Editorial: Porn

Macushla Robinson

In 2008, police visited renowned Australian artist Bill Henson’s exhibition at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. One image—a sensuous chiaroscuro photograph of a teenage girl glistening with sweat—became the centre of the unfolding controversy. Charges were not pressed, the image was returned to display, and some months later the image was officially rated PG by the office of film and television classification. Legally the incident was a non-starter, but its political ramifications were more dramatic. It sparked public debate as well as a change to the obscenity laws, such that the clause protecting artists from obscenity charges was removed.

The same debate flared up two years later, when works by two queer artists—Paul Yore and Tyza Stewart—were removed from the inaugural Sydney Contemporary art fair. Yore’s and Stewart’s works were aesthetically very different from Henson’s. Yore’s baroque, kitschy installations combined photographs, sculpture and textiles, while Stewart’s paintings—which collaged the artist’s own face onto pornographic male bodies found online—were self-portraits by an artist in a state of gender flux. The aesthetically diverse works of Henson, Yore and Stewart all elicited public reactions based on a perceived confluence of children and sex.

This issue of ​Runway Australian Experimental Art ​is titled PORN – a provocation designed to raise contentious questions, and eyebrows. There are many angles on this topic. We could debate whether pornography is liberating or dehumanising, explore its cultural nuances, study the feminist angles and the troubled ethics of the porn industry, and further consider consent, morality, normativity, economics and power dynamics. The essays and artworks in this issue touch upon many of these themes. However, since Runway’s focus is Australian contemporary art, the vexed relationship between art and porn is a primary concern of the issue as a whole.

The topic was not conceived in direct response to the controversies surrounding Henson, Yore and Stuart (the Henson case was, after all, seven years ago) and indeed none of these artists’ works are referenced within the issue itself. However these controversies hang over any discussion of art and porn in this country, particularly because of the change in legal implications for artists since the Henson case. All the artists in this issue are in the legal shadow of these incidents; they no longer have recourse to the clause that allows artists to use obscene and confronting imagery if it is for the purposes of critique.

The removal of this clause sought to shut down debates about the boundaries between art and pornography. These debates however, address important, complex questions that deserve reflection.​We must grant that the purpose of art is often to make us uncomfortable, and to question our assumptions. The featured artist Ben Terakes voices an article of faith for many contemporary artists, with his claim that the role of artists “is to act outside morality, or at least question social morality.”

The reaction to the Henson case was often untempered—a broad swathe of public opinion was reflected in Australia’s Prime minister at the time publicly condemning this artwork which he had, of course, never seen. As a curator I was disturbed by this. At the same time, I was unsettled by the implications of the art-world’s standard response to the controversy, which too often claims a radical distinction between art and pornography.1

This distinction is an old one. In 1790 Immanuel Kant gave an account of aesthetics in which he used the term ‘disinterested’ to describe the type of pleasure that arises when contemplating beauty.2 This kind of pleasure does not give rise to desire— apparently we do not desire the acres of flesh, rippling muscles, bodies under artfully placed folds of fabric, or delicious foodstuffs that fill the museums of the Western world. Such images are understood to be of a higher order than the carnal.

Many commentators have called out this canonical concept—perhaps most accessibly in the second episode of John Berger’s iconic TV series Ways of Seeing—which every Art History major would have watched in their first weeks at university. As Berger says, “aesthetics, when applied to women, are not as disinterested as the word ‘beauty’ might suggest”.

While the concept of disinterestedness has been critiqued in philosophical circles, it still plays a role in vernacular art criticism. Here, I’m not speaking of academic debates but rather of the arguments I have had with friends and family, and of the discussion as it played out in the popular press at the time of the Henson case.

It is tempting, but altogether too simple, to rely on the idea that art is somehow a world apart. I believe that artists should be able to use controversial materials to make a conceptual point, and that the (post-Henson) legal change is problematic. But at the same time, there is a dangerous tendency in popular arguments in favour of Henson to cordon off the work of art from the society in which it is produced, thereby running the risk of isolating and neutralising it. As Jack Sargent claims in this issue; “Erotica, that most middle class and depoliticised of terms, is believed to appeal to the heightened artistic sensibilities of those engaging with it, often described on terms that play on notions of sensuality.” To divorce works of art from pornography runs the risk of relegating them to the erotic. Sexual and aesthetic desires are not walled off from one another, but enmeshed. Indeed this interpenetration is part of their productive power.

If we suggest that pornography is separate to art, are we denying artists access to this ubiquitous social vernacular? By claiming for art the sanctified and perhaps sanitizing context of the museum might we actually be locking it away in a gilded prison?

In discussing art and pornography, the role of the physical gallery space is crucial—since both the platform and mechanism of distribution have an impact on the terms of this discussion. Indeed, over time the political discussion of Henson’s work settled into a comfortable explanation: namely, that the problem arose when the work moved out of the gallery space in the form of an emailed invitation. Ironically the complaint about the image on the invitation only resulted in a multiplication of the image across newspapers—both online and in print—and TV screens. The image was much more widely disseminated and decontextualized precisely because someone tried to have the work censored. Without its refined gallery context, the work changes its nature. A good example is the discussion occurred on an episode of the popular television program Q&A. Here, Labor party politician (and former activist/rock star) Peter Garrett cited the movement of the work into the digital sphere as the cause of the controversy around Bill Henson’s photographs, suggesting, in the words of Liberal Party politician Christopher Pyne, that “the internet has changed everything”.

And indeed it has. There are merits to this argument. Importantly, the argument for a gallery (rather than digital) context is that it foregrounds the importance of attending to the work of art in the flesh. Henson’s photographs are fundamentally material; dependent on scale, the quality of the print, the works that they are installed in relation to, the quality of lighting, the cadence and purpose of the space. The same can be said of the work of Tyza Stewart, Paul Yore, and indeed the artists in this issue.

But this neat and tidy explanation also raises questions of accessibility and of the role of new media publications in providing this sanctifying context. The works that are presented in this issue of Runway are not in a formal gallery space: they are online and, as photographer Drew Pettifer points out in his artist’s statement, they are able to be dramatically stripped of context with minimal effort. The artist’s intentions often fall by the wayside as images travel across screens and devices the world over—infinitely copy-and-paste-able, re-frame-able, up for grabs. To make works that are contingent upon a gallery context is challenging in an era of endless digital reproduction. In fact as this issue will show, the Internet shapes many works and equally as many works are disseminated digitally. As Adrian Gerbers writes in this issue; “It’s in the wider distribution that these images become porn, as intimate shared moments they are of a different order, individuals become abstracted in the broadcasting.”

For Drew Pettifer, it is more than the potential de-contextualisation of his work that presents a problem; it is the anxiety of public outrage, op-eds and gallery closures that may arise from their explicit content. As a result he has learned to self-censor. The photos he presents in this issue of Runway are those that he has chosen not to present publicly before now. While we must be vigilant in critiquing official forms of censorship, perhaps the most effective form of censorship is that which is ​built into us​, rather than imposed upon us from above. In self-censoring we become a site not just for the reception of power, but for its very articulation.

 

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Considered together, the works in this issue of Runway reflect the relational nature of pornography, which is typically performed both ​with​someone and (by its very nature) ​for​someone. These works also address the vexed question of context and the slippage between the worlds of art and pornography. Coupling is an inevitable theme here, both in the format of the discussion but also more literally in the images provided by some of the artists. Some of these works take up the aesthetics of porn – elements that include its often banal, harshly lit interior or its odd relationship to time, while others produce pornography that deliberately eschews such aesthetics.

There is no single emotional register on which these essays and artworks works operate, but together they demonstrate that there is drama, fun, folly and often melancholy in the work of pornography. They show that this field is far more complex and emotionally charged than we tend to give it credit for.

There are three interviews in this issue. The interview format creates a shared space on the page or screen, where there are two distinct voices instead of one. As readers, we are privy to a conversation. This in itself is kind of voyeuristic – an intellectual reflection of the structure of porn, where others act and we watch, at a remove.

The conversation between artist and writer Daniel Mudie Cunningham and writer Carrie Miller shares the writers’ personal porn histories, letting us into their fantasy worlds. Curator Toby Chapman’s interview with his flatmate—the artist Ben Terakes—draws out the artist’s evolving use of pornographic imagery: mostly objects (dildos, glory holes) rather than bodies. Like Cunningham and Miller’s conversation, it is a dialogue between friends and thus has an interpersonal and revealing tone. Whereas the first two interviews have a somewhat playful tone, curator Sebastian Goldspink’s interview with artist Samuel Hodge recounts the artist’s ambivalent experience of taking photographs on the set of a porn film. This conversation hints at a darker side of pornography, even while it opened the door to many of his later works, which are often of a sexual and entirely intimate nature.

Umberto Eco once said that we can distinguish pornography from art by the former’s use of time. Porn, says Eco, happens in real time, while art synthesises and modulates time. The narrative events in a porn film are simply spacers that string together a series of sex acts. But Eco’s argument does not, perhaps, account for the temporal experiences of the makers and viewers of porn (and art). Time is a theme of in several pieces in this issue.

The writing duo Sunday School (Diana Smith and Kelly Doley) go back in time to look at an earlier instance of women representing their own bodies and distributing these images: Pat Larter’s ‘femail’ art, now in an archive at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. They write letters to the now deceased Pat Larter, enacting a conversation, but one that breaks out of the dualistic format of the couple. In directly addressing someone who is no longer alive, they attempt to cross time.

Contemporary artist Melanie Jame Wolf’s piece ​On Time ​recounts sex-workers’ complex personal relationship with time. Here, it is not past time that is addressed, but rather time marked by, and measured in, units of erotic labour.

Like ​On Time​, Malcolm Whittaker’s ​Swearing in Swimwear ​shows a lone female performer who directly addresses the camera and through it, us. Nat Randall reclines in a small inflatable pool and, wearing a bathing suit, comes up with increasingly pornographic insults without ever repeating herself. The video presents selections from the four-hour durational performance during which the lexicon of filthy imagery continues to expand.

Nathan and Akira Lasker’s work ​Oedipals ​speaks to the theme of coupling – this time of a genetic nature. The performance shows the artists—who are twins—shaving, soaping and brushing each other’s teeth. In their proposal for this issue they said: “we attempt to reverse the splitting of birth by becoming one complete subject that shares the same subjectivity. These private moments normally conducted alone are transformed into highly affective experiences of the abject that border on incest with their homo-erotic connotations.” This is perhaps the least explicit, and yet the most uncomfortable work in the issue.

Megan Fizell’s essay​ Gastroporn ​looks at the sexual cadences of everyday activities, here: eating. She studies the work of three women artists who perform complex relationships to food. Jodie Whalen-Franco sucks on blocks of toffee, and then exercises it off. This plays out the double bind of food porn, namely that our culture constructs eating as sensual while punishing the result of eating too much. We must be at once sensual with what we put in our mouths, and slaves to the gym-body-culture that keeps us ‘attractive’.

Torrie Torrie’s video ​Meat Tray ​also riffs on the body as a consumable, this time harvesting imagery from gay porn and using collage to animate it. She deploys the aesthetics of porn in a Monty Python-esque series of videos.

Tim Walsh studies the recent exhibition of Patrick Staff’s ​The Foundation ​at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane. Staff’s work engages with social histories of queerness, centering on the ​Tom of Finland ​foundation. In the end Staff’s work also represents a couple, with an older and younger man dancing in perfect unison.

Photographer Clinton Hayden’s paired Polaroids also take up the theme of the couple via the pairing of apparently unrelated images of bodies with flowers, food and galaxies. These images represent an an abstract, sensuous coupling of different parts of the material world. While they seem intensely personal, many of these images are taken from tumblr feeds and screenshots of sex-cam sites thus performing the reverse of what Drew Pettifer speaks of in his artist’s statement: the capturing and concretising of digital, web-based imagery.

Adrian Geber’s essay on the work of Francesca Heinz situates the artist’s work in an array of digital images and practices. The right to sexual self-representation is troubled by the uncontrollable nature of the digital image, which returns to Drew Pettifer’s point that any image put online can be hijacked and redeployed. Pettifer’s images show several couples in various degrees of entanglement. They are intimate in ways that seem to go beyond the prescribed physical intimacy of mainstream pornography. This is also the case with the two videos that Jack Sargent analyses in First notes on porn and possibility​, which he reads as political appropriations of porn as a genre—one that might be liberating, rather than oppressive.

Runway has existed online for two years and, with this provocative material, we pose questions about the context in which we, as a publication, are working. What is the nature of this context? Since we cannot furnish the artworks in this issue with the museum space, we therefore run the risk of bleeding into the Internet’s mainstay – pornography. How easily are works of art dislodged from their privileged status? What does it mean when they become untethered from the labels, texts and titles that define them socially as art? I don’t have an easy answer, nor do I know where to draw the line between art and porn, though I am hesitant to declare that there is no line at all. Pornography is undeniably a part of our culture. There is no ‘proper’ boundary between art and pornography, and our attempt to draw one is perhaps fraught.

Perhaps in the end, what this issue shows is that the line is drawn differently for everyone. There are images here that make me personally uncomfortable, but they are not necessarily the same images that will make you or the person next to you uncomfortable. The fundamentally personal—yet paradoxically shared—nature of this content makes it difficult, if not impossible to classify. It is this very impossibility that we must embrace when thinking about the relationship between art and pornography. I said earlier that it is tempting to rely on the idea that art is somehow a world apart. But if this issue shows anything, it is that we must resist this temptation and instead insist on the fundamentally personal, nuanced, ambiguous nature of the relationship of art to porn, and porn to art. Art is, after all, in this world.

 


 

1. ​Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that Bill Henson’s, Paul Yore’s or Tyza Stewart’s work is pornography, nor indeed any of the works in this issue, but that the implicit opposition between art and pornography that was repeatedly invoked in their defence is problematic.

2. I have invoked Kant here as a precedent of a popular understanding of art, however the concept of disinterestedness is undoubtedly more nuanced within Kant’s own work. Such discussion is outside the scope of this editorial.

Macushla Robinson is an emerging writer and curator. She is currently the General Sir John Monash Cultural Scholar completing graduate study at the New School...


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