Erotic Art and Pornographic Pictures

Jerrold Levinson. Philosophy and Literature. Volume 29, Issue 1. April 2005.

Only in primitive art, with its urgent need to evoke the sources of fertility, are the phallus and the vulva emphasized, as it were innocently. By ancient Greek and Roman times there already existed the special category of the pornographic-graphic art or writing supposed, like a harlot, or pome, to sexually stimulate.


As regards philosophical analysis of the opposition between the erotic and the pornographic, there are a number of reasonable goals one might have: to preserve as many considered intuitions about the opposition as possible; to present the opposition in a clearer light than it enjoys when casually invoked; to modestly “sharpen” the standard opposition that either accounts for our experience in this domain more fully, or allows us to organize our thinking about the domain more perspicuously. I hope in this paper to make progress toward some of those goals. Though the scope of the erotic/pornographic opposition goes beyond the visual, my focus here will be the opposition as it exists in the visual sphere, and even more narrowly, in the sphere of images. In addition to preserving and clarifying a distinction between erotic art and pornography, I hope also to make an intelligible place for erotica, as something intermediate between the other two.

Here, then, are some intuitions on the erotic and the pornographic:

  1. The erotic and the pornographic are both concerned with sexual stimulation or arousal.
  2. While the term “erotic” is neutral or even approving, the term “pornographic” is pejorative or disapproving.
  3. While “erotic art” is a familiar, if somewhat problematic, notion, “pornographic art” seems an almost oxymoronic one.
  4. Whereas pornography has a paramount aim, namely, the sexual satisfaction of the viewer, erotic art, even if it also aims at sexual satisfaction on some level, includes other aims of significance.
  5. Whereas we appreciate (or relish) erotic art, we consume (or use) pornography. In other words, our interactions with erotic art and pornography are fundamentally different in character, as reflected in the verbs most appropriate to the respective engagements.

In what follows I try to accommodate all of those intuitions. As I will need a distinction invoked in the first of them (between sexual stimulation and sexual arousal) let me spell that out before proceeding. By sexual stimulation I will mean the inducing of sexual thoughts, feelings, imaginings, or desires that would generally be regarded as pleasant in themselves. By sexual arousal I mean the physiological state that is prelude and prerequisite to sexual release, involving in the male, at least, some degree of erection. And by sexual release I mean something that I take it needs no spelling out.

How to differentiate erotic art from pornography, and from erotica as well, is of course not the only important philosophical question about erotic art. Here are two others: 1) How is the erotic aspect of erotic art compatible with the disinterested or distanced frame of mind that seems required for aesthetic engagement with or appreciation of a work of visual art? 2) How is the degree of eroticness of a work of erotic art related to its artistic value? I will briefly address those two questions toward the end of the paper, but most of my effort will be devoted to the prior question, that of the differentiation of erotic art, erotica, and pornography.


How, then, to effect that differentiation in the domain of visual images to which I have restricted my inquiry? One possibility would concern the specific kind of response aimed at. Thus, erotic art might be said to involve images intended to sexually stimulate, but also to reward artistic interest; erotica to involve images intended to sexually stimulate but not to reward artistic interest; pornography to involve images intended to sexually arouse in the interests of sexual release. Another possibility would be by the character of the sexual representation involved, so that pornography would involve sexually explicit images, erotic art would involve sexually inexplicit images, and erotica images would be intermediate in their explicitness, irrespective of the ends for which the images were fashioned. A third possibility would be by the moral status of the images involved, with pornography offering morally objectionable sexual images, erotic art morally unobjectionable sexual images, and erotica sexual images of borderline moral status.

For reasons that will emerge shortly, the first tack is the only viable one for making out the threefold distinction we are after. What makes the difference among the three kinds of sexual image, in other words, is what they are for, what response they are designed to evoke, what they are meant to do to us or we with them. The stark contrast is between erotic art, which invites artistic interest, and pornography, which positively deflects such interest, whatever degree of artistic interest it might, as it were accidentally, sustain. So formulated the contrast clearly presupposes a satisfactory gloss on what artistic interest amounts to, but that will be provided shortly.

What we have, then, is a subdivision of the broad category of erotic, or intentionally sexually interesting, images, into three subcategories: erotic art, erotica, and pornography. But I maintain neither that the boundaries between these subcategories are sharp, nor that there are no examples of erotic images that perhaps fit into none of those subcategories. Though there is little need, I think, to offer examples of erotic art or pornography, it will be useful to mention an example of what to my mind counts as erotica, namely, classify provocative lingerie ads of the Victoria’s secret variety. Note also that the broad category of erotic images, at least roughly exhausted by the three subcategories I have detailed, is not as broad as the category of sexual images generally, that is, images of any sort depicting sexual phenomena, such as sexual organs or acts or conditions. Thus, illustrations in textbooks of gynecology or field guides to baboon mating behavior, though they depict sexual phenomena, do not count as erotic images, since they are not intended to interest viewers sexually; nor does security camera footage of a rape or molestation, even if in fact sexually stimulating or arousing to certain viewers.


Let me return briefly to the other options mentioned earlier for demarcating the erotic from the pornographic, namely by degree of explicitness of representation involved or by moral status of the representations involved, in order to show their unworkability. The first of these is the more easily dispatched. The fact is that, although as a rule erotic art involves representations of organs or acts that are less explicit than those of pornography, erotic art also embraces representations that are equally, if not more explicit, than those in many instances of pornography. Much of the erotic art of artists such as Schiele, Klimt, Picasso, or Dali is as explicit as any Penthouse pictorial, and this is true also of certain traditions of Japanese graphic art. Pass on to the idea of distinguishing pornography from other varieties of erotic image on moral grounds. Sometimes the defining mark of pornography is taken to be its implied attitude toward its subject, an attitude, perhaps, of demeaning or degrading them. But even if such an implied attitude is typical of pornography, it’s not clear it can be held to be an invariable feature of it, unless the mere fact that such subjects are depicted for the purposes of sexual fantasizing and arousal is taken to be demeaning or degrading. As for the idea that pornography might be conceived more loosely as erotic images that are in some way or another morally objectionable, there are at least two problems with that. First, even if a moral case could be made against most pornography, it is unlikely it can be made against it all; surely there must be morally acceptable ways of deploying sexual imagery to aid persons in achieving solitary sexual release. second, even if such a case could be made against all pornography, its morally objectionable qualities would seem to be a consequential feature of it, rather than a defining one. Compare embezzlement, or the unauthorized taking or diverting of funds for private gain in a business context. That may very well be immoral, but its immorality is not reasonably made part of the definition of embezzlement. In addition, there are plausibly cases, such as when embezzlement is undertaken to save one’s family from starvation, where embezzlement is not immoral, even though it is as a rule.


Now, what do I mean by the artistic interest or dimension of an erotic image? Roughly, its form and the relation of that form to its content; the way the content has been embodied in the form, the way the medium has been employed to convey the content. We can speak almost equivalently of the artistic intent of an image as of its artistic interest or dimension, if that is understood in a hypothetical mannermeaning the intent the image appears to manifest to have viewers attend to its artistic dimension or artistic interest. I will thus loosely alternate artistic interest, dimension, and intent in what follows, since although in another context one might want to tease them apart, for present purposes there is no need to do so.

So characterized, an image that has an artistic interest, dimension, or intent is one that is not simply seen through, or seen past, leaving one, at least in imagination, face to face with its subject. Images with an artistic dimension are thus to some extent opaque, rather than transparent. In other words, with artistic images we are invited to dwell on features of the image itself, and not merely on what the image represents. Both erotica and pornography predominantly aim at sexually affecting the viewer, one with an eye toward stimulation, the other with an eye toward arousal. They accordingly do not seek to have attention rest on the vehicle of such stimulation or arousal, the medium through which the sexual content is communicated or presented. Erotic art, though aimed in part at sexually affecting the viewer, at stimulating sexual thoughts and feelings-that’s what makes it erotic art, after all-also aims in some measure to draw the viewer’s attention to the vehicle, inviting the viewer to contemplate the relationship between the stimulation achieved and the means employed to achieve it, and more broadly, the relationship between the erotic content of the image and its other contents, such as expressive, dramatic, or religious ones.

It’s thus no accident, but highly telling, that photography is the prime medium for pornography, that which has displaced all other such media in that connection. For photography is the transparent medium par excellence, that is, the medium that comes closest to simply presenting the requisite object-typically, a woman or a man or combinations thereof-directly, as material for sexual fantasy and gratification. Though photographs of course can be art, and more specifically, erotic art, they also lend themselves extremely well to non-artistic employment, hinging on their inherent transparency, whereby they serve, if we let them, as mere aids to seeing.

As we all know, pornography is essentially a kind of substitute or surrogate for sex, whether a poor one or not we can leave aside. That is why it is appropriate to characterize it narrowly in terms of the facilitation of sexual fantasy in the name of arousal and release. And that is why to fulfill that purpose its images should be as transparent as possible-they should present the object for sexual fantasy vividly, and then, as it were, get out of the way. Nothing does that better than photography.


I turn now to a provocative essay on our subject by Matthew Kieran, whose conclusions are diametrically opposed to those I have been trying to establish. Kieran attempts to make a place for pornographic art, refusing to accept that the extension of that concept is by definition the null set, that pornographic art is indeed the oxymoron it appears to be. His attempt, however, simply shows that the works he champions are not pornographic art, or even erotica, as I use those terms, but instead erotic art of a distinctive kind, in which pornography or erotica are themselves subjects of the art in question, or in which pornography or erotica have been turned to artistic ends, and so transformed into art.

One of Kieran’s examples is the novel Vox, by Nicholson Baker, which Kieran argues counts as pornographic art, though of course we are here dealing with literature rather than visual art. But I maintain that Vox is not pornographic art, if that means it is both art and pornography, though I grant that it is, in a sense, pornographic. I will remove the air of paradox from that assertion a bit further on. What’s true of Vox is that it mimics pornography, and in particular, phone sex, appropriating its gestures, tropes, and outer appearance, but does so in order to produce a work of literature, and thus, art. And one can admit that it is, at many places, sexually stimulating, even arousing-after all, a simulacrum of something often has many of the same properties and powers. But the point is that that is not all it is, nor all it is intended to be, nor what it is ultimately aimed at producing in readers by way of experience. Vox resembles pornography, to be sure-that is obvious-but is not identical to pornography, because its paramount aim is not that of producing sexual arousal and release. Yet it is, of course, a mild turn-on, due to the effective simulation of verbal pornography it presents throughout its length, and couldn’t, in fact, achieve its artistic aims, which are variously psychological, pyrotechnic, and concerned with parody, if it weren’t.

Another of Kieran’s examples is the ensemble of erotic drawings by Gustav Klimt. His discussion of those drawings is very insightful, showing as it does how Klimt’s mastery of artistic techniques helps to focus attention on the sexual parts, features and states of the women depicted, making those drawings all the more erotic. But it is one thing to say that certain artistic devices, masterfully deployed, can enhance the erotic charge of a representation. It is quite another to say that a viewer’s focusing on those devices will enhance the representation’s erotic charge for the viewer, that is, render it more stimulating or arousing. There is every reason to think it would not, that it will rather temper the stimulation or arousal involved, replacing what is thus lost, however, with a portion of aesthetic pleasure. So what Kieran’s discussion shows, to my mind, is that Klimt’s drawings are not pornography, but rather art, albeit art that might be mistaken for pornography by inattentive viewers, or that might be used as pornography by viewers happy to lose sight of its artful fashioning and just enjoy the erotic upshot thereof.

Making room for pornography that is also art, I suggest, is a bad idea. First, allowing that something can be pornography-and not just resemble pornography, or mimic pornography, or have a pornographic flavor, or be quasi-pornographic-and art at the same time, leaves no place for the category of erotic art as distinct from pornography. second, the aims of true pornography and the aims of art, erotic art included, are not compatible, but war against one another, in the way that has already been sketched. One induces you, in the name of arousal and release, to ignore the representation so as to get at the represented, the other induces you, in the name of aesthetic delight, to dwell on the representation and to contemplate it in relation to the stimulating or arousing qualities of what is represented.

Now to remove the air of paradox from my assertion above that Vox is art, perhaps even pornographic art, but not pornography. We can say that there is pornographic art, if we just mean that there is art that has a pornographic look or character, but then such art is not yet pornography. That is, it is not both art and pornography. Analogously, there is art (for example, certain kinds of contemporary painting, such as that of Richard Estes or Alex Katz) that might be described as photographic. This means the art has a certain photographic look or character, not that it literally is photography. And there is writing, such as that found in certain kinds of newspaper articles, that can be called telegraphic, but that doesn’t literally make that writing telegraphy.

There is, in effect, a strong and a weak sense of the term “pornographic” in the expression “pornographic art.” In the strong, or conjunctive, sense, something is pornographic art if it is both art and pornography; in the weak, or modifying, sense, something is pornographic art if it is art and has a pornographic character, look, or aspect. It is only in the weak sense of “pornographic,” I submit, that there is pornographic art. And in that sense, of course, the inference from “x is pornographic art” to “x is pornography” fails. Recognizing that the expression “pornographic art” has a strong and a weak reading helps explain why many astute and progressive thinkers are as open to the idea as they are, for the ease of satisfying the weak reading of the expression creates the illusion that the strong reading is satisfied as well.

Kieran tries to dispel three considerations against pornographic art understood in the strong sense. The first consideration is that pornography is by definition non-artistic, or without artistic interest, to which Kieran replies that pornography is just highly explicit erotica, and since all admit that erotica can be art, there is thus no conceptual bar to pornography being art as well. But we have already seen that degree of explicitness cannot be the distinguishing mark of pornography, both because some erotic art is more explicit than some pornography, and because the essence of pornography arguably has something to do with what its images are for and not just what they show. The second consideration is that pornography’s central aim, namely, to sexually arouse through explicit means, militates against its achieving artistic interest, even if that is not precluded by definition, to which Kieran responds that such an aim is not in fact incompatible with achieving such interest. Kieran is right about that; there is nothing to prevent pornography from having artistic interest, even though it doesn’t aim at having it. What remains to be shown, though, is that as pornography it can be art, not just that it can have artistic interest.

The third consideration Kieran addresses comes closest to that on which my brief against pornographic art is based. It is that there is an appreciative problem about pornographic art, which makes it impossible to appreciate an object as art and as pornography at the same time, because attention to its artistic aspect entails inattention to its pornographic aspect, and vice versa. Kieran’s response to this, naturally, is to deny the conflict; however, he supports this denial only by arguing against views, such as those of Martha Nussbaum and Roger Scruton, according to which pornographic interest is necessarily objectifying or depersonalizing, and showing that it need not be. But this seems like a red herring. What needs showing is that attending to an image in order to be sexually aroused by it does not conflict with attending to an image for its artistic features, not that attending to an image for its arousal value is not in conflict with regarding the depicted subject as a person.

Properly characterized, and not simply as highly explicit erotica, pornography’s central aim, to facilitate sexual arousal in the name of sexual release, does not, as Kieran notes, preclude artistic interest from being present in an image. Yet it does, contrary to what Kieran says, militate against a viewer’s artistic engagement with the image, because it enjoins treatment of the image as transparent, as simply presenting its subject for sexual fantasizing, thus entailing inattention to the form or fashioning of the image. Hence if something answers to the central aim of pornography it can’t at the same time answer to the aims of art. Thus at the least, nothing can be coherently projected as both pornography, in the strict sense, and art.


It might be objected to my claim that the status of art and the status of pornography are mutually exclusive that pornography, understood as erotic imagery aimed at facilitating sexual arousal, fantasy and release, does not preempt artistic interest on a viewer’s part, even when recognized as pornography, since some pornography works precisely by engaging the artistic interest of the viewer. The idea, in other words, is that some images are more arousing for some viewers when such viewers attend to or concentrate on aspects of the image as such, such as its form or style or embodied point of view, rather than merely being affected by them unwittingly in various ways. I see no harm in granting this, for perhaps there is viewers whose arousal is enhanced by attending explicitly to aspects of the vehicle of arousal. But even in such cases, so long as the image is being regarded as pornography, aspects of the image are not being appreciated for their own sakes, but only as instruments to more effective arousal, fantasy, and release. If such images are intended to be so regarded, then they constitute a complex mode of pornography, aimed at a cognitively atypical viewer, rather than instances of erotic art per se. That sort of pornography-what one might call artful pornography, consisting of images that invite attention to their artistic aspects precisely so as to enhance sexual arousal or fantasy involvement on the viewer’s part-is perhaps the only serious challenge to the claim that art and pornography are necessarily disjoint. But that challenge fails nevertheless. Though for reasons already given the strategy of artful pornography is generally self-defeating, even when it is successful, and arousal is achieved precisely in virtue of the viewer’s attention having been drawn to the artistic aspect of the image, if such drawing of attention is entirely in the service of arousal aimed at, then the image remains pornography, however artful, and not art.

So there is art that has a pornographic, or arousing, dimension. And there is pornography that has an artistic, or aesthetically interesting, dimension. But the former is not thereby pornography, and the latter is not thereby art. What usefully defines and differentiates pornography and art are their central aims, and those aims are incompatible. One requires form/vehicle/fashioning to be transparent, while the other requires them to be, at least in some measure, opaque. What is arousing in pornography, generally speaking, is imagining interacting with or doing things to the depicted, usually unclothed, person, not pausing on the manner or means of depiction. Transparency of medium is all to the good of arousal, and is thus a virtual sine qua non of pornography. Opaqueness of medium is all to the good of art, but invariably weakens, and sometimes even wholly undermines, arousal.

It is instructive in the present connection to consider some famous examples of European painting that clearly flirt with the status of pornography. Consider Courbet’s notorious The Origin of the World, which graphically displays the midsection of a reclining nude woman, or Ingres’ Turkish Bath, or Velasquez’s Toilet of Venus, or Bronzino’s Allegory. Were these, perhaps, the pornography of their day, despite the fact that they now grace the walls of our finest museums of fine art? Only, I suggest, if we are speaking hyperbolically. The arousal of male viewers was undoubtedly part of the intention with which they were painted; in the case of the Courbet, made on commission for a pasha’s private viewing, which was perhaps the overriding intention. But surely the makers of those paintings intended as well that the attention of viewers be directed to features of the works themselves-the handling of paint, the arrangement of forms, the play of internal perspectives and the relation of those features to manifest sexual content. Thus those paintings count as erotic art, notwithstanding the fact that they can be regarded or employed pornographically, as perhaps they were by some of their owners.

The work of Egon Schiele, perhaps the greatest of erotic artists, is also problematic for my thesis, but can be handled similarly. The inconvenient fact is that Schiele’s manifest intention for many of his sexually-themed drawings was indeed pornographic, since they were created expressly for male patrons with precisely that sort of use in mind. There are, from my perspective, two ways to deal with this fact. The first is simply to accept that, on the conception defended here, those drawings must be accounted pornography, but pornography that it is uncommonly aesthetically rewarding, and otherwise justifiable to treat as erotic art. The second is to posit for those drawings an implicit artistic intention as robust as the explicit pornographic one, as evidenced by the finished works and their unmistakable aesthetic features, in virtue of which they can be accounted, though uneasily, erotic art after all (uneasily again, because the pornographic projection of those works is in conflict with their artistic projection).


Viewed in a certain light, it might seem odd that there is even such a thing as erotic art. The appeal of art is fairly clear, as is that of pornography, but why should there be something that, so to speak, straddles the two, given their inherent opposition? A key to the distinctive appeal of erotic art, I think, lies in this. In normal circumstances, sexual stimulation leads beyond itself, to sexual arousal and sexual activity. Sexual stimulation is normally a preliminary, an antechamber, a way station in relation to what follows. It is thus not something to which we attend, or on which we concentrate, for itself. But with erotic art, the stimulation definitive of the category is hitched to a concern for the formal and other features of the stimulating representation that anchor it in the broader category of art, which concern thus inhibits such stimulation from taking its usual path towards sexual arousal and activity. We are thus constrained to dwell in and on our state of stimulation without going beyond it, appreciating instead its relation to and interaction with the other aspects-formal, expressive, social, political-of the representation that occasions it. Part of what we enjoy in a work of erotic art can thus be described as a kind of tension-one between life and art, to put it simply-a tension that generates an edgy pleasure akin to, if not identical with, that of the sublime.


Before concluding, let me return very briefly to the other philosophical questions concerning erotic art formulated at the beginning of this paper. One concerns how, with erotic art, stimulation or arousal are compatible with aesthetic appreciation, where this is understood to entail some degree of disinterestedness or capacity for contemplation. A short answer is that stimulation and arousal have to be held in check, neither suppressed nor given completely free rein, and attention made to focus on the erotic qualities of the picture in relation to the formal means that achieve or underlie it. The other concerns how, with erotic art, the erotic quality of a work and its artistic value is related. A short answer is that the more erotic a picture is, while not becoming effectively pornographic-that is, such as to induce full-blown sexual arousal-the better as art, provided the picture’s erotic dimension is interestingly and intimately related to the other dimensions of the picture’s content, something that it may take sensitive interpretation to establish. Beyond that it would perhaps be unwise to generalize.


The central argument of this paper can be stated as follows:

  1. Erotic art consists of images centrally aimed at a certain sort of reception R1.
  2. Pornography consists of images centrally aimed at a certain sort of reception R2.
  3. R1 essentially involves attention to form/vehicle/medium/manner, and so entails treating images as in part opaque.
  4. R2 essentially excludes attention to form/vehicle/medium/manner, and so entails treating images as wholly transparent.
  5. R1 and R2 are incompatible.
  6. Hence, nothing can be both erotic art and pornography; or at the least, nothing can be coherently projected as both erotic art and pornography; or at the very least, nothing can succeed as erotic art and pornography at the same time.