Art vs. Pornography

May 7, 2017 – 11:06 pm

Many defenders of Bill Henson’s pictures of naked sexualised children claim that the public (Philistines) are wrong to condemn Henson’s work as pornography because they are art. (But note that some in the Art world’s ‘in crowd’ were prepared to admit Henson’s offensiveness before the public noticed.) In making this claim they appear to be confusing two applicable dichotomies: that which divides images that are pornographic from those that are not; and that which divides images that are Art from those that are not. They ignore the perfectly valid possibility that an image may be both Art and pornography. Without getting into the weeds of definitions, it’s clear enough that, whatever Art might be, Pornography is understood and sanctioned as something belonging to a category of items that if allowed currency would be damaging to public morality. The following grid shows the possible combinations and some representatives.

 Pornography  Not Pornography
 Art  Bill Henson  Sandro Botticelli
 Not Art  Kayleigh Pearson  C. M. Coolidge

The situation is slightly confused by the possibility that the current Australian law that regulates these things (and I will not pretend any familiarity with it) does make some allowance for artistic license. In a previous version of the law, I believe, a disputed piece might be given a pass on the basis of  ‘expert opinion’ as to its ‘artistic merit’. In that case, legally speaking, the category of pornographic art is effectively empty. (Also, if that were the case, the public would be right to conclude that the law is a ass.) Let us suppose, however, that the Henson defenders intend more than a purely legal claim. How then could we charitably interpret their claims that Art should not be restricted by pornography laws; and could such claims be reasonably defended?

If Artists want the public to accept that a picture is de facto rather than de jure not pornography just because it is Art, they will need to defend that claim. Given that they accept that the very same picture that counted as pornography when found on some dirty old man’s hard drive would not be pornography if it were hung in a gallery and accepted by them as Art, they will have to argue that Art is defined as Art by something external to the artwork itself. What could this possibly be, and could whatever it is really provide a guarantee that Art is not Pornography? Several possibilities seem most likely to be argued here:

  1. Perhaps it is the intention of the artist that is relevant. A thing is or is not pornography depending on whether or not the artist willed it to be so. This seems to be a promising line: it’s obviously true that the intention of the pornographer and the intention of the artist are supposed to be quite different – the pornographer intends to pander to our basest preferences, and the Artist (one is certain) has some other purpose in mind.

But this will not do. The arguments of Beardsley and Wimsatt against the ‘Intentional Fallacyapply here more effectively even than in the cases that those authors intended. Recall that Pornography is understood and sanctioned according to its feared effects on public morality, and the intentions of the artist in the case will almost always be irrelevant to the effects of the artwork. (In general, indeed, we have no access to the artists intentions, so interpretation that relies on this access is impossible.) A thing is or is not pornography without regard to what the intention of the artist might have been in creating it.

  1. Is it then the intention of the set of experiencers, the audience let’s say, that makes the difference; so that whether something is pornography or not depends upon the attitudes that the audience members take to the experience of the artwork? That is what seems to be suggested by the objection to the previous proposal. If the audience can be relied on not to be badly affected by the art, not to be titillated, not to have base motives excited, etc., then surely the Artwork is not to be considered to be pornographic. So an Artwork that appears in an Art gallery and is seen by the Art crowd can have no evil tendencies. Therefore it cannot be pornography.

It is certainly possible that some specialised audiences might be more resistant to the corrupting influence of some works than others, but even if that were true that wouldn’t support the claim being made. In that argument the audience of the Artwork has now been restricted to a  non-random subset of the possible audience, whereas the understanding of pornography that we have is that it is defined in reference to the effects of the work if it is available to be experienced by the entire possible audience (or, equivalently, to random subsets of it.) The claim that could be made here is that the Artwork is not harmful if the audience is an Art crowd, but that’s not the same as saying that the Artwork is not pornography. Child pornography appreciated by the Art crowd would still be pornography.

If it is claimed that Art should have a special dispensation from this moral judgement – and artists have recently been keen to claim that they are above the moral laws that apply to the rest of benighted mankind (especially since the mid XIXth C, see Grana Modernity and its Discontents) – then they will need to make the case for that privilege. I can’t see any prospect of a successful argument along those lines, but suppose that we accepted this proposal; what then? Well, since the argument does not deny that the State may have an interest in restricting some forms of symbolic production on the grounds of public good, we will need to know when to apply this privilege.

  1. Perhaps we may be supplied with an uncontroversial, non-trivialising, and impartially applicable definition of Art that will operate as a filter: each piece may be tested against this definition and a decision reached as to whether the thing is Art or not and the Art privilege is to operate or not.

Unfortunately, given the controversy that has surrounded all previous proposed definitions of Art, I think we have good reason to believe that no such objective and applicable characterization of Art is to be had. There is a further irony in this case that in previous attacks on ‘Modern Art,’ where it has been claimed that this or that piece is “not Art,” the response of the Art crowd had been to mockingly and rhetorically demand a definition of Art from their attackers. Failing to be able to say what is or is not Art has for some reason been seen as giving the Artist the ability to claim that whatever he wants to do is Art. (It should have made Artists wonder what on earth the point of their occupation was, and it should have made Art funding bodies wonder about what their (usually tax-derived) money was funding. But that’s another topic.)

  1. Perhaps we can can take the Art crowd at their word then, and define Art as what Artists do. Then, anything that looks like Pornography but is done by an artist would invoke the Art privilege. All that remains is to find a definition of an Artist that is not equivalent to ‘someone who makes Art.’ Since Artist’s are to be the beneficiaries of a privilege extended by the State, the State will have to agree on the method of discrimination – rather like the priesthood or the medical profession. Perhaps he is to be a member of an official body of state-recognised artists – a sort of Arts Academy with legal teeth. How will membership be determined? How will Artists enjoy being organized by the State? (It wouldn’t exactly be consistent with their revolutionary posturing would it? In fact, wasn’t Modern Art largely a rejection of the Academy Art of earlier times?) And will their audiences be similarly organized in order to benefit from the Art privilege? A State-run connoisseur’s club? All this hardly seems to be in the spirit of the defences of Bill Henson; and a solution on these grounds might seem to be worse than the problem it is intended to solve.
  1. Perhaps it will be claimed that Art is what happens in Art venues; but I think it’s pretty obvious that all the same problems that attached to Art-as-what-Artists-do will also apply here m.

No, I am afraid it will not do. There can be no Art privilege in these matters. Artists will just have to accept that they must obey the same rules as the rest of the citizenry – and Bill Henson should stop taking pictures of naked children.

Andrew Bolt has an amusing debunking of particularly bad arguments given in support of Bill Henson and the Art Privilege in Prejudices stripped bare (Herald Sun, 28/05/2008)


Post a Comment