Monday, September 3, 2007


Viewer warning: to illustrate our continuing discussion on censorship, art and pornography, this post contains a few images that are more explicit than usual. None of them qualify as "hard core." All of them are readily available to our children, so I figure you should be capable of dealing for a few minutes with what they are seeing.

A number of you seem to share my view that government censorship of art is unacceptable. At the same time, you also agree there are lots of trashy pictures circulating freely that might mislead or even damage young people in their formative stages.

As one of the commenters on my last post noted,
Young women, being more often than not blissfully unaware of the content of average pornography, are in no position to discover their sexualities with men of their own age who have already been exposed to objectifying depictions of the female body. And young men develop an unhealthy and false image of women through their exposure to this same pornography.
The following pictures are benign versions of images that are easily available to most children:

Children who consume such stuff may have a harder time developing the patience and sensitivity to search out the genuine poetry and lyricism in sex.
If we don't believe laws or moral standards are a suitable way of limiting the adverse effects of such material, do we have to accept it as the inescapable price of free expression? Or can we turn instead to the language of aesthetics for help?

Neither law nor morality are useful tools for policing art, but artistic standards don't have to be based on laws or morals. Personally, I don't view the above pictures as immoral, just stupid. Rather than making such art illegal or saying that people will burn in hell for viewing it, maybe it's enough to condemn such pictures as artistically shallow, lacking in taste, judgment and other aesthetic values.

The art critic Clement Greenberg made a similar criticism of modern art, saying that a "relaxation of standards" has led many to accept cheap thrills as a substitute for profound artistic value:
It's not just tastelessness. It's when instead of aesthetic pleasure you settle for kicks.
To me, the vast majority of explicit illustration today settles for kicks without aesthetic pleasure. This is not an indictment of explicit art, only bad explicit art. Compare the impoverished images above with the splendid historical sampling below. Some of the greatest artists in history, from Rembrandt to Hokusai to Picasso, have imbued explicit subjects with profound aesthetic sensitivity:

I think that profound art-- no matter how sexually explicit-- enhances us.

As the old saying goes, morality-- like art-- simply consists of drawing the line somewhere. Here is where I draw that line:

Art offers a wonderful spice cabinet for people whose relationships have enough nutritional content to withstand the seasoning. But for children who have never had such relationships, images can delude them in ways that hamper their ability to have real relationships going forward. Arsenic taken in small doses is a wonderful stimulant, but change the proportions and it has the opposite effect.

To try to censor or abolish such pictures is silly. Rather than demonizing pornography, it makes more sense to ridicule it, along with the arrested emotional development of its purveyors. The best boundary line I know between pornography and literature comes from the sage Lee Siegel:
Disclosing the drama of personality succumbing to desire-- that's been the challenge to modern writers free to describe sex on the page....Erotic writings preserve the inner lives-- the individuality of men and women; pornography obliterates them....There is, in fact, nothing secret about pornography. It is the public caricature of a private act.
This distinction should be conveyed to young people to help fortify them and to put the images that surround them in perspective. But to fear such pictures is to legitimize them, and to enhance their appeal. We are far more likely to reach a sensible result by channeling human desires than by denying them.