Art and Pornography

“And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.”

What a shame it would be if I never got a hard-on while watching a film; if I had the experiences of crying, gritting my teeth, laughing, feeling nostalgia and staring in repulsion, but never once of feeling aroused.

What a shame it would be if I never saw the act of fucking on screen; if I saw people crying, running, smiling, getting drunk, giving birth, committing acts of violence against one another or (as Brakhage showed us) dead in the morgue, but never once of a cock entering a vagina.

Thankfully, this is not so. Although past societies have done their best to suppress it, and many in our own continue their tradition, exceptions slip onto the non-peepshow cinemas from time to time—invariably accompanied by critics stoically defending them from that half-spat derisory label, ‘pornography’.

Is this sufficient? Has the battle been won? No. It would not do to merely tick the boxes and then retreat. Sex ought to stop being depicted when sex stops being a fundamental aspect of human behaviour.

People will say that art is art and porn is porn; that the two are incompatible. If this appears to be so—if pornographic films lack artistic value and everything else is non-pornographic—then it is merely because the cultural status quo has demanded it. What do we achieve through such compartmentalisation? Bad porn and timid films, the pessimist might reply.

It is not categorisation that I argue against: I am fine for people to specialise, if that is their desire and what their audience wants. There is nothing wrong with films being chaste, whatever that is in our current cultural context, and if there is demand for artless fucking then, Mother Mary, let it be.

Neither do I mean to argue that there is nothing problematic, ethically or politically, with the way sex can be depicted, or that we should gloss over such issues. Here, as in all other pursuits, criticism should be searing. The greatest criticisms, however, should be for those institutions that seek to hide aspects of human experience from our eyes and minds, under the plea that decency must be maintained. If this is their view, they are entitled to it: let those who wish to be decent be decent; let those of us who wish to be indecent forgo such piety. In indecency, of course, lies truth.

The critics should leave the semantics to Chomsky. If the film in question features unsimulated sexual activity, and/or is designed to arouse, then it is probably pornographic. That is not a mark of shame but a simple description. It would not be objectionable to see it more often.

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