Down The Playboyesque Rabbit Hole: Where is The Line Between Pornography And Art?

 By Cameron Maltwood and Kieran O’Meara


For centuries, aesthetic enquiry has haunted western philosophy like a spectre, mocking its every turn. This Casper-like phantom, friendly in appearance and mischievous in behaviour can be summated in the overarching question ‘What is Art?’. As the study of Art History and Aesthetics will testify, the answer to this very query has been debated time and time again, rearing its head at the most critical of junctures – just in time to complicate all proceedings. It seems as though no matter how many times we follow the rabbit of curiosity down some warren of deep thought, be it Ethics, Psycho-analysis, Hermeneutics, Political theory, Literary Criticism and so on, we encounter this mischievous spirit grinning at our confusion as only Cheshire cats do.

Equally, at a darkened corner of art’s being lies the notion of Sexual Experience. By this, I am not insinuating that art has always somehow been connected to Sex. Nonetheless, it would be a blatant falsity to state that Sexual Experience is not a major phantasmic element of Art itself. To illustrate this, one only has to think of some of Western Art’s oldest masters, and some of its freshest. Think of Roman, Athenian, or Persian mosaics. Think of Michelangelo, obsessed with the manner in which the male-form interacts with the world without underwear. Alternatively, perhaps think of Grayson Perry and his pottery or tapestry. Without a doubt, some sort of curiosity links art and Sex.

This is precisely what led us to this short enquiry about the relationship between Art and the most sexualised material, that which we call ‘Pornography’. Essentially what we intend to do here is simple. This short thought-piece will etch out some of our thoughts locating where the line stands dividing Pornography and Art. At its core, this question evokes a query concerning location – i.e. the space at which Art becomes Pornography and Pornography Art. We are going to attempt to carve out an argument with some speed to avoid any dense confusion, and as such, we shall utilise an aphorismic style. This has been chosen to permit an ease of flow across our thoughts. In this, I would like to advise the reader that although such a style has been employed to sanction an ease of flow, this does not necessarily signify a logical advance from one point to the next. Overall, we shall argue that, in our epoch, there is a line between Art and Pornography. we will contend that its location is temporally contingent on what is publicly considered an obscene reaction to empirical stimulus in any given era.


Art is sensed. As we discussed in our piece concerning the separation of Art and the artist1, art is itself incredibly difficult to conceptualise. Nonetheless, in the past we have utilised Hannah Arendt’s grasp of art to provide a framework of understanding. In her ‘The Human Condition’ Arendt argues that there are three components to Art: (a) its instrumental ‘uselessness’, (b) its durability in the world, and lastly, (c) its possession of a posit of thought.2 Despite this however, there are still some conceptual ambiguities at the centre of experiencing art.

Some consider the work of Jackson Pollock a splat of genius, and others just a splat of colour that even a monkey could have done. Because of this, we would never wish to deny any work the mantle of being labelled as Art, and equally, we would not want to denounce the experience of some object as being more than an object. What does this tell us? This tells us that art is itself (a) experienced empirically (by our senses), (b) evokes an interpretive response, and (c) that a piece of art is something more than just a mere object to be sensed or interpreted. This, whether or not entirely accurate in an essentialist manner, opens the becoming of Art to any object or action that can be sensed and interpreted as more than it is. Therefore, if I am moved by a painting of Van Gogh’s, this would be no different to being moved by architecture, interpretive dance, sculpture, literature, film and beyond – all may be contingently classified (and as such declassified) as Art.3


We wish to briefly distinguish the difference between Art and ‘skill’. Across history, we can see examples where the term Art has been utilised in a very loose way to denote a strict method or outlook needed to succeed in a particular field. Here I am thinking of Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’, whereby the necessary abilities and skills to emerge from battle victorious are divulged4; or Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ that discusses the nature surrounding the ‘art’ of politics.5 Even in the contemporary era we hear people speak of ‘art’ in its loosest form, for example ‘He turns accounting in to an art’, or in the words of the current US President Donald Trump: “Deals are my art form”.6 What this usage of the term ‘art’ denotes is not Art proper – that ghostly and complicated concept – but rather a ‘method’ or ‘skill’ which makes a particular activity so precise one is guaranteed triumph routinely. This guarantee of success is so miraculous, it has been awarded the virtue of something transcendental, something greater than what it is – and this is why ‘art’ has been chosen to describe these activities and skills. Need I say, this form of ‘art’ is not by any means the kind of Art we wish to discuss here, in fact it is not Art at all but only an adage to conceptual misunderstanding. Art may require some kind of skill to become manifest, but the application of skill alone is not itself Art.


There is a final point about Art which I feel is imperative to state, and that is that Art wants to be sensed, by virtue of being Art it has willed to be sensed. There is no piece of Art which is void of a public character. In its most apt conceptualisation, to be ‘Art’ must have a few properties therefore. (a) Uselessness as an object, one that is created without an instrumental function – and in Arendtian terms thus becomes durable within the human artifice, and, (b) is an object of sorts able to be experienced empirically through the senses.

By this, an object becomes in itself a piece of art when its primary function, if we can say this at all, is to undergo interpretive experience. Art therefore is interpreted as soon as one, and it need not necessarily be more than one, experiences it. Since art also must have a creator by whose hand it is brought into being, it is therefore always interpreted from the initial moment of its reification, that is by the artist. As we have decoded, to be considered art, an object is required to undergo an interpretive experience, and in this sense, Art requires an interpretive interlocutor – i.e. to become Art an object requires a relation with an interpreter to sustain itself as such. In this vein, Art always requires an ‘audience’ to fulfil the role of interpretation, be this of a single interpreter or a plurality of interpreters.

 Art requires a space in which to be sensed by an audience and it is through this space that it can be interpreted. In order to be interpreted, there must be some public quality to Art entangled within the necessity of its interpretational experience – manifested through the essential character of ‘the audience’. Without this public quality, Art ceases to be so. Art wills to be sensed because its public character is engrained within it. Even if a painting, piece of music, dance, building and so on is made for private sensation, this sensation still comes to be between the piece of Art and the interpreter. Films for example, even home videos, are not made for the sake of simply being made, but are made to be sensed. Art is Art through this public character – it is a pillar of its becoming.


Now to Pornography. Pornography can be described as material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate sexual excitement. In the 21st century, of course the term Pornography makes us think of sexual films. Here is where the root of the overarching question effectively stems from – films are certainly Art, but does that mean also that the hardest of pornography is too?

There are a couple of nuances which have to be addressed before we continue. The first must be between sex and Porn. It may seem obvious but I think it is worth being restated. Sex is to physically engage in sexual activity. Pornography is the recording of such sexual activity for consumption. Is there an Art to sex? Certainly not; referring the reader back to aphorism II. There may be a certain skill in inducing the most pleasure out of your sexual partner(s), but this does not mean it is an Art, it is a skill which can be instructed, learnt and performed. There is a certain level of skill to Pornography also. By this, we are insinuating a certain amount of technical skill is required to successfully create porn, i.e. the capacity to write (if one is E.L James or the Marquis de Sade for instance), or the capacity to direct, choreograph, film and so on. The last nuance we wish to discuss here is between making porn and making non-pornographic films. In essence, there is no difference between them in all but the content material. Even here, even some of the greatest films which are considered to be Art contain within them pornography.


How do you define how pornographic art, or in this case, the kind of pornography we find in the blockbuster movies we see every day? Do you measure it by the quantity of sexual events in the film? If this were to be our unit of measurement then films such as The To-Do List (2013, dir. Maggie Carey) or The Wolf of Wall Street (2013, dir. Martin Scorsese) might place near the top of the list. Perhaps you might measure the pornographic-ness of the film by the explicitness of obscenity. If this were the case then a film that repeatedly displays explicit obscenity, such as Nymphomaniac (2013, dir. Lars von Trier) might achieve a winning prize. In certain cases you may even rank the pornographic nature of films upon how socially taboo the sexual acts they depict are considered. For this, you could look at a range of pictures depending on just how taboo you consider their subject matter to be. For a light example, you could see Secretary (2002, dir. Steven Shainberg), a film about a secretary and her employer who, through their professional relations, develop a deeply sadomasochistic relationship. A film one-step further into the taboo may be Savage Grace (2007, dir. Tom Kalin), in which a mother engages sexually with her only son in an attempt to “cure” him of his homosexuality.

On the other hand, one may not rate a film’s pornographic-ness on its content alone, but equally its intent. Films that intend to arouse, especially if based on an erotic novel, then may be an appropriate place to turn our gaze. This would bring us to the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey (2015, dir. Sam Taylor-Johnson), Magic Mike (2012, dir. Steven Soderbergh), or Basic Instinct (1992, dir. Paul Verhoeven). My last example of pornography in film is actually the most literal; pornography as would be stereotypically recognised in film. By this I mean a film that may or may not be otherwise particularly sexual, but that displays within it actual pornography. For examples of this, see The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005, dir. Judd Apatow), in which the titular 40-year-old virgin is locked in a store foyer by his co-workers and forced to watch pornography playing on screens all around him. For another example of this phenomenon, see Don Jon (2013, dir. Joseph Gordon-Levitt), in which the main character, Jon, experiences the consequences of his pornography addiction.

If we continue to abide by the definition of pornography as stated above, then the penultimate group of films cited most certainly constitute pornography, in that it is their intention to stimulate sexual excitement. Contrary to this, the other examples provided do not necessarily fit into the category of pornography, as the pornography in them is not necessarily for us, the audience of the film, as it is for the character within the film itself. It is not intended to stimulate us sexually, but the character. As we observe any of the images viewed in the world of the film as its characters do, those images deemed by an artist-director to be relevant to the narrative, so too do we view pornography.


Films can be considered Art because they are (a) experienced empirically, (b) evoke an interpretational response, and (c) becomes something more than just light emanating from or projected onto a screen, but a series of meaningful images. Porn is equally, (a) experienced empirically, (b) evokes some interpretational response, and (c) becomes something more than just light emanating from or projected onto a screen, but a series of meaningful images; it just so happens that it is that very meaning which makes us consider it ‘Smut’ and not Art. Therefore, to answer the question ‘can porn be Art?’ our answer is: well yes, by the same strength that film can be, so too could pornography be Art. So surely this therefore means that the question we are answering is a false one? There is no limit between Art and Pornography. However, this is not the case.


Although sharing the same capacity to be Art as any other medium, pornography is considered socially to be ‘smutty’. By this I mean that it is obscene. Pornography has encoded within it the notion of sexual obscenity. To explore this, we should take a brief look at its etymological roots as a linguistic signifier. We can see that the word ‘pornography’ is drawn from the ancient Greek word for Brothel (Porneion) [πορνεῖον] as ‘Pornographos’ [πορνογράϕος] – literally translating as ‘the depicting of prostitutes’. In this manner, being attached to what appears to be the perennial obscenity of prostitution, sexual activity, as that activity which is conducted within the brothel itself, became the source of the obscenity behind pornography – through its historical and etymological interrelation with prostitution. Given the wider societal and historical slander towards prostitutes, it is no surprise that with the term ‘pornography’ came the immediate claim of obscenity. Therefore, pornography can be Art, in that it holds all the essential qualities of experiencing Art, but importantly an obscene Art – irrespective of whether one subscribes personally to such a judgemental prescription of ‘obscenity’.


So far, we have decoded what of Pornography may be considered Art. We would like to take this time now to reverse this, perhaps in a Freudian way, to see what we can find to assist our overall enquiry: what of Art desires to ultimately be Pornographic? To answer this we must return to aphorisms I and III. In aphorism I, the last quality within the experience of Art, (c), was that the object in question becomes more than itself to become Art, evoking an interpretive response. For Pornography, this appears to be obvious – film, image, language, performance all become a sexual stimulant and provoke a biological response. When we ‘receive’ pornography we respond with sexual arousal. In this moment an object which is sensed breaks its boundaries as merely printed ink, projected light, or choreographed performance to evoke a physical, biological response. We may find the works of Monet, Caravaggio, Beethoven, Brecht, Fitzgerald, or even Nureyev equally as stimulating. Their Art may even provoke some biological response in the release of certain chemicals in the brain, like serotonin. However, none of these artists’ Art cause the response that even the most mediocre of Pornography can. This brings us necessarily back to aphorism III. Here, I claimed that an essential part of Art’s character is its public quality – by virtue of being itself, Art wills to be sensed in some form of public space. Equally, Pornography is made to arouse – it too wills to be sensed.

Let us take two examples: The Ballet and a Peep Show. The Ballet depicts dance for the public to interpret a narrative and meaning through physical movement. A Peep Show depicts sex for the public to interpret and become biologically aroused through physical movement. Beyond content, what is the difference? Here the answer is twofold: (a) response, and (b) delivery. Let us take these in reverse order. The Ballet is public because it is performed in a theatre, an open space. A Peep Show, traditionally, is not. Conventionally, a peep show forces the recipient to look upon their visual stimulus through some obscured oculus. Alas, the recipient is here made to believe that the very stimulus they are viewing is not public, and that they are a Voyeur. It is a combination of the physical act they are watching, and their enforced Voyeurism which forges sexual arousal and sexual response (acted upon through masturbatory action or not). Quickly, one could therefore ask, well what is the difference between this and finding a way to secretly view others having sex outside of the peep show? The reason why one appears so much more intrusive and potentially an act of sexual misconduct is because one simply is. The conflation of the Peep Show and all-round sexual Voyeurism is to ignore the engrained public quality embedded in Art. A peep show is a public performance intended, through its delivery, to appear as a private act. However, watching others unaware of your presence engaging in sexual activity is to invade their private space, their private action; this is not to engage with and experience performance, but to encroach upon and pervert the most private of other’s moments for sexual stimulation.

Peep shows are performances of sexual activities intended to be viewed by an audience through an obscured oculus to simulate Voyeurism and thus stimulate sexual excitement. This is perhaps a flawed example as it is not truly Voyeuristic in the sense that the performers are aware that their actions are being viewed by the public, and given that the public will have paid to attend a peep show, they too will be aware of the performers’ consciousness that they are being watched, even if it is not addressed. It is the experience of art that falsely does not will to be experienced.

Not all pornography has to be voyeuristic. In fact, it could be argued that no pornography is. Even pornography that does not ‘break the fourth wall’, addressing the viewer directly, is still observable because the artist has shared it via some platform, and in doing so, is fully aware that it is being made available for public viewing –  where sexual content is made available and always in “zones visible to the gaze of the camera”.7 In simply being able to view porn at all then, the audience should realise that it is so because the creator allows it to be so, thus nullifying any voyeuristic properties the pornography may hold, short of being merely recorded voyeurism proper.

 But all of this is to neglect the fact that any porn that attempts to be voyeuristic is doing, well, exactly that. It is trying to provide the illusion of voyeurism as a strategy for sexual stimulation. It is pretending that it does not want to be sensed, for the reason that those watching it may find increased pleasure in this experience.

So, in fact, a better, more overt, example of porn willing to be sensed might be the POV (point-of-view) pornography. In POV pornography, we as the audience member are invited into the medium itself as one of the subjects. There can be a few ways this is done. The most common of these is to position us in the place of one of the recipients of sexual pleasure. In other words, through experiencing POV pornography, we ‘become’ a sexual agent within the pornography itself.

The less common, but by no means rare, form of POV pornography is where we are placed in the position of another, viewing the person or persons experiencing sexual stimulation. In certain cases, the person or persons who are receiving sexual stimulation whom we are invited to watch through the perspective of the voyeur are supposedly unaware of their (our) presence. In this instance, we are placed in the position of the (fictional) voyeur. It is interesting to note that porn which places us into agent experiencing sexual pleasure is willing us to watch, and not just watch – respond – by literally putting us in the shoes of the person experiencing sexual pleasure. To respond as our ‘character’ responds, with self-gratification. It is as close as pornography can get, at this point in time, to literally punching its hand through the screen and engaging physically and sexually with us, the recipient-viewer. Although, with the invention of new technology increasing at an unprecedented rate, who knows if this might be the case tomorrow. Since POV pornography often places us in the shoes of its participants, when the participant we are ‘playing’ then is addressed it becomes almost as if it is us that is engaging with the other in the video. In this instance, pornography not only wills us to watch, but wills us heavily to respond to it.

 Perhaps the example of a peep show is flawed, simply, as it is too physical. In most cases, art’s public quality manifests in a public environment, that it has a space through which it can be interpreted. Therefore, the ballet is a grand example of this in Art’s case, as a gallery or cinema is for ‘traditional’ artworks and films respectively. A Peep Show however is too literal an example of a public space through which interpretation can take place. When you think of pornography today, in the modern world, what do you think of? For most of us, we would be willing to bet the answer is the same – the porn video, accessed by most through online websites. Websites that are, for all intents and purposes, accessible to all (within confines of the law). Websites that are public. In this however, the line has been blurred between the public and private realms.

 The only difference between the pornographic website and the gallery is their physicality. We would argue that the reason porn is experienced online, through the public space of the website but in the privacy of one’s own home, is simply because of stigmatised nature underscoring pornography (and sex as a whole) – at least in a majority of occidental societies. In fact, porn has been experienced in a physical public space, in the adult movie theatres that gained notoriety in past decades. Cinemas designated specifically for the exhibition of pornography. So to claim that pornography is not, or has not been, experienced publicly is false. Of course, the existence and usage of these theatres has since however declined significantly with the rise of home video services, from VCR tapes through to the internet and the smart phone. The reason that pornography is not viewed today in physical public space is simply because there are not many public spaces left in which to do so. Equally, the reason for their being so few public spaces to view pornography is simply that the demand for this experience has dwindled. When adult movie theatres were popular, they were so because there was no alternative to view pornographic films. Art may will to be sensed in a public space, but the public may not.

For those thinking that this is solely the case for pornography too, they are sorely mistaken. Consider the ever-increasing subscriptions to online video streaming platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu, and YouTube to name a few. From this it is clear to see that the desire to experience films in the privacy of one’s own home exists anterior to whether the films are pornographic or not. The public, as it were, no longer requires a physical public space in order to conduct its business, as everything about our society is slowly moving online; and so too is our public space – the very space in which we can appear to one another. Films and pornography may be moving online, but so are we, in our jobs, economies, politics, hobbies, and, most importantly, in our public discourse.

Despite this, both these examples lead to different responses. The Peep Show creates sexual stimulation, biological reaction, and the potential for voluntary response defined by the conjuring of physical pleasure. It is precisely this heightened physical pleasure that non-pornographic Art cannot summon. Monet, Caravaggio, Beethoven, Brecht, Fitzgerald, and Nureyev can make the recipient of their works feel and interpret so much meaning. Nevertheless, non-Pornographic Art does not make the individual biologically seek the most intense of physical pleasures. This is the side to Art which is pornographic – its desire to evoke a biological response to its empirical stimulus. Its tragedy is that it cannot.


With this etymological fact established, that ‘pornography’ stems from ‘the depiction of prostitutes’, we can see that the term depiction’ is generally utilised when talking about interpretive experience. By this, we could argue that within the etymology of ‘pornography’ rests the consideration of itself as a potential art, related at its core to a central quality of art itself – interpretive experience. With this, perhaps we can say that rather than art and porn being adversaries or opposites, pornography exists as its own genre under the diverse umbrella of Art. In this thought, we can at least venture some sort of answer to the question of the qualities inherent in Art which rest also in pornography. If pornography exists under the umbrella of Art, then anything and everything that goes into it must stem from Art. As for that of Art which is in pornography, it is whatever the artist of porn decides to reify what they can take of art and posit into porn. However, this does not commonly appear to vary widely from porn to porn.

An answer as to what of art is in pornography and pornography art rests with the intentions of each. Most art does not attempt to arouse a person sexually, but it does have other intentions. A horror movie, for instance, attempts to scare the audience, and the reactions to that scare are things like jumping, screaming, gasping, and in extreme cases, and particularly in young children, an involuntary expulsion of ‘bodily waste’ in whatever form. In fact, you might say that an ambitious comedy film might attempt the same reaction. Nevertheless, there is one difference between most art and porn in this respect, and that is its desire for us to respond to this involuntary biological response. Pornography wills us not only to interpret it but also to respond to such interpretation by the ‘conjuring of physical pleasure’. A horror movie may will you to scream, jump, or cry, but that is it.


What does this reversal tell us about the line between Pornography and Art? Essentially, when some object easily wills us to respond to its stimulus with our biological faculties, in a manner considered obscene, we have ventured into the realm of Pornography and are no longer in the realm of Art.


Interestingly, what is considered obscene changes with the times. We consider sexual pleasure obscene in the contemporary epoch due to the past religious ethics which governed individual practice and their increasingly secularised morality in the modern period, continually, it seems, convincing ourselves of our sexual freedom in relation to the past, and are yet in this act imprisoned by the supposed ethics of the past – unable to engage potentiality.8 For specific ecclesiastical and religious reasons, specific sexual acts were deemed to be in contravention of God’s natural law, and as such, pushed sexuality into the deepest of caverns of our private lives. Prior to Judeo-Abrahamic religion, sex was seen in a different light by wider society, as something more public. Could you imagine an Athenian or Roman public orgy in today’s world? Could you imagine the British army encouraging passionate sexual acts between its soldiers, as was the policy in Sparta? For a myriad of reasons, western society today perceives sex as something private, to not show its face in the public realm as Art does. It is for this reason our society cannot grasp pornography as a potential Art; and it appears that this is the case because of the so-called illicit biological response it summons – the will to satisfy one’s own sexual desires and drives for physical pleasure.


To conclude, where is the line between pornography and Art? In simple terms, the line of demarcation is not universally and objectively fixed. In the past, the public nature of pornography was accepted and engaged with, and as such Pornography was a form of Art. As sex became obscene it underwent a retreat into the private sphere. In this moment the line between Art (virtuous and meaningful) and Pornography (obscene by its will to summon sexual pleasure) was drawn. Perhaps in future epochs sex will undergo a revision and its illicitness cast asunder, prompting a return to public life as well as private. In this moment, pornography will be reinstated as an Art, or perhaps closer to it. For now, however, our collective ‘truths’ will continue to tell us that there is something dirty about sex (perhaps there is, we don’t know) and as such, our experience of pornography will continue to project that very same societal disgust at stimulated sexual desire and pleasure – drawing the limit between Art and Pornography.

Perhaps this think piece made the limit between Art and Pornography somewhat more concrete. We would like to think that it has done exactly what it set out to do at its inception and offer some answer to the question at hand. Nevertheless, even as we write this now, we can hear the faintest laughter of one purple and pink cat fading into a mist of confusion. This warrants our journey, another day, back down this, the apt, and perhaps Playboy-esque rabbit hole to Wonderland – where, without doubt, we can do none else but simply wonder.


1 Cameron Maltwood and K.J. O’Meara (2019) ‘As a Human Amongst Other Humans and The Immanence of Potentiality: On Separating Art from Artist’, Amor Mundi.

2 Hannah Arendt (1998) The Human Condition, Second Edition, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, pp. 167-169.

3 Architecture should always be differentiated from ‘construction’. The latter is concerned only with functional instrumentality. To illustrate this, one can see that St. Peter’s Basilica is an example of architecture, designed without material instrumental function in mind and has withstood the test of time repeatedly. Whereas The Shard, in London, although it does have an element of ‘the architectural’, is an example of construction – being concerned primarily with the function of housing offices, apartments, and so on. All buildings rest between the interplay of ‘architecture’ and ‘construction’ in some capacity; some are closer to the former, some to the latter.

4 Sun Tzu (2005) The Art of War, Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, inc.

5 Niccolo Machiavelli (2005) The Prince, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

6 Donald Trump (2016) Trump: The Art of The Deal, New York: Arrow Books, p.1.

Slavoj Zizek (1997) The Plague of Fantasies, London: Verso, p. 178.

8 Michel Foucault (1978) The History of Sexuality: Volume One, New York: Pantheon Books.