[Milton-L] Re: porno vs. art?

James Rovira jrovira at drew.edu
Sat Nov 26 21:13:46 EST 2005

Very sorry, Prof. Strier, but I didn't mean to sound all that sure 
myself.  From my point of view I'm considering beginning points of 
thinking and not end points: potential criteria but not air tight 
criteria.  The point isn't whether we can come up with rock solid 
criteria, but whether we can say anything intelligent at all about the 
distinction between porn and art, and I get the impression from you that 
you're resistant to this idea.  Of course all criteria are problematic. 
  That doesn't mean they're not useful places to begin thinking.

I don't think all eros is pornography, by the way.

No, I actually haven't seen Debbie Does Dallas.  I did see a 
Mapplethorpe exhibit at the Guggenheim a few years ago, sometime since 
1999.  DDD is just a widely known title so I used it as a point of 
reference.  My first experience with pornographic film came along when I 
was about 15 or 16 and the first US cable channel, ON TV, went on the 
air (maybe 1980?). My father was an electrical engineer so he built his 
own decoding box and we could view the channel for free (hence, why ON 
TV went bankrupt not long after HBO came on the air.  Radio Shack even 
sold decoder kits for non-engineers).

Porn on ON TV wasn't something you had to pay extra for, or something 
you needed a separate channel for.  It was just the regular programming 
on most nights after midnight.  So as a teenage boy I indulged myself. 
The interest lasted about three or four weeks and then I got bored with 
the meaningless, repetitive sex, so you can imagine how bad the films 
generally were -- even the images of very attractive nude women having 
sex couldn't keep my interest, the "plot" and "acting" (we should call 
it performing) was so bad.

Of all the films I did see I think I remember two of them.  One I 
remember only vaguely -- something to do with a pornographic take on 
fairy tales.  I somewhat remember this film because of the interesting 
costumes (the CLOTHES got my attention by this point).  The other one I 
remember relatively well: it was a film called _Take Off_ loosely based 
on Wilde's _The Picture of Dorian Gray_ (a woman filmed herself with a 
magical camera while having sex, and wouldn't die until she filmed 
herself again with a different partner.  The gift of immortality would 
then pass to her partner).  The main plot line was the growth in sexual 
sophistication of the young man who was this woman's most recent lover, 
a young man whom she intended to take her place (dear God, I just gave 
away the ending.  Sorry.).  To add yet another level of sophistication, 
the plot moved from one funny reenactment of a famous Hollywood scene to 
the next: Cagney's (?) grapefruit in the face scene even made it into 
the film.

So the title had a triple reference: the take offs of all the films 
represented in the movie, the film itself being a "take off" of Wilde's 
novel and, of course, the actors all frequently taking off their clothes.

This was a stellar film by ON TV porn standards, a real Oscar winner. 
The performers even had to act occasionally.

So yes, I know porn when I see it too.  And I can tell you why at the 
same time.  All those films I've thankfully forgotten didn't invest much 
effort in plot or character or setting.  It was all about the sex.  The 
intent is, I think, pretty transparent in these cases.

Again, I acknowledge the borderline case (in the sense of living on the 
border of both porn and art).  This doesn't invalidate the existence of 
pretty clear cut cases that can help us think about the borderline cases 

Thanks for talking,

Jim Rovira

Richard Strier wrote:
> I'm not sure how much further I want to pursue this because I have said 
> most of what I have to say.  I will reiterate that I believe that there 
> is no definition of "pornography" that is not also going to be 
> applicable to some great art.  So I believe all attempts at censorship 
> to be misguided.  Was Picasso's intent in his erotic art -- have a look 
> at some of his late works on paper! -- the same as that of the director 
> of/ Debbie Does/?  I don't know, and neither do you.  And what if it 
> wasn't/ exactly/ the same?  My point is that part of Picasso's aim was 
> to be erotically stimulating, so that "intended to be 
> erotically/sexually stimulating" cannot be used as a definition of 
> "improper" art or "non-art."  Maybe the director of/ Debbie Does/ had a 
> high aesthetic sense, and the thing is really nicely photographed or 
> choreographed or whatever (I haven't seen it; have you?).  That some 
> material is covered over by store owners, etc means nothing.  Think of 
> all the fig leaves painted onto statues of "nude" (that is, naked) 
> people, especially males.  I'm not sure that the US Mail will deliver 
> postcards of Michelangelo's/ David/.  That's the kind of thing that 
> definitions of "the improper" produce.  I guess I'm just not as sure you 
> are that it's so clear that "X is pornography and Y is not."  And surely 
> anyone who has read Wittgenstein knows that to "know it when you see 
> it"  -- whatever that means -- does not require or suggest that you can 
> provide a definition of "it."

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