In Defence of Honestly Depicting the Human Body. All of it.
At this stage of human evolution I should not have to be writing this. But apparently it’s a never ending story.
So I had an awkward conversation with someone I’d just met. We started talking about art, and me being an artist, this person wanted to know what kind of art I made. They shared that they wished to write a book.
I told this person. I should have kept my mouth shut.
My public art is complex and beautiful. Flowers and pets and animals; still life. My more private art examines the human body.
Currently I explore the human form using hyperrealist techniques. Life drawing. In which I have six years formal classroom training.
“You draw naked people?” they asked.
I sighed. “Not always, but yes. It’s a long established tradition in Western art. An enormous part of the human brain is dedicated to comprehending and interpreting the human body and life drawing develops this ability to authentically depict the human form.”
[My position is that science supports the idea that ‘the human condition’ is by nature the most riveting and important reality one can represent as an artist.]
But they persisted, “So you create pornography? And people buy this stuff and do what, hang it in their bedrooms?”
This was disappointing. This person was clearly offended that I, or perhaps anyone, would want to draw naked people. Clearly, for them, this was exploitation.
I tried to explain. “No. The work is provocative and explicit but not pornographic. And yes, all my work is technically for sale, but I’m not marketing this work. Each piece has a narrative behind it, a story. I strive to make an honest statement about intimate physical and emotional human interaction that is not seen or represented currently in our culture.” [This is a standard answer I often give.]
I explained how I photograph my work and post to Patreon — a community, not a sales platform.
This person was not impressed. What I failed to realize was that this person did not understand at all what I was talking about.
I am talking about art that breaks into the gallery world, the world of collectors. Big art, coming out of big ideas and deeply original and authentic effort. Art that is much more difficult to create but sells for hundreds if not thousands of times more than the little works an artist can routinely sell and ship online.
Today originality has become the near exclusive currency on which new ‘cutting edge’ artwork is evaluated. The upper five percent of the world art market is based almost exclusively on what the collector perceives in your artwork to be authentically you and ‘original’.
Your art can then impress in concept and idea, in technical innovation (craft) or as unmistakably, authentically, uniquely yours, and yours alone. Preferably all three.
Of course you may not have a gift or desire to focus on the human form specifically. That is actually unimportant. What is important is that you tell your truth when creating your artwork, regardless of the consequences.
My acquaintance was clearly put off. We won’t be meeting again.
But once again backed into a corner and ambushed. This person presented themself as a sophisticated adult but was neither emotionally nor spiritually sophisticated, yet projected an attitude of moral superiority.
And they were wrong.
So once again but this time in writing, I will carefully explain why an artist honestly and creatively depicting the human body in all its variations is not making pornography.
Because of our subject we need common and clear understanding of the words that describe what we are discussing.
From Internet dictionaries what is:
Adult : a person who has reached the age of majority, is fully grown or developed, and emotionally and mentally mature.
Creativity: the use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.
Craft: skill in carrying out one’s work.
Exploitation: the action or fact of treating someone unfairly in order to benefit from their work; or, the fact of making use of a situation to gain unfair advantage for oneself.
Explicit: adjective. describing or representing sexual activity in a graphic (clear and specific) fashion.
Erotic: relating to or tending to arouse sexual desire or excitement.
Pornographic: printed or visual material that a person has created containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity intended to stimulate sexual desire or excitement, rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings.
On being an Adult.
An Adult is an emotionally mature person: “Emotional maturity is when someone ‘of age’ can manage their emotions no matter their circumstances.”
Naturally such emotional maturity includes being in control of your emotions when challenged by art or culture that contains information or messages that are unfamiliar, disruptive, bodily or even sexual.
And this is adult stuff we are talking about.
Not for children or even young people and the immature who are not ‘adult’ yet, or not mature and experienced enough to understand and manage their responses.
Like alcohol, recreational drugs including tobacco, driving a vehicle, consenting to sexual relations, engaging in marriage, voting in elections, fighting in armed conflicts and being exposed to entertainments containing sex or violence, works of art can be meant for adults only.
We are discussing adult, grown up stuff here.
Is this permissible?
Yes. As a culture we are allowed to create and experience and discuss adult artwork. All that is required to make ‘adult only artwork’ socially allowable in our culture (in this context specifically referring to artworks dealing with legal sexual behaviors) is the agreed upon caveat ‘For adults only’.
Life drawing sessions, for example, where the models remove their clothing is For Adults Only. And the artwork produced in those drawing sessions might also be for adults only to view.
If you believe you are an adult but do not wish to discover what your experience might be when exposed to ‘for adults only’ artworks, that is your choice. You can “opt out”.
But your reticence is not a moral basis for judgment.
On being Creative.
When a person uses their imagination or original idea in the production of artwork, that artwork now contains that person’s unique creative expression, that information.
And that is it.
The stuff the artwork is made of and whatever the artwork captured while the Artist was creating it; that makes Art.
And that is all that any artwork is: stuff and information. (This definition even includes performance art.)
All else after that is inside the head of the viewer.
The idea of ‘craft’ is also extremely important. Skill without creativity is craft.
Artists learn skills to use as tools in their creative work.
But skills used without imagination or original ideas do not make artwork. They make craft.
This is why young children who have authentic, active imaginations but little craft make powerful, original artworks.
Similarly, highly skilled crafts people can make gorgeous, beautiful things but if these things contain no originality, no new ideas, no ‘creativity’, then they have not made original art. They have made craft.
At the same time idea(s) can be applied to things without any skills (crafting) and become artworks.
This is really important. Two representations can look superficially identical where one is the result of craft and the other contains the results of creativity (ideas) and thus is artwork.
And if a mature adult viewer cannot differentiate between craft and artwork then the problem exists with the viewer, not the artwork. Don’t shoot the messenger!
The most famous example is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917.
Duchamp purchased a urinal (the result of craft), wrote on it “R. Mutt 1917”, and put it on a pedestal not in the way it was designed to be used. He made art. Why? His ideas and actions with the urinal changed that object. Duchamp used his original idea (no one had thought of or had done this before) and applied it to an existing object, which then made that thing an artwork. That urinal now contained information it had not contained before. And important art people lost their s**t and tried to stop viewers from seeing his new art. They placed his Fountain behind a screen to stop viewers from seeing it.
Why? Instinctively they knew that once the idea was recognized by the viewers, the viewers would be changed, and in a way they did not approve.
What is important here is to recognize that once anything has had creativity or original idea(s) applied to it by a Creative person, that thing is now artwork and remains artwork forever, even if no one approves or accepts, and even if it resembles to various degrees or in various aspects a similar thing that is not artwork.
Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain 1917 will forever be artwork, even while it will also forever be a well crafted modern bathroom receptacle. And similarly, Neolithic cave paintings did not stop being artwork for 40,000 years because there was no one alive anymore who knew about them. That cave art was still cave art when rediscovered in our time.
There is one more lesson learned from Marcel Duchamp and his Fountain 1917: The viewer no longer gets to choose. Used to be “The Tribe” — society, tried to determine whether a “work of creativity” was art or not. But the world changed. The people running the art show in New York in 1917, that Duchamp entered his Fountain into, metaphorically crapped their pants because they suddenly realized, as did everyone thereafter as the idea spread, that the viewer of the artwork does not choose whether something they are looking at or is exposed to is or is not art.
The viewer does not choose their reaction. That is what a reaction is.
If the Creative(s) say their creation is art, then it is art. Even if you, the viewer, judge it is something else. And even at times if the artist says their creation is NOT art, it can still be art. Art is the result of a process. If that process has happened, the result is art.
It is like an idea you’ve never had before ‘pops’ into your consciousness. Does not matter what that idea is, or even if you fully understand it. You can’t honestly say you didn’t have the idea. You don’t get to choose.
But what if no one can recognize in the Work the creativity, the originality, the new ideas, the authenticity that ‘Art’ requires? Still does not matter. Not understanding is a problem with the Viewer, not the work. Society can react as they choose, and can certainly dictate to the Creative the monitary value of the work, but their judgments do not change what the creation is.
Artwork is immutable. Your approval is not required.
On being ‘Exploitative’.
To be absolutely clear, ‘life drawing’ models are not exploited.
These men and women work for money. It’s (usually) freelance employment. Their participation is completely voluntary, they work for an agreed-upon remuneration for an agreed upon period, they decide or agree on the poses they will strike, and they can leave at any time. They also have the protection of the ‘drawing master’ running the session, who is responsible for their well being and proper treatment and has the power to end the session or eject anyone behaving improperly.
For the type of figurative work I do I use illustrators’ reference books, similar public access material from the Internet, poseable figures, photos I take myself and my memory and imagination. I do not hire live models.
But there is another question: can we say that graphically depicting the human body “makes use of a situation to gain unfair advantage for oneself” ?
But what ‘situations’ and ‘unfair advantage’ are we talking about? Human bodies compared to flowers? Figurative artists over landscape painters? Are artists who depict the human figure being unfair because the human brain has far more processing power devoted to understanding the human body than, say, understanding landscapes or flowers or, well, anything else?
Or are we talking gender politics? Where supporting the patriarchy through visual imagery (because men are more visual than women), bolsters male domination? To what conclusion? Ban all visual art? Ban all art that depicts or implies the human form? Ban men from depicting the female form and only allow female gender declared persons to view female gender declared artists’ depictions of female forms?
Such is censorship.
This concept taken to its logical conclusion finds women’s bodies NOT be in artworks because they are already over exposed and exploited by all persons who view them, through direct observation and all representations: advertising, anything being sold, all design, all mechanical capture, and the pornography industry, (which should not exist at all).
To achieve this cultural end would require the world become an extreme Muslim styled culture, where a woman’s body is never seen at all, in any representation, and not even in person. [But at least women’s physical sexual characteristics would not be exploited, as long as they also never speak. Yeah! Oh, wait…]
This attitude is anti-art, anti-culture and anti-truth, even anti-life, and solves nothing. Behaving in this way denies the truth of our existence, which is that females and males are different and equal and we will constantly struggle with this reality.
Simply put, artwork depicting the human body is not inherently exploitative.
On being ‘Explicit’.
adjective. describing or representing sexual activity in a graphic (clear and specific) fashion.
What is important to understand is that ‘explicit’ is a label that is easily used in the pejorative. The word is a judgment, a shared idea that exists in viewers’ heads and is not something in the artwork itself.
“Explicitness” requires prior knowledge and symbol decoding by a person.
That is correct.
Artwork is the stuff it is made of and the information it contains, and until a viewer recognizes the information, identifies any symbols therein, and then decodes those symbols (processes and comprehends) the artwork is just stuff and information.
And this effect of art on the viewer applies to human figures (even portraits of genitalia), landscapes, all flora and fauna, still lives and abstracts of all types. All original artwork is just stuff and information.
What is key here is that in order to decode the symbols, (an arrangement of information in an artwork), the viewer must ALREADY KNOW what they are looking at. Otherwise the information in the artwork is NOT explicit, it is INFORMATIVE. Or even educational.
This is why abstract art is endlessly and constantly fascinating. The first time you view a piece of abstract art you are presented with pure information.
If you don’t know what you are looking at (or reading about or hearing or feeling), that is, if you do not recognize, (have never seen, thought or felt this before or have but are still confused), then the description or representation is NOT YET EXPLICIT, IT IS INFORMATIVE.
And the point of this distinction is that if a Creative’s representation is truly authentic original artwork then that representation contains information you the viewer could not have seen before! (Which is what “original” means!) On first viewing truly authentic original art you cannot already know completely what you are looking at. That means by definition even sexually graphic but authentically original representations when first viewed by a mature adult are not explicit but informative.
On subsequent viewings of the same artwork when no further information is learned or processed the viewer can then legitimately claim that the artwork is ‘explicit’. BUT ONLY FOR THEMSELVES.
You, a viewer, can only legitimately say, “Having evaluated this work I can say I find it explicit.”
To judge art before interacting with that artwork is prejudice (holding a preconceived opinion not based on reason or actual experience) or bigotry (an intolerance of the opinions, lifestyles, or identities different from his or her own).
As a viewer, to be bigoted and prejudicial invalidates your judgement.
However, should the sexually graphic representation not be artwork and thus contains no imagination or new ideas (but only craft) then it is possible it is pornography. But is not automatically so.
Confusion exists because pornography exploits the infinitely informative nature of the human body and the desire for ‘the new’ that also captivates (some) Creatives’ and viewers’ imaginations.
In the same way that every song can never be written because music and sound has infinite variations, or that every flower can never be painted because the combinations of objects, colours, lights and shadows is limitless, the human body can never be completely drawn or represented (in image or performance) because the variations in the human form are limitless. And our brains and bodies know this.
As well pornography exploits the newness in the crafting of the product, which helps to hide the absence of artwork and originality in performances. And that is what that stuff is, performance. But by themselves improvements in hardware or production are only improvements in craft. What remains the same is the intent behind the craft, the purpose for making it, and that is what makes such depictions pornographic.
The repetition of purpose and intent in making pornography is the reason why viewing the same ‘content’ repeatedly becomes boring: there is no new information. And our brains and bodies are designed to seek out and recognize and remember the new information that each (different to us) person presents to the world.
This is why a single pornographic picture or film is insufficient for the whole human race. There is not just one representation that everyone in the world views ad infinitum, but the opposite, an endless river of pornography. Similarly that is why there isn’t just a single painting that everyone in the world is happy to view, but a virtually limitless and on-going production of original creations: the human requirement is to experience new information.
So when viewing original artwork try not to confuse craft and the intentions of pornography with originality and creativity even when you identify explicitness in the work.
On being Erotic:
When artwork arouses sexual desire or excitement in the viewer it can be called erotic.
But again, this depends on the viewer, not the artwork. Eroticism is subjective, depending on conscious and unconscious bodily reactions in the viewer. If the artwork does not arouse sexual desire in a viewer then it is not erotic. But if it does, then it is.
The problem with judging a work of art as ‘erotic’ by its identifiable ‘subject matter’ is that almost everything in existence can be erotic.
The mature human body arouses sexual desire or excitement in other mature human bodies. And in itself. Virtually all adult human beings are erotic.
Further, erotic reactions happen automatically, independent of the mind or consciousness occupying that body (that would be your body too); being erotic and being erotically stimulated is a natural human function, like breathing or digesting.
Aside: the reality of the inherent erotic nature of the human body is what vexes women endlessly when they do not wish to be erotic and similarly frustrates men when they believe they are insufficiently erotic. Such is one of the dichotomies of the human species.
If we, mature adults, were not constantly erotic, we would be programmed by biology to rut like animals. But we don’t, so shut up.
This is how eroticism works, and why it is the Viewer’s problem, not the artwork’s:
Once a person has experienced sexual desire and excitement and remembers the circumstances of that experience almost anything in the world can trigger erotic feelings.
A person. A sports car, a train ride, a movie theatre, a picnic; a specific meal, fruit, foods, beverages, music, movies, theatres, opera, novels and writings, artworks; clubs and dance halls, roller rinks and bars; Nature, the outdoors, money, drugs, clothing, shoes, flowers; tastes, smells, sounds, touches; phallic and yonic shaped objects and symbols, perfumes and colognes. Trees in spring, bees in flower gardens, grains of sand on the beach between your toes, the smell of the ocean. Your own memories.
A more valid judgment from a viewer of original artwork should be self-reflective — “Why has this happened to me?” — followed by further contemplation of the artwork in question — “What is this original art doing, how is it doing it?”
Eroticism is a reaction in the Viewer. Eroticism is not a ‘thing’ in the artwork. Artwork is just materials and information.
On being pornographic:
The human body is not pornographic.
Only depictions created with intent can be pornographic.
The key is “intent”.
Pornography is printed or visual material that a person or persons have created AND when being created was done so with the intention to stimulate sexual desire or excitement.
This means that if the artwork was created with the intent to illicit an erotic response, then that art is also pornographic. And it does not matter what the artist has represented.
Example: if the artist made a painting of fruit intending the viewer to experience an erotic reaction when viewed, then that fruit painting is pornographic.
But if an artist made an original artwork that is a study of the wrinkly skin of a man’s testicles and while creating it did not intend the viewer to experience an erotic reaction, (but instead regard that part of the human body in an unexpected way, for example) then that ball sac is not pornography; “Maturely adult” and graphic but not pornographic; specific and accurate but not intentionally erotic.
Pornography requires intent.
Thus today we acknowledge this reality when we use terms like ‘food porn’ and the ironic ‘poverty porn’ or ‘animal porn’. The intent of these materials is to elicit a subconscious reaction in the viewer as part of a duplicitous financial manipulation. “Buy this cookbook or magazine, your life will be amazing!”- even though your life will remain unchanged. “Save the poor children!” - while your donations pay us a salary larger than your income but never correct the underlying causes.
Similarly, if the artwork was NOT created with the intent to illicit an erotic response then that material (art) is not pornographic, regardless of what is depicted.
This is a difficult reality for many people to accept, that sexually graphic depictions of human body parts are not automatically pornographic.
Pornography requires intent.
When erotic responses happen in a person and the artwork was not created for this purpose then the event is accidental and the artwork is NOT pornographic.
Art can certainly be symbolic, graphic, informative, ‘Adult’, evoke unintended erotic responses, AND NOT be pornographic. The key is intent.
Medical text books or medical Internet pages that document sexual organs or sexual functions are not pornographic NOT because of how the information was recorded or presented but because the conscious intent in the mind(s) of the people creating it was not to stimulate sexual desire or excitement but to communicate medical information.
If a person views this medical information and experiences an erotic reaction (which was unintended by the creators) then that reaction is accidental. The medical art is not pornographic because it was not intended to be so.
Again: pornography requires intent.
Another example: you met the love of your life leaving a patisserie in Paris and you are still together. That immediate connection you shared was so intense and visceral that without even thinking you went together into the tiny lavatory in the back of the bakery and made love. Ever since the rich buttery smell of freshly baked sables makes you wet between your legs. But the sables you purchased are cookies, not pornography. The smells of the patisserie are not inherently erotic or pornographic. The associated meaning for you is accidental.
Example: a security camera in a supply closet at work (from where supplies have been stolen) automatically records people having sex. Is this porn? NO. It is documentation. Machines do not have intent. Humans have intent.
Again: machines do not have intent. Humans have intent.
If you see that recording by accessing the equipment and become sexually excited that reaction is accidental. However, should a person repurpose that recording by deliberately showing it to other people for the purpose of stimulating sexual desire or excitement, then that material has been, like Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, changed by human intent. That material has become pornographic. Other copies, if made and not repurposed as such, will not be porn.
A final example: You are at the beach and take a picture of your three year old child with your sophisticated camera and later when you look at that photo you discover the camera clearly captured in the mid-ground (behind your child) a woman performing oral sex on a man. What have your done?
Have you created pornography?
Is your photo sexually explicit?
Is your image erotic?
Have you captured your child’s soul, and that of the people in the mid-ground?
NO. No one’s soul has been captured. You are thinking irrationally.
And NO. You have not made porn because you did not intend to do that. Creating pornography requires intent. Machines DO NOT have intent. And the human body is not pornographic.
Is your image explicit? Only after a knowledgeable person ‘decodes’ it. If you show the photo to a person who recognizes the sexual information in the picture, then yes. But shown to a person who does not recognize the sexual information, then no, your picture is not sexually explicit. “Explicitness” requires prior knowledge and symbol decoding by a person.
Is your image erotic? Again, only when a person who views your image feels an erotic reaction. Until then, your photo is just information.
Again: is your image pornographic? NO. That was not your intent. Bodily fluids could be shooting out of someone’s nose and your image is not pornographic because that was not your intent when you operated your camera. Your camera recorded information and made a document. Machines do not have intent. Everything else happens inside people’s heads.
Sexual information only becomes pornography with the intent to stimulate sexual desire or excitement.
How then does this reality apply to an artist depicting the human body?
When (mature adult) artists draw nude men and women (life drawing) the intent is not to make art that stimulates sexual desire or excitement but TO SOLVE THE MOST COMPLEX DRAWING PROBLEMS A HUMAN BEING CAN ATTEMPT.
QUOTE ME ON THIS:
“There is nothing as challenging for the artist than to render accurately and authentically in real time from a live subject before them the human body.”
These life drawings can be explicit and may be interpreted as erotic but regardless of content are not pornographic because the intent was to solve a creative problem, not to stimulate sexual desire.
And this DOES NOT CHANGE just because you or another viewer have recognized explicit sexual content and or experienced an erotic reaction or have applied a social judgment.
I will say this again: the viewer’s reaction, feelings or thoughts DO NOT CHANGE THE ARTWORK — what the creator intended the artwork to be while creating and what the creative process captured.
This is the magic of creativity. What the artist thinks and feels while creating is transmitted into the artwork and remains immutable.
This means that a painting of flowers executed by an artist who is constantly feeling while painting a deep desire to make love to a partner can be more erotic than a portrait of a person’s genitalia where the artist was consumed by a desire to perfectly render the contours, textures and shadows of the skin and nothing else, thus while doing so felt no sexual excitement or desire to elicit that reaction.
Or to be more creative, the Artist intended the sexually graphic rendering to elicit from the viewer more complex reactions than sexual excitements.
Lastly this: can the process of creation capture multiple intentions from the Artist? Of course.
But how can we know with certainty then what the Creative person intended? We cannot. There is no certainty. We are talking Art, not science. The point is to view, react, engage and interact, comprehend. And lastly judge if desired.
This is the reality of mature adult life: the more we believe we know, the more certain we feel we are, the bigger reality becomes. And then the more we realize how little we actually know for certain.
This is the very purpose of original art: to expand the viewer’s reality. The more there is in the artwork to comprehend, the more complexity, the better we are for engaging with it.
So hopefully I am clear. Just because an artist has created a symbol that clearly reminds you, an adult, of parts of the human body the memory of which may elicit an erotic reaction, that does not mean that you are looking at porn. Or that automatically the Artist has created porn.
You, the viewer, do not choose your reaction, nor can your judgements change what the “art” is. You do not get to choose. You are mutable, the Art is immutable.
Further, we know that “Artwork” no matter how explicit or graphic is only pornographic if that was the Creative’s intent when creating it. If the viewer discovers in the artwork original ideas that are not intended to arouse, or discerns craft used with intelligence and imagination that adds more meaning than the goal of mere arousal, then the intent can be inferred as something other than “to stimulate sexual desire or excitement”. Such “art” is not porn.
But complete certainty is not possible, because ‘art’ is a process, not a science.
And is this acceptable? Yes.
Just like other socially recognized dangers, responsibilities, actions and decisions, for ‘adult only artwork’ to be socially acceptable all that is required in our culture is the agreed upon caveat “For Adults Only”.
Ultimately the argument is this: don’t look at what you don’t want to look at. But in not looking know you forfeit engagement and illumination. And the right to judge.
And then ask yourself, as a mature adult person, “Why do I not want to look?”.