Pornography is an old word, but a relatively new concept. In Greek, por¹ne simply meant ³prostitute.² Pornography was literature concerning prostitutes. The Oxford English Dictionary, however, does not contain a listing for the word under its current definition before 1850. Before this point, ³porn² was a term of abuse flung at one¹s political and religious opponents, primarily   characterized much of what constituted debate in the public forum. It is from this context that the word most likely acquired its negative connotations in English: political and religious dissent was once treasonous. The acontextual charge of promoting pornography under the guise of artistic expression, although hardly treasonous in the current era, was enough to revoke Barbara DeGenevieve¹s National Endowment for the Arts funding in 1994.

 

I have begun this discussion with definitions, because definitions are, in fact, crucial to the understanding of the concept of pornography. Specifically, I am interested in the relationship between art and pornography, and how, through a casual use of definitions and context, the terms ³art² and ³pornography² both gain and lose from their complicated interaction with one another in the public forum, which is where the negative connotation of the word ³pornography² first originated. A broad definition of what pornography is‹any medium which causes sexual excitement‹is in fact what has led to some of the most egregious examples of censorship, self and otherwise.

 

This has not always been the case, and, as it is important to understand the historical connotations of pornography, one must analyze what previous generations thought about work that would be classified as pornographic under the circulating definition of the word. The Kama Sutra, the virtual stereotypical example of the titillating and sexualized object, was a mere instructional manual in its day, a guide to experiencing satisfying sex within a relationship. Because so much of porn today is not experienced as the object itself (artistic or not), but as a means to an end (infidelity, for example) the context of the Kama Sutra confounds our traditional association between pornography and sex as escape (from marriage, from traditional mores, from the family).

 

In the brothels of Pompeii, on the other hand, depictions of sexual acts clearly existed outside the context of traditional mores, as images painted on the walls of rooms in the forms of menus, so that bashful customers could, instead of suggesting an act to a prostitute, point it out. Once again, however, we find that the images are not ends in themselves, but means to an end. They do not exist, as art exists, as images valuable for their own contemplation, no more than items on the menu of a diner exist as items for their own contemplation. This fact will bear on our discussion of the interaction between art and pornography later.

 

Numerous other examples exist: the paintings on the bottoms of children¹s bowls in ancient Greece, the phallic statues of Priapus to which Athenian women prayed for fertility, and, most notably, the censorship of Michelangelo¹s nudes in the Last Judgment fresco. Michelangelo¹s revenge (painting the face of the offended cardinal on the bodies of one of the damned) is what tends to be mentioned in this story, itself Œpainted¹ as the ultimate triumph of art over morality, but what is forgotten is the fact that the Vatican, by virtue of its mass confiscations, had the largest collection of pornography in the world. Like the judge in the famous American court case, they knew it when they saw it. And whether Michelangelo had his revenge or not, until the recent restorations, the snatches of clothing painted over the naked bodies of the damned remained a part of the fresco.

 

What should be clear from this is the multi-faceted, and, for us, often counter-intuitive role that what we call pornography has played in the past. These connotations are important when we analyze the collective, contextual definition of pornography. Pornography has come to take on a broad significance‹anything, Webster¹s American Dictionary says, which causes sexual titillation. In this very definition, the ends of pornography are emphasized over the means. Rather than an object for contemplation in and of itself (like art), pornography, perhaps by grace of its history, becomes that in which function takes precedence over form, challenging the traditional Western aesthetic of art for art¹s sake. When one accuses an aesthetic of object of being ³pornographic², it is a statement that the object has power to affect action, usually within the concept of an ideal and idealized community. In other words, to call something pornographic is to attribute to it an efficacy that art itself cannot possess. Much of the tension between art and pornography derives from this distinction, one which I will explore through the dual lens of Swedish and American culture.

 

As a Swede by origin, and an American by education, I have in many ways been in an ideal location to observe how the interaction between art, pornography, and an aesthetics which exalts contemplation over function exists in both the stereotypical ³liberal² sexual culture and the decidedly Victorian United States. This is mainly evidenced by the fact that the ideological grounds on which pornographic art is challenged typically have nothing to do with its aesthetic merits. The Cambria Laws, which establish what material can appear on the box of a pornographic video, but sometimes understood as a form of self-censorship exercised by the filmmakers, contain the hidden assumption that material that is degrading to actors somehow normalizes and objectifies such behavior in the world outside the movie. Spitting, defecation, the use of coffins, fisting, bondage, forced sex, and degrading dialogue (³suck this cock, bitch²) are forbidden. At first glance, the gulf between Swedish and American standards in this regard might seem substantial, but one must remember that Swedish feminists basically use the same argument. Men, they say, acquire a superior position in these films by virtue of the fact that their clothes remain on the longest, or that men do not need to be attractive, while women almost without exception are. Their argument is that female equality can be achieved through amending pornography to represent a decidedly less male, hegemonic, and objectified view of women. In Sweden, no comparable institution to the Cambria Laws(note not official Law) exists, but the critique of the feminists contains a similar supposition: that the world of pornography, whether it is film or merely film art, has some curious power over the lives of the people who view it. The pornographic object is seen as the thing which affects change. If no rape in pornography exists, argue the American critics of pornography, no rape in life will exist. If the man is less anonymous and more vulnerable, argue the Swedish feminists, men outside of the film will act in the way that feminists would like them to act: vulnerable and traditionally ³feminine.²

 

What, then, is the effect of this emphasis on pornography as the object of efficacy, as opposed to art, the object of inefficacy? By defining pornography contextually, as that art which is effective within the idealized community, one must establish the standards by which change is affected in that community. In the United States, the so-called ³Miller Test², which takes its name from the 1973 case Miller v. California, establishes a clear divide between work with aesthetic merit and pornography (which is not protected speech under the law) based on the standards, unsurprisingly, of the community itself. For reference, the three Miller Tests are:

 

1.     The Average Person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to ³prurient² interest in sex

2.     The work depicts or describes sexual acts in a patently offensive way

3.     The work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value

 

The second two standards are in a fundamental way dependent upon the figure of the Average Person in the contemporary community. Critics of the Miller decision have pointed out the difficulty of establishing the identity of the ³average person² on the basis of the fluctuating, unstable device of ³contemporary community standards², and this is a criticism worth noting. However, what is of equal significance is the fact that the work, in order to be classified as pornographic, must have the power to discompose and offend the ³Average Person.² Art is harmless; pornography is harmful.

 

When one looks at the differing standards of Sweden and America, it is helpful to keep this context in mind. The paradigm of art as harmless, pornography as harmful can cause the differential in what is considered ³acceptable² only because what is ³acceptable² varies widely between communities. To analyze this effect, one need only look at the reaction to the Ingmar Bergman film ³Summer Nights² in America and Sweden, respectively. In America, the film was denounced by critics as ³pornographic² for the scene where the two lead actors, Frank Sundstrom and Olla Jacobson run naked and kiss in the Swedish mountains. In Sweden, the scene was viewed with respect as a realistic, naturalistic portrayal of romance. It never occurred to critics in Sweden that such a scene could be pornographic, simply because it had no power to excite sexual reaction. In Sweden, nudity never acquired the stigma it did in the United States. An interesting corollary is the specific reaction of American critics not to the film, but to the mores of Sweden, where it was assumed that running naked while locking lips was a natural, acceptable behavior. In other words, they neglected to appreciate the fact that the film was art, and functioned (or, according to the standard we have established, did not function) as art.

 

In a way, of course, these American critics were right‹nudity in Sweden, whether it involved running and kissing or not, was infinitely more acceptable. A recent humorous example of the clash of standards occurred when a Swedish woman vacationing in Florida with her children was arrested under American child pornography laws when she and the children were found running naked in the surf off the Atlantic. She was acquitted for not knowing the law, a fact interesting in and of itself for displaying the way in which Americans stereotype and accept Swedish standards of personal conduct in public. In this case, the American jury decided to judge the woman not on the basis of the idealized community and the ³Average Viewer² as defined by American standards, but by imagined Swedish standards. In either case, the crucial fact is the role of what is perceived as pornographic: it is judged on the basis of the sliding standards of the community, and pornography is defined as the object which causes a reaction within that community.

 

Within Sweden, in fact, greater efforts are being made to label, on the outside of the sexualized ³object,² what sort of provocative effect the material contained within will have on the viewer, and most particularly, on children. A rating system which, unlike the American one, does not apply evaluative but rather content-based descriptions (X-S: sodomy and X-L: lesbian) emphasizes perhaps what is one of the most important differences between the U.S. and Swedish application of the principle of the efficacy of pornography: choice. Swedish mores depend upon the same formula of efficacy, but count on the viewer, when he/she knows the content, to make the personal decision to view, or, to frame the debate in terms of this discussion, to allow themselves to be affected by the medium. American evaluations emphasize the role of the government or critic to make the choice to allow the community to be affected by the pornography. Much of the Swedish debate centers around children, the members of the community supposedly unable to decide for themselves whether they should allow themselves to be affected by the pornography. Recent legislation has restricted pornography on television to late nights, and even that which is shown is questioned by critics on the basis of what is ³natural.² Acts classified as ³unnatural², such as bestiality, further highlight the role of the community in deciding the standards by which pornography is to be judged and viewed. ³Natural² pornography, involving typical sexual acts, should not corrupt children, as the argument goes, as sex is a natural part of human life.

 

Now that we have established the art/pornography, effective/ineffective dichotomy as the fundamental force behind the definition of pornography by its critics, the next step is to apply this theory to how and why art is criticized and censored as pornographic by its detractors. It seems once again helpful to refer to the case of Barbara DeGenevieve, the photographer whose work specifically concerns itself with the depiction of human sexuality for the purpose of ³slicing through the screen of sentimental clichés surrounding patriotism, traditional ³family² life, religion, and compulsive heterosexuality to reveal rich, diverse counter-narratives, those lifestyles and beliefs that usually find themselves on the fringes of sanctioned culture.² Her NEA grant was, in 1994, rejected by the prize committee after a peer review council recommended her for the funding. No contemporary photographers sat on the prize committee which withdrew the funding. Clearly, then, the decision was not made on aesthetic grounds. If we apply our paradigm to this instance of censorship, it seems that art is judged not on its own terms, as art, but rather on the grounds of its efficacy in the idealized community. Misclassifying the work of DeGenevieve, or of Robert Mapplethorpe, as pornography would lead the critic not to consider them as works of art, but, rather as potentially dangerous and effective objects of corruption.

           

This, of course, poses a logical problem. When does art become misclassified as pornography? Is it merely the sexualized nature of the subject which suggests to the critic that it should be judged on the grounds of its effect within the community, or is each work of art evaluated on the basis of its efficacy in the community, and pornography, in turn, judged to be most efficacious? The distinction, for the purposes of this discussion, is irrelevant: I am merely trying to suggest that the connotation of pornography, acquired from its historical context, has isolated it from art and suggested that pornography is always functional, rather than contemplative. When this isolation occurred and why is a separate topic which deserves further attention. What I have attempted to show here is that the divide between the so-called ³liberal² country Sweden and the stereotyped American prudishness is one of culture, not of substance. Pornography, or art that resembles pornography, is never judged as art in either culture, no matter how liberal or prudish; rather, it is seen to have a functional end, the satisfaction of sexual desire within the community. The community is the standard, and the degree to which the community is affected (whether titillated, aroused, shocked, or offended) is the standard by which art with a sexual subject is evaluated in both Sweden and the United States.

 

Censorship of art exists, in other words, where art is denied its proper title and analysis. The problem, then, is fundamentally not political, but aesthetic. Without the ability to convince critics that art with a sexual subject should be judged according to aesthetic standards and not political ones, this type of art will continue to be subject to censorship on the grounds that it affects the community too deeply to be considered in a scholarly, indifferent light. Incidentally, this is why art that is challenging‹such as the work of DeGenevieve and Mapplethorpe, which portray not the idealized community, but the margins of the idealized community‹receives particular scrutiny. As I have shown, the historical context of pornography will make the separation between aesthetic and political standards difficult because pornography, its critics argue, cannot be viewed in this light. Until it is, censorship like the type imposed in 1994 by the NEA will continue unchecked.