Art, sex and the “pornification of culture”

 “We live in a world where the pornification of popular culture is nearly complete — where the satisfaction of every kink is an Internet click away and where a celebrity isn’t really a celebrity unless an unauthorized sex tape is in circulation. We’re a society of licentious prudes who freak out over a bared breast on the Super Bowl while stocking up on “Barely Legal” DVDs. The result is a nation obsessed with sex as plumbing, with the mechanics of carnality divorced from the soul-nourishing pleasures of desire.”

So writes Ty Burr Boston Globe (13 October) about “Shortbus,” a film that depicts real sexual activity as opposed to the use of images and editing to suggest sexual activity.  And it strikes me as funny, as always, this strange thing we have about sex in art and culture.  Why is the depiction of actual sex somehow more confronting than its suggestion?  It’s as if the knowledge that something is “acted” legitimises its portrayal, in fact, is necessary to its categorisation as art.  Maybe we bring to art an expectation that it will represent reality – clarify, illuminate and heighten reality – but not be reality.  And there is a certain truth in this – effective artistic representations of death, love and nature do, in fact, reinvent reality in a form that enables us to see it through new eyes.

Is this the same for sex?  Can it only have artistic merit if it is distorted through a lens that recreates its meaning?  And can this only be achieved through simulation?  Perhaps, the truth is that sex is always distorted through a lens of our own making – elevated, deified, worshipped and pursued to the point that its meaning has become lost.  We have come to expect that mainstream films will enable us to view sex in a safe way that is easily transformed into what ever we wish it to be, to be subject to our own imagination, beliefs and prejudices. 

Maybe “Shortbus” forces us to confront sex as it is when stripped of the safety net of “acting” – maybe that is where it becomes art.  How is this different to pornography?  Well, I guess, the context becomes all-important here.  Perhaps pornography is real sex wrapped in unreal circumstances while art is real sex wrapped in a view of the world that is as purposefully revealing of the human condition as the sex acts themselves.

But I don’t really know.  What do you think?

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10 Comments

Filed under art, life, sex

10 responses to “Art, sex and the “pornification of culture”

  1. Since sex has so many different meainings for different people I would think any representation of it is distorted for someone. It comes down to the age-old bugger of a question: “What is art?”

    I back away in terror from the excrutiatingly dull philosophical discussion that could follow that question, and will throw a sacrificial, expendable quotation on modern art at it in the hope of slowing it down while I get away.

    A quotation from someone who will remain anonymous, less out of choice than a failure of lots of little grey cells: “It’s easy to understand modern art. If it hangs on the wall it’s a painting and if you can walk around it it’s a sculpture.”

    Which, presumably, leaves “Shortbus” as a painting when it is being presented and therefore art; and a sculpture when it is in it’s film-reel box and therefore, still, art.

    It’s all rather confusing really.

  2. Good to hear from you, Jester. Thank you for resisting the urge to say, “Well, I don’t know what art is but I do know what I like.” Here is another quote from another reviewer about “Shortbus”:
    “Some of it is quite touching, much of it is boring, most of it is obscene, some of it is disgusting and nearly all of it is pretentious…” Which reminds us that the only thing more confusing than concepts of art is art criticism.

  3. A friend and I were at a strip club years ago, and we got into a huge discussion about art. He claimed that the dancers themselves were works of art. I argued that their actions, their performance, could be seen as art but not their bodies.

  4. True, I think – art is at least a conscious manipulation of the world to create a point of view or statement. The human body, no more than a tree or rock, can be termed a work of art (unless, of course, you are religious and then God becomes the artist and us the art).

  5. S

    There is a fine line between what is considered “art” and what is considered “pornography”, and I think that a lot of artists fail to remember that. Though, some artists (term used loosely) take this notion and use it to create their “art” purely for shock value.

    I recall being at a student art gallery in New York, last year, and looking at a collection of photographs of several masturbation sequences. Some more explicit than the others.

    Is this art done for art’s sake, is it “art” done purely to shock the viewer, or is it “pornography”?

  6. Perhaps both, S. What we consider pornography changes too, of course. Many great works of art were considered to push the limits of good taste and yet now barely raise an eyebrow while remaining accepted as true art. To me the issue is a little different – I find it interesting that some good things in life (e.g. sex – even with one’s self) can be considered pornography when put on display and yet quite evil things on display can avoid this tag. The opening scenes of “Saving Private Ryan” are graphic and horrendous in their portrayal of death in war. The CSI series bring ever more gruesome and sadistic murders to prime time TV. And yet neither attract any where near the attention that a real sex act would bring. Is masturbation wrong? If it isn’t,then how can its pictorial representation be wrong? Is murder wrong? Then how can its pictorial representation be right? Thank you for your comments (and have a great Christmas!).

  7. sourpanties

    Art is defined by the way it makes you feel. I’ve heard that each piece of art derives its true meaning from each individual perception. If something makes me feel something by looking at it, then is it art?

  8. Yes and no, I suspect, Sourpanties. All art presumably has some form of intent on the part of the artist i.e. he/she has consciously created something designed to affect people in a certain way. Feeling something,in itself, probably can’t be the primary determinant of what constitutes art. Otherwise we would have to call a sunset or a beach or a sunny day art. So I guess the best art makes us feel something but feeling something is not necessarily the defining element of art.

  9. sourpanties

    I watched Iconoclasts on the Sundance channel with Tom Ford on Jeff Koons last month. Tom asks Jeff, “how do you define your art?”, and Jeff says, “art is defined as it’s perceived by the individual, it means something different to everyone”. Looking at something I guess doesn’t make it art, but even art history seems to have different opinions on different pieces. I would say if I see a lobster I feel salty, you might say you feel like a kid at the beach.

  10. this is a good blog. will come back regularly to read more article

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