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The fine line between art and pornography

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The nude has always been a genre in art history filled with controversy, in that some view it is a traditional form of pornography. In recent years the conversation has shifted to a feminist narrative, questioning the outdated artistic tradition of the male gaze. In our current socio-political climate of political-correctness, the art world is faced with a dilemma on how to separate the offensive genre of the nude from modern interpretation. The solution, however is still unknown, with some institutions reacting with removal of works, and others choosing to celebrate the nude as a liberating art form. 

This movement was first led by the artistic group Guerrilla Girls, which was established in 1984. The group chose to appropriate the visual language of advertising as their artistic style. As a result, their work is filled with bold messaging making for accessible art. Their most prominent work consists of a guerrilla girl in a mask, reclining, mimicking the traditional pose of a renaissance nude, with bold lettering stating: ‘Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?’ Underneath the nude is a statistic explaining that only 5% of art in the Met is by female artists, whilst 85% of the nudes are of women. The use of explicit visual language is effective in informing the viewer of the systemic sexism present in the art world, whilst forcing us to question the morality of the nude in a contemporary setting. 

Earlier this year leading porn website Pornhub released their Classic Nudes tour, an interactive guide to the most renowned nudes in well-known galleries such as the Prado, Uffizi, the Louvre, The Met and the National Gallery. Although, soon after, all of these institutions distanced themselves from the interactive tour, with the Uffizi going so far as to sue Pornhub for copyright infringements over a reenactment of Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’, included in the promotional video. The tour itself, although done for Pornhub’s own financial gain, again highlights the argument on what can be considered art or just pornography. In the tours, marketing video famed pornstar Cicciolina makes the controversial statement that ‘porn may not be considered art, but some art can definitely be considered porn.’ When considering that all of the galleries involved, refused association with the tour, it does seem that this ambiguity of defining pornography from art is an issue for the formal art institutions. The guide was ultimately an attempt by Pornhub to establish its reputation as an entertainment brand, whilst also to demonstrate the intrinsic relationship between pornography and the arts.

In January 2018, Manchester Art Gallery temporarily removed the Pre-Raphaelite painting ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ by John William Waterhouse from public display. The gallery’s curator Clare Gannaway believed that by doing this it would subsequently start a conversation about the pornographic nature of the painting. Another reason for the painting’s removal is due to the seven female figures’ obvious youthful age, who are seducing an older male. Although only temporarily removed, many disagreed with the gallery’s decision, believing the act to be a form of censorship, and an attempt to erase history. At the time both the ‘Time’s Up’ and ‘Me Too’ movements were prevalent in the public sphere, and the curator Gannaway admitted that the socio-political climate of the time definitely fed into the decision for the paintings removal. The gallery’s choice to remove a potentially offensive painting demonstrates how ineffective this method is in solving the problem, since by the painting not being visible, we are not able to contextualise the content. However, also by removing the piece, the gallery subsequently brought attention to the importance in understanding the provenance of the painting in order to educate the viewer. 

Pornography, although seen as a new phenomenon due to the digital revolution, has been produced for centuries in art and there is no doubt that it was made for the same reasons as it is today. Although the way we chose to look at the nude has shifted along with a feminist narrative, damning the male gaze, to celebrate the female form and understand the context seems to be a far better alternative to removing the works. Instead, we can use the nude as a historical tool. 

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