Art, Aesthetics & Pornography Conference: Day 2

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Things have been a bit hectic over the last couple of weeks so apologies if you’ve been eagerly awaiting my update on day two of the Art, Aesthetics & Pornography Conference at the Insitute of Philosophy.

Day two started with The Looking Glass and the Cystal Goblet: Typograhy and Pornography in Arsewoman in Wonderland by RCA PhD Candidate Kim Dhillon. Her research interested relate to the artistic and aesthetic properties of words.

The paper that Dhillon presented took it’s name from a piece of work by the artist Fiona Banner. Banner’s piece is constructed from words. She wrote a description of the film Arsewoman in Wonderland as she viewed it.

Fiona Banner: Arsewoman in Wonderland (2001)

Dhillon argued that the words are not readable as a text due to the way in which they are presented. All though transcribed chronologically (presumably from top left to bottom right) she suggested that due to the large scale nature of the work and the way that it is presented as an installation the viewer can only dip in and out of the work extracting a line or a few words at a time.

The paper led to a discussion about the difference between pornography without words, which was a notion that Dhillon raised, and erotica. Obviously erotica is intended to arouse the reader but we would not normally consider such works to be pornographic.

Dhillon asked to consider that Banner’s work could be categorised as pornographic. However, it was disputed as to whteher the work was actually at all arousing. After all it was not written in such a way as to cause arousal and the snippets of sentences that Dhillon referred to lost their context.

I’d be interested to find out some more about Dhillon’s work because her interest in the aesthetics of words sounds fascinating. The paper she presented here of course focussed more upon the pornographic nature of words although she touched upon her wider area of research towards the end with references to work by Tracey EMin amonst others.

A Necker Cube

The second paper of the morning was by Professor Stephen Mumford and was entitled A Pornographic Way of Seeing. He was clearly a well seasoned speaker as her presented an engaging paper without the use of slides.

Mumford’s paper argued against an essence of art and against an essence of pornograohy. Instead he propsed that a work is categorised by the way in which it is viewed by it’s audience. This approach was at odds with a number of the other speakers at the conference who had seemingly been trying to identify and define those qualities which distinguished art from pornography.

He also argued against Maes’ exclusivist theory for example, which states that a piece of work can be both pornographic and artistic but not at the same time. Mumford suggested that viewers could switch between artistic and pornographic ways of seeing rapidly much like the way one can view a necker Cube.

He went on to cite an institutional theory of art and suggest that it is society that dictates whether we should view a work artistically or pornographically. For example, if we were to view a pornographic film within the context of a gallery we would react to it differently to watching it at home due to the social rules which we abide by.

I found Mumford’s presentation absolutely fascinating although some of the more hardened philosophers in the audience picked numerous holes in his arguements.

The presentations I elected to attend after lunch were much more akin to art and design lectures I’ve been accustomed to in the past in that they were historical investigations rather than philosophical inquiries.

Stefan Trinks paper, Sheela-na-gig Again: The Birth of a New Style from the Spirit of Pornography, examined the pornographic qualities of the grotesques found in Romanesque art.

It was an interesting look at some of the pornographic content found in the Romanesque sculptures at eleventh century churches in Northern Spain. However, I found it a little strange that Trinks didn’t touch upon the Carnivalesque within his paper as I thought there were clear links between the Carnivalesque and the images he was presenting.

He discussed the fact that the Church saw sexuality and voyeurism as a problem but didn’t touch upon any earlier pagan ideas which saw the displaying of genitalia as a tool to ward off evil spirits. The imagary he was discussing appeared to me to be the result of changing times whereby the earlier pagan beliefs were being replaced by the teachings of the Church.

Similary, Dinu Munteanu’s paper, Lingerie, Femininty and Victorian Pornography: From Amelia Bloomer to the ‘ewd’ Industry, was a piece of historical reseach.

Munteanu presented a historical account of the changes to women’s underwear throughout the nineteenth century before discussing the effects these chnages had on women and society. He argued that pornography actually aided the development of a feminist agenda rather than hinder the emmancipation of women.

I had been looking forward to this paper but I must admit I was a little underwhelmed as Munteanu read his paper out in a very dry fashion, mumbling through much of it. Although some of the areas he covered were interesting I’ve not an awful lot to reflect upon as I struggle to hear much of what he presented.

Fortunately the afternoon rose to a crescendo with a lecture from Martin Kemp about the exhibition Seduced. Art & Sex: From Antiquity to Now, that was shown at the Barbican in 2007/2008.

Jeff Koons: Ilona on Top (Rosa background), 1990.

Kemp’s talk was in contrast to the rest of the presentations. Rather than a formal academic paper it was more of a reflection upon his experience curating the Barbican’s exhibition.

The amount of work that went into dealing with the public’s’ perception of the show as a result of the themes that the exhibition explored was quite phenomenal. The entire gallery staff undertook specific media training to deal with press enquiries and special previews were organised for local councillors to ensure that they understood what the show consisted of.

He also informed us that a lot of thought went into the title of the exhibition to ensure that it provided a suitable contextual frame for the work contained within it. Knowing how difficult it can be to find an appropriate title for a project I can understand why this would have been such a tough task.

Kemp’s presentation also raised some important questions for those of us practitioners in the room with regard to making and reception. That is, as an artist it is vitally important that you understand the changes that might arise within your work within the context of reception versus the context of making.

Unfortunately I couldn’t stay for the final day of the conference due to such boring obstacles as time and money. With papers entitled Why Porn Sucks and The Pornography of Death it was a shame to have to miss out. However my brain was full to bursting after just two days so I might have been in danger of an art, aesthetics and pornography overload.

For those of you interested you can download a copy of the full conference schedule as a .pdf file here.

Conference website: