When does Art Become Pornography?

© Donald Richardson, June, 2007

A commonly-asked question – to which the short answer is ‘never’. No-one ever asks ‘When does art become realistic?’, or ‘When does art become abstract?’, or ‘When does art become literary?’, although questions like these make as much sense because art can be all or any of these things. This is because we can usually distinguish an abstract work from a realistic or literary one,whereas what pornography is, is unclear in the minds of most people.

Pornography derives from two Greek words: porne, which means harlot, and graphos, which refers to writing; however, we use the term today to describe much more than stories about prostitutes. And when we use it, it is as more than the definition of a class of writing and visual art: it has an ethical (usually pejorative) connotation also. And, like most ethical and aesthetic terms,its use is intensely personal. Just as beautiful really meansno more than ‘I like it (although I cannot clearly explain why)’,pornographic means ‘I find this offensive (although I cannot really explain why)’. There is no generally agreed meaning for either of these terms – which bedevils our discussion of both.


A related example is the concept of obscenity (which can be related to both art and pornography). The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines obscenity as ‘indecent, lewd’, and indecent (inter alia) as ‘obscene’, and lewd (inter alia) as ‘indecent’. None of which gets us very far, except to establish that conventional society finds obscenity – as it does pornography – naughty or worse.

The most ludicrous illustration of this was the evidence of the South Australian detective who interviewed Max Harris in 1944 over the publication of the Ern Malley poems in the journal Angry Penguins. Detective Vogelsang asserted that a poem which referred to couples going into a park in the evening was obscene because, in his experience, ‘people go into parks at night to do obscene things.’

But, this is history. No-one would take this position today – or would they? So – when does art become pornography? Might as well ask ‘when does chalk become cheese?’ because both questions assume a predication which does not exist. Art is art and pornography is pornography. Art can have pornographic or obscene subject-matter, but art never becomes pornography – nor pornography art, for that matter.


When representation of the sexual and/or erotic is designed purely to channel sexuality for the purpose of commerce, this is pornography properly so called.And, because such a representation is functional, it will be
design, not art properly so called: as much design as any advertisement is. (It would be a digression to do more here than just mention the obvious links between sex and advertising.)

The representation of erotic or sexual material not primarily to market it as such is erotic art. It is the commercial imperative that distinguishes pornography from it. In fact, art and sex have in common that both are practised, ideally, for altruistic and aesthetic reasons. (This, incidentally, validates art as having as much relevance to human life as sex has, both being inherently human activities.)


In The Mating Mind [1], Geoffrey Miller proposes a feasible theory of the origin of art in the courting behaviour of early hominids. Miller reports that evolutionary psychologists have been reassessing Charles Darwin’s 1871 book, The Descent of Man,in particular recognising that its full title added and Selection
in Relation to Sex. In this book, Darwin details the role sex has played in evolution – the other side of natural selection,which he covered in The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

Natural selection relates to species evolution and survival, whereas sexual selection is about courtship and mating within a species. However, discussion of sex and – in particular- the recognition that coupling results from the choice of the female, not the male – was so offensive to Darwin’s contemporaries
that the concept was discounted for over a century. It is appropriate that it should resurface as the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth in 1809 approaches.

According to Miller, sexual selection is particularly relevant to the development of the human mind. He notes that the brain of Homo sapiens tripled in size about two million years ago. This growth predates the development and use of tools (the usual explanation of the phenomenon) and Miller proposes – plausibly – that it is due to the development of social skills related to mating. This includes not only language but also other such purely human things as intelligence, manners, morality, humour – and art.


At one level, of course, none of this will be news to women; but what i startlingly new is the scientific recognition of the role of female choice in the development of the total of human mental propensities.

How, then, has the essentially insupportable continuity between art and pornography come to be commonly assumed, as if (moral) art and (immoral) pornography are extreme ends of a natural continuum? One factor would be that, in western art, the representation of Venus and Eve as nude (or naked) [2] cloaked the prurience of wealthy male patrons in respectability. (Pornography is no modern phenomenon.)

But, there is a higher (or lower?) level of explanation for both Renaissance nudes and the contemporary pornography industry (I use this term advisedly). This is that the arousal of sexual interest in the human male is predominantly by the visual sense – to which visual art (obviously) appeals [3].

This is not, of course, to say that women are never attracted by the appearance of a man, but there is a clear difference in incidence. And, historically, it has been mainly men who have the had the means of paying for sex, pornography – and art. This natural propensity explains why women commonly take greater care about their appearance than men do. It also explains the prominence of fashion – and periodic changes in fashion – in women’s lives as well as their investment of effort, time and money in maintaining the typical silhouette of the nubile young woman [4].


Again, the difference between the sexes in this matter is not absolute, but the relative emphasis cannot be denied. The evidence is deduced from the differences between the contents of men’s and women’s popular magazines. It is also shown in the frequency of the ‘dancing girl’ in popular entertainment (dating from representations on Egyptian tombs to Broadway musicals and the current plague of porn web-sites) and the relative infrequency of the male chorus-line. This dichotomy is socially sanctioned – even encouraged – by females and males alike, as is the natural female mode of partly concealing, partly revealing physical sexual characteristics.

And many smile at male body-builders because bodily display is regarded as feminine in our culture (which, of course, distinguishes us from birds!). Our culture – unlike some others – recognises that women need to express themselves sexually, especially at the time/s when they are driven unconsciously by their hormone development towards mating.

This was one of the triumphs of the twentieth-century women’s movement. (Again, we observe the differences between the sexes in this; younger males are also driven by their hormones to express themselves sexually, but this expression is rarely considered pornographic.)


Pornography commonly is representations of females for male customers (another consciously-used term in this context). And it is almost exclusively visual. Its contemporary ubiquity is due to no small extent to the facility which photography – and its motion derivatives – provides for the representation of sexual and erotic imagery.

[1] Doubleday, 2006.
[2] The distinction between naked and nude
also is poorly understood. Naked is unclothed, whereas the nude
is a form of art, as Kenneth Clark explained in The Nude (The
Reprint Society, 1956).
[3] John Berger dilates on this in Ways
of Seeing (BBC Books, 1972).
[4] There is no intention of suggesting
here that this is anything other than a natural attitude and
not necessarily related to wishing to impress the opposite sex.