Art, Aesthetics & Pornography Conference: Day 1

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On Thursday and Friday last week I made a little trip over to the Institute of Philosophy in London for a conference entitled Art, Aesthetics & Pornography. Needless to say, this was a fascinating event. With it being held at the Institute of Philosophy the debates which developed out of the papers presented were much more lively than those I’ve been accustomed to having on really experienced lectures of art historical context.

Proceedings commenced with a presentation by Dr Elisabeth Schellekens called Taking the Moral View: On Voyeurism in Art. Using a wide range of reference points, from Tintoretto and Titian to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window she gave us a wonderful introduction into the role of the voyeur within art.

Central to Schellekens paper was an analysis of both the voyeur within a work of art, such as L.B. Jefferies within Rear Window, and the voyeuristic role of the spectator/audience.

Titian’s Venos of Urbino

The ‘moral view’ mentioned in the paper’s titled referred to the issue of one’s privacy being breached by a voyeur and our attention was brought to the fact that some voyeuristic actions can be illegal, for example, in situations whereby one should reasonably expect privacy according to UK law.

The only real flaw in Schellekens presentation came towards the end as she made some much more contemporary references suggesting that social media was voyeuristic and that Tracey Emin invited voyeurs to look upon her private space with her piece ‘My Bed’. This led to an interesting discussion afterwards about whether Emin’s work was actually an exhibitionist, rather than voyeuristic and it was suggested that voyeurs and exhibitionists were not compatible.

Returning to the earlier points that had been presented it was asked if the viewers of art (or films) could really be considered voyeurs as they are expected to view these works which were created to be viewed. Alternatively, are the viewers voyeurs and the artists exhibitionists in a relationship which is in fact compatible.

Unfortauntely we ran out of time at a point where the discussion started to get really exciting. That is, it was asked if voyeurism is visual then what other forms concealed sensory perceptual invasions can there be?

Trailer: Skin. Like. Sun. (Des Jours Plus Belles Que La Nuit)
from: Jennifer Lyon Bell & Blue Artichoke Films

Having been given a choice of papers to hear, the second presentation I saw on Thursday was Can the Exclusivist Thesis Be Maintained and Should We Care? by Stephanie Lynn Patridge. I must admit that this was a little harder to follow along with partly due a lot more jargon being used and also in part due to the paper being read as a script rather than ‘performed’.

One of the questions with which the paper opened was; why preserve the art/porn distinction? Patridge referred to Maes, MagUidhir and Levinson to argue that something could be both pornographic and artistic but that this could not be so at the same time.

In asking Should We Care? Patridge was actually asking Should Feminists Care?. It was made very clear that it had been assumed that all those in attendance were feminists. She suggested early on that feminists should be concerned with the representation and treatment of women regardless of whether the attention that the work draws is pornographic or artistic.

I found that Patridge’s case got muddied somewhat as she started to introduce erotica into the art versus pornography debate and drew the issue of social harm to her argument. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who had found this to be the case. The questions that followed resulted in Patridge being on the back foot somewhat and apologising for not making herself clear.

Patridge appeared to be trying to make the case that there are other moral resources that can be used to critique images and the meanings within them however, some of those in attendance had felt that she was disregarding the importance of ‘harm’ in her argument.

The third paper of the day was Pornography, Art, and Porno-Art by Mari Mikkola.

The basis for the argument that Mikkola presented was the idea that the main aim of pornography is not sexual arousal but in fact to make money. She suggested that there is no agreed definition of pornography (in philosophical terms I assume), and that the only area of agreement is that of the pornographic artefact; films, books, etc.

Jeff Koons: Red Butt (1991)

This was followed up with a reference to Amie Tomasson’s work on institutional objects and artefacts (2003) in which Tomasson states that an artefact is the intended product of human actions.

Mikkola theorised that when these intentions are successful then the artist or pornographer makes money. She went on to propose the introduction of a new category called Porno-Art and stated that if one intended to make Porno-Art then this work would in fact be Porno-Art.

When pressed Mikkola stated that Porno-Art would not simply be erotica, nor would it be just be sexually explicit art. It would be neither art nor porn and at the same time it would be both art and porn. Delegates asked whether a new term was needed and why, if an object could be classed as Porno-Art, it couldn’t simply be an object that operates within the categories of both pornography and art.

It did appear that this notion of Porno-Art needed more work particularly with regard to the exclusivity debate touched upon by the previous speaker. However, Mikkola did state that this was only a proposal and seemed quite aware of some of the flaws in her proposal at this point.

Jordan Baseman: Blue Movie (2009)

The final presentation of the day was from Pamela Church-Gibson and Jordan Baseman.

Being familiar with some of Pamela Church-Gibson’s books I was looking forward to this session. However, rather than being a paper entitled Art, Pornography, Audience as I’d been led to believe, it was actually a screening of Baseman’s film called Blue Movie for which an interview with Church-Gibson forms the soundtrack.

Baseman gave some background to the work and how it came about following his discovery of a 16mm pornographic film in a charity shop and how this led to him interviewing Church-Gibson, amongst others, and cutting the interview and film up together.

There was a lengthy Q&A session following Baseman’s introduction and screening of the work. However, Church-Gibson responded the questions that followed as if they were being overly critical. She made constant references to that fact that we were seeing the work in less than adequate settings in a darkened, not black, room with small tinny speakers that could not replicate the ‘physical sound’ achieved in the gallery.

Apparently the orginal showing of the work at Matt’s Gallery enabled viewers to fully experience the work, which was shown on a continual loop, in very specific settings that were designed to enhance the work. It did leave me wondering whether an alternative means of presentation could have been conceived for the work in this sterile academic setting. That said, I really enjoyed the screening despite that less than perfect conditions.

There was considerable debate about whether or not the work was arousing and if not, why? There were a number of suggestions made such as it being down to the way the film had been heavily edited and the white spaces that had been inserted between scenes, or perhaps because it was presented to us as art not pornography. This dicsussion did lead to my favourite quote of the day from a woman who worked as a producer for Television X who simply stated that you can’t wank to black and white.

My notes | 16 June 2011

I had a cracking day listening to all the discussions and debates that took place and it gave me a lot of food for thought with regard to my own practice albeit indirectly. I’ve still another day to write up but I’ll save that for another day. In the meantime here are some links and further reading that might be of interest:

Porn Saints:
Annie Sprinkle:
Tom of Finland:

Pamela Church-Gibson: Dirty Looks: Women, Pornography, Power
Pamela Church-Gibson: More Dirty Looks: Gender, Pornography and Power
Elisabeth Schellekens: Aesthetics and Morality
Elisabeth Schellekens & Peter Goldie: Philosophy & Conceptual Art
Amie Thomasson: Ordinary Objects