[Milton-L] Debbie does Eden

James Rovira jamesrovira at gmail.com
Thu Jul 28 21:27:52 EDT 2011

Richard --

Thank you for your recent posts.  I appreciate that your reporting on
the porn industry has allowed you to clearly see just how disgusting
it is.  I'd like to express disagreement with the following claim,

<<To try to define any criteria to separate into categories porn,
erotic and art becomes a hopeless project.>>

I'm not sure that it's hopeless, and I think it is in fact dangerous
to believe that establishing criteria is hopeless.  That kind of
thinking leads to a reduction of all nudity to pornography, a
reduction I've been arguing against in this thread, and supports the
censorship of artworks by reducing them to something that they are
not.  I'm not saying that there aren't gray areas, but the existence
of gray areas doesn't invalidate the fact that there are vast amounts
of pornographic works that are clearly pornography and nothing else
and vast amounts of art depicting nudes that is clearly art.  Most
people follow some kind of "I know it when I see it" approach, and
most of us do in fact know it when we see it. But if we know it when
we see it, then we can take the next step and attempt to articulate
how we know it when we see it.

I think the origin of this discussion has been lost along the way, but
it all started when someone mentioned a forthcoming film version of
Paradise Lost.  Naturally, the question was raised about what the
filmmakers would do with the nudity in Milton's Eden, which prompted a
further question -- would Milton's PL, if filmed, be pornography
(hence comparisons to contemporary pornography are meaningful in this
context)?  One early answer was yes, it would be pornography.  This
early answer may have been merely hyperbole attempting to assert the
presence of the erotic in the midst of Milton's aesthetic production,
but I took issue.  A very literal film adaptation of Milton's PL need
not be pornographic, because not all depictions of nudity in aesthetic
products are pornographic, even when these depictions of nudity have
some erotic power.  Furthermore, even though Eve is continually nude,
the erotic only surfaces occasionally.  There is much more going on in
PL even when the erotic does surface.

My criteria is that pornography attempts to achieve no other effect
than sexual stimulation so has no meaningful aesthetic value, while
art pays close attention to a variety of aesthetic criteria and
attempts to achieve a range of effects.  Again, there are works that
fall into gray areas, but there are many more works that clearly fit
one category or the other.   There's no point arguing that pornography
does not achieve its attempted effect.  If it didn't, it wouldn't be a
multi-billion dollar industry that dominated internet traffic for
years until very recently.  I think if people really knew what it was
-- saw it a little bit from the inside as you have -- it wouldn't
achieve its effect, but most people are not in that position.

I'm fortunate enough to be in Austria this week for an
eighteenth-century conference.  I visited Vienna today to meet a
friend, and after we were done chatting I had time to catch a couple
of museums.  The Leopold Museum is showing some works by Klimt as part
of a recent exhibit.  Their selection of Klimt was rather limited but
still gratifying, including this painting, "Death and Life":


This work, to me, is clearly art and not pornography even though there
is partial nudity in it.  I'm more just a fan of Klimt than someone
who can read his works intelligently, so I can't comment much on the
painting.  But I think it's clear that there's more going on than its
partial nudity -- you might contrast the relatively slender figure of
death to the robust figure of life; the dark blues and blacks on
death's robes (and the crosses on them) to the bright colors and
patchwork in the life figure; and note especially that the uppermost
figure in the "life" section is a beautiful young mother holding her
nude baby.  Her look is serene and content.  She's absolutely lovely,
but provokes no sexual response in me.  If Eve were to have had
children before the fall, I believe Klimt has captured her look.  Do
you really think this painting is pornographic, or even remotely so?
Isn't this painting clearly "art and not porn"?

I think the problem is that we (as in our culture, generally) think we
cannot distinguish between pornography and art because most of us
haven't learned how to "read" art and see when aesthetic investment is
present and when it is absent.  This process isn't about reading
"hidden messages" -- the messages are perfectly clear to the trained
eye.  Many of us just lack training.  And, it takes an equally
well-trained eye to identify works that fall into gray areas.

Jim R

PS Anyone in or near Vienna should visit the Leopold while this
exhibit is up.  While there's not much Klimt, there is a very generous
representation of Egon Schiele's work, which will appeal to anyone who
appreciates Klimt.  He died at 28 so is called the James Dean of the
Viennese artists with which he associated.  Not to mention just seeing
this amazing city itself, with all of the other galleries.

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