cases refuses to distinguish, the legal, aesthetic and interpretative line between art and porn. This chapter is about ‘the problem’ with distinction and lack of resolve between definitions of art and pornography, and how various disciplines (art history, philosophy, the law) make sense of it.

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