Exploring the Line Between Art and Pornography

A photo of a naked woman covering her breasts and vagina with her hands.

Image: Shutterstock

The line between art and pornography is a treacherous one, partly because it’s so hard to decipher. Because both “art” and “pornography” are subjective terms, they evade any attempts to define them. It’s like the old saying goes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” So too is, “Pornography in the groin of the beholder.”

A couple weeks ago, we featured an article on how to be a nude art model. While most people don’t view nude art models as being “trashy,” “immoral,” or “slutty,” suddenly the narrative changes when it comes to Playboy models. But what many consider to be porn, others consider as high-end photography. So then what’s the difference between being a nude art model and being a Playboy model? Perhaps it has to do with the intent of the work.

In the case of Playboy, the intent isn’t to reflect on the image, it’s underlying meaning, and marvel at the artist’s use of craft technique. The point is to, pardon the bluntness, masturbate to it. For that reason alone, most artists would consider it porn. But as a society, we have to keep in mind that our definitions of “porn” and “art” have changed over the years.

In 1969, for example, U.S. Customs agents in Baltimore confiscated ten European paintings and drawings that were being transported to the United States. Why? Because they depicted nudity. At the time, U.S. federal law prohibited the importation of “obscene” materials.

The debate over what qualifies as obscene eventually led to the 1973 Miller v. California guidelines. Under these guidelines, a work was considered “obscene” only if it met all of the following criteria:

a) The average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest (exciting lustful thoughts)

b) The work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law

c) The work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value

Although these guidelines are more than 40 years old, they’re still being used today to distinguish art from pornography.

Tell us: Do you think these are good guidelines to use? How do you decide whether a work is obscene or not?

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