The Naked Truth About Erotica, Porn, and Art

By Katie Despeaux
Elm Staff Writer

Photo illustration by Megan McCurdy

I could ask every single person on the Cater Walk, “What is art?” and I would be given about 1,500 different answers. And then if I asked, “Well, do you think pornography is art?” half of you would give me maybe a minute of your day, and the other half would probably think I was weird for posing this question. It’s actually a really intriguing debate that can be argued from both sides. You see this discussion every day, whether or not it’s obvious; art galleries have exhibitions solely on the nude, while “Playboy” is kept half-hidden in magazine racks. Throughout history works of art have been vandalized, banned, and even completely destroyed for showing nudity. We may scoff at the past prudishness over John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X,” which features a fully clothed woman standing confidently and looking slightly flushed, and yet we still question modern artists’ depictions of the naked body.

Let’s get everyone on the same page, seeing as “pornography” and “erotic art” appear about 50 times throughout this article. Pornography equals sex, and just sex. That’s it. It’s actually that simple. On the other hand, we have this allusive idea of “erotic art,” which still can depict naked people, and yet somehow it isn’t considered pornography. But how is it not? Well, in erotic art, we’re going to see allusions to sexuality and nudity, but the main goal of the piece isn’t to focus on the sex. Erotic art is something more.

Historic examples of erotic art scandal have now become legendary. Edouard Manet’s two most famous paintings, “Luncheon on the Grass” and “Olympia,” during his time period were banned from the Parisian Salons and seen as unfit for ladies’ eyes. In today’s world, we women are more than welcome to view these paintings, as long as we wait for hours to see them (which is true- I can attest to this personally). Manet defied the female nude traditions, not unlike Kate Upton, with her not-quite-model-typical body, becoming a Victoria’s Secret model. But the real question remains: will photos of her become as legendary as Manet’s “Olympia” has?

Pornographic images have existed throughout history, but received less criticism by the academics and masters of their times as they were never truly publicly displayed. We see their existence in the still-standing Pompeian brothels and French political pornography from the 18th century (which are truly a treat- just imagine Louis XVI riding a larger-than-life… well… you know what I’m trying to say).

And then we have things like X-Art, a website dedicated to “beautiful, explicit erotic videos and photography.” While never claiming to be pornography, one glance at the site would have you arguing otherwise. There is a group of people, nevertheless, who believe that this website gives us true erotic art, which is almost upheld by the lack of a “You must be 18 years or older to continue to this website” disclaimer that you’d typically find.

So, what makes X-Art “art” and not pornography? Better lighting? Happier-looking women? I could see some arguing that there may be an effort made into creating a storyline or some context, but when we strip away the context, does anything but sex remain?

Italian cartoonist Milo Manara depicts females who just happen to be naked when it is most convenient. He may not have run into as many roadblocks in the salons as Manet did, but his art is both praised as being quality cartoons and criticized for portraying women as blatantly hypersexual. And yet, how is his art different than X-Art or “Playboy”?

When we view Manara’s works, we can identify with the aesthetic use of colors and juxtaposition of subjects to create a pleasing visual display. We can feel the emotions, place ourselves in the artist’s shoes, and try to experience what he intended to share. It is a fine line to toe, but the presence of aesthetic value and artistic value goes over the head of pornography and enters the realm of erotic art. Manara, Manet, and Sargent’s works succeed at this endeavor, by giving us nude art for the sake of art, not for the sake of the nude.

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