Saturday, 12 April 2014

But is it art?


 Woman Bathing in a Stream, by Rembrandt, 1654

Believe it or not, I started writing this post intending it to be just a snappy little conversation starter. I hope it succeeds as a conversation starter, but I think it’s safe to say it has grown beyond being a ‘snappy little’ anything.

Anyway, I appreciate it’s a long post, but I hope you find it interesting enough to have a read. And I’d be interested to find out what you think if you’d like to leave a comment. So...

Just some thoughts about definitions and labels.  What is erotica? What is pornography? And is there an absolute distinction between the two?

For my part, I’m entirely comfortable thinking of myself as a writer of erotica, or erotic fiction. But am I as comfortable thinking of myself as an author of pornography?

To be honest, I’m not too sure I am. And I suspect it is because the terms ‘erotica’ and ‘pornography’ seem to connote different ideas and feelings, at least in a socio-cultural context, which is to say that each term seems to bring its own baggage.

Which is precisely what I’m getting at here. Is there really a definitive distinction between these terms, or is any difference really just down to extraneous cultural values insinuated into the words?

I don’t feel I have a conclusive answer to this question; I’m just kind of ruminating really. But I know some people recognise a distinction and make it clear they condone the one and disapprove of the other, or they are ‘okay’ with the one but not with the other; or they like the one and dislike the other, or they write the one but not the other.

I think where I’m at on this issue is that I don’t feel any need to be overly stringent in applying labels and drawing dividing lines. To me, these terms are pointers to an area of human experience that is richly layered, multi-faceted and widely nuanced, and this is enough for me. Within the framework of that subject matter, I personally don’t wish to apply categories to pigeonhole one term as ‘okay’ or ‘acceptable’, and the other as ‘not okay’ or ‘unacceptable’. I just don’t think it’s that simple.

But out of curiosity, let’s look at some dictionary definitions. For the sake of convenience, I’ll stick to using three dictionaries as we explore the words’ meanings -

Firstly, for the noun erotica -

Penguin Concise English Dictionary - literature or art with an erotic theme or quality

Dictionary.com - literature or art dealing with sexual love.

Oxford English Dictionary (Pocket Edition) - erotic literature or art

And to understand these explanations we need, of course, to understand the meaning of the adjective erotic - 

Penguin Concise English Dictionary - concerned with or tending to arouse sexual desire

Dictionary.com - 1) arousing or satisfying sexual desire. 2) of, pertaining to, or treating of sexual love; amatory. 3) subject to or marked by strong sexual desire.

Oxford English Dictionary (Pocket Edition) - relating to or causing sexual desire or excitement

Okay, no real surprises for any of us there, I'd venture.

Now, on to the noun pornography -

Penguin Concise English Dictionary - books, photographs, films, etc containing erotic material intended to cause sexual excitement.

Dictionary.com - obscene writings, drawings, photographs, or the like, especially those having little or no artistic merit. 

Oxford English Dictionary (Pocket Edition) - pictures, writing, or films that are intended to arouse sexual excitement

Some interesting static occurring in the middle there at Dictionary.com, which we can look more closely at in a moment, but otherwise, as concerns the Penguin and Oxford dictionaries, there would appear to be no substantive, definitive difference between erotica and pornography (bearing in mind that 'erotic' is defined as 'concerned with or tending to arouse sexual desire') -

Penguinerotica: literature or art with an erotic theme or quality; pornography: books, photographs, films, etc containing erotic material intended to cause sexual excitement.

Oxford erotica: erotic literature or art; pornography: pictures, writing, or films that are intended to arouse sexual excitement.

In this light, it doesn’t bother me whether I think of myself as writing erotica or pornography. Both are about sexual desire and the intention to sexually arouse.

Well, I’m cool with that; that’s what my writing is. In this context, I’m a pornographer, which is to say that I’m an author of erotic fiction.

But hold on just one tingly-tickety-boo there! Let’s just review that last comparison using the Penguin and the Oxford dictionaries again.

Notice how erotica is about literature and art but pornography is about writing, books, photographs, films etc.

Erotica is literature or art concerned with or tending to arouse sexual desire or excitement, whereas pornography is just writing, books, photographs or films etc intended to cause sexual excitement.

So, both are intended to cause sexual excitement, but one is art while the other is just photographs and that kind of thing; one is literature while the other is just writing and stuff.

Hmm. It appears I have to decide whether what I produce is literature or just writing. And then I can be clear whether I write erotica or pornography.

Oh my goodness! Am I up to the task? I really don’t think so, except that I know I try to write interesting stories and write them well. Does that count?

Maybe I ought now to look up the definition of literature -

Penguin Concise English Dictionary - writings in prose or verse, especially those having artistic value or merit.

Dictionary.com - writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features, as poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays.

Oxford English Dictionary (Pocket Edition) - written works that are regarded as having artistic merit.

Well, I guess, to cut to the chase, it’s about whether a piece of writing has artistic merit.

(I think the middle definition is a bit unhelpful in describing literature as having characteristic or essential features of expression and form. Is it not the case that expression and form are the characteristic and essential features of any and all writing? In fact is that not what writing is – expression and form? Anyway, onwards...)

So, we have arrived at the precipice of the discussion of what constitutes art. Does a piece of writing or a photograph or a film etc have artistic merit?

Tricky. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder etc.

For my part, I certainly try to create something of artistic merit, but whether I succeed or fail is another matter. Who decides if my writing has artistic merit? The individual reader, I suppose.

As for what I feel about my writing, yes, I like to think it has artistic merit. Does that mean I think I write literature? Trickier still. But if I don’t write literature, just writing, then am I a pornographer and not an author of erotica? Mostest trickiest yettest.

I dunno. I’m comfortable with the term ‘erotic fiction’ and with thinking of myself as an author of erotica. Not so comfortable with the label of pornography. Maybe that’s all I can say. It seems I’m afflicted with the socio-cultural baggage that makes the term ‘pornography’ feel less noble than the term ‘erotica’.

But that other definition of pornography, from Dictionary.com, the one we were going to come back and look at, is another matter entirely -

Dictionary.com - obscene writings, drawings, photographs, or the like, especially those having little or no artistic merit.

This expressly slams pornography as being obscene and essentially bereft of artistic value. And what, we might wonder, according to this dictionary, does it mean when it says something is ‘obscene’? -

1. offensive to morality or decency; indecent; depraved.
2. causing uncontrolled sexual desire.
3. abominable; disgusting; repulsive.

So pornography is asserted by this source to be offensive to morality, depraved, causing uncontrolled sexual desire, abominable, disgusting, repulsive.

Well, there’s all that baggage I mentioned. In fact, that’s a whole huge dedicated warehouse full of baggage, isn’t it?

Morally offensive, abominable, disgusting, repulsive. I think this definition is far too loaded for my liking. I’m not at all sure why pornography causes ‘uncontrolled sexual desire’ but erotica, as literature, merely arouses or causes ‘sexual desire’.

The term ‘uncontrolled’ is very strong, and one that could potentially have some disturbing negative implications if one perceives a distinction between something merely causing normal, run-of-the-mill sexual desire or something causing uncontrolled sexual desire.

Now, let me be clear, I’m not having a pop at Dictionary.com. Not at all. I use them a lot, and I think it’s a truly great site. But in using them as one example in this comparison exercise it just so happens their entry for ‘pornography’ highlights exactly the issues I’m asking about in querying if there really is a definitive distinction between the two terms under consideration or whether it’s just socio-cultural overlay.

Dictionary.com perhaps merely expresses more explicitly the same distinction discoverable in the definitions proffered by the other two dictionaries when they distinguish between literature and art on the one hand, and writing and photographs etc on the other.

Although, personally, I still think the Dictionary.com entry for ‘pornography’ is a little heavy handed when it denounces it as necessarily obscene. Because, unless you consider sexual excitement in and of itself to be intrinsically morally offensive, abominable, disgusting or repulsive, then how can you decry ‘pornography’ as being intrinsically obscene but not also likewise denounce ‘literature or art dealing with sexual love’ as being essentially obscene?

But here is that very cultural overlay, that cultural baggage, which insinuates a derogatory meaning into one word, and a totally different meaning, alluding to artistic merit, into another word, even though we have seen that both words mean essentially the same thing.

Erotica is erotic literature or art; that which is erotic being that which relates to or causes sexual desire or excitement. Pornography is pictures, writing, or films that are intended to arouse sexual excitement.

But distinguishing between these two terms, we have both an artistic value judgement and a strong moral judgement being made. It appears that ideas associated with any given term can be determined more by the social context than by the substance of actual definition, although the source of reference evidently plays some part in suggesting where this determining line may be said to fall.

At the end of all this, I’m not sure I’ve clarified anything either for myself or anyone else, except perhaps to confirm the strength of influence that socio-cultural values have upon language.

Moral and artistic judgements aside, though, I can finally only go by what I feel comfortable with. I like the subject of sexuality, I like things that I find to be sexually arousing, I like erotic and sensual art in its various forms, I like erotic fiction, I like good writing, and I like trying to write well and engagingly myself.

And do I like pornography? Well, I think somewhere in there I just said that I do, didn’t I?

Is it erotica? Is it porn? Is it art? Is it obscene? Is it exciting? Is it repulsive? Is it okay? Is it taboo? Is it good? Is it bad?

I’d be interested to know your thoughts.

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