This article is a much-awaited piece which distinguishes art from pornography written by an eminent historian and playwright, who wrote the classic “Ang paglilitis ni Mang Serapio” and the centennial play “Illustrado” for the national hero, Jose Rizal, among other works.
Sometimes one hears the remark, “That’s not pornography; that’s art,” as though art and pornography were the opposite ends of the same spectrum: the one is not the other; something cannot be both art and pornography at the same time. I do not think, however, that the possibility of “artistic pornography” is something anyone would challenge. Similarly, no one would challenge the possibility of “pornographic art” today.
What I am saying in effect is that it is possible for something to be both art and pornography, which means that the two are not opposite ends of the same spectrum. The reason for this is that pornography has to do with the subject matter, while art has to do with the way something is made. The one does not exclude the other. When art is pornographic, then all strictures on pornography apply. Art does not excuse what is wrong. On the other hand, the fact that pornography is artistic does not make it morally acceptable; art falls under ethics and morals. The reason is that ethics and morals cover all human actions, and the creation of art is a human action.
Sometimes we are told that it is the intention of an object’s maker that makes that object pornographic or not. If, however, someone were to decide to make a pornographic billboard which he then put up, we would find it hard to call the billboard pornographic if it provoked laughter instead of leers. Pornography means etymologically “writing about harlots,” not for sociological purposes, but to produce in the reader the sort of pleasure we associate with sex. When something meant to be pornographic produces no such pleasure, then we are surely justified in wondering whether it is even pornography. The same thing is true of art. The declaration of something as art does not make it so. An artist on the other hand may decide to paint a nude. He shows it to a friend, and the friend says, “I find it too sexy” (or “very sexy”). Let us suppose this was not the artist’s intention. Let us say further he insists that he has created a work of art and will exhibit it as such. The long queue of males who obviously do not usually frequent art galleries, but who stand in line to take a look at the painting may convince him that, even if his intention was solely to create a work of art, he has unintentionally created pornography. What decides whether an object is pornographic or not is the work itself.
Let me discuss two subjects that frequently surface with regard to art and pornography. The first is nudity. The perception of a painting of a nude is not the same as the perception of a nude in a photograph. The difference is in the medium. A painting (and like it, a statue) is a representation of its subject matter; a photograph is a record of it. Between the viewer of a painting of a nude and the nude model is the painter: the painter sees the naked model and translates what he sees into a painting. When we see a painting from life, we are never actually sure whether what we see in the painting is what we would have seen in the artist’s studio had we been present while the artist was painting. On the contrary, no one intrudes, so to speak, between the viewer of a photograph of a nude and the nude model: the camera, we assume, has captured exactly what we would have seen had we been present in the studio during the photo shoot. A representation refers us as much to the author of the representation as to its subject matter; a record by definition refers us to what is recorded. The next best thing to actually seeing a person is to look at his photograph. This is the reason why we normally carry photos, not drawings, of our loved ones in our wallets. This is the reason why you will rarely (or never) find pornographic magazines illustrated with paintings and drawings: the photograph is the illustration of choice. What this means is that the ethical principles that govern gazing at a naked person govern the act of looking at photographs of naked persons, with few exceptions if any, but do not govern the viewing of paintings of naked persons. A nude in a movie, which is composed of photographs, is not the same as a nude in a painting: the difference is in the medium, and the difference determines our reaction to it.
Let me briefly consider two misunderstandings of the foregoing. One concerns the photographer: does he not “represent” as much as the painter does? Why cannot his work be called representation as well? The answer to this is a consideration of how the photographic image is produced: simply put, the film in the camera captures light waves bouncing off the subject. The camera is a passive instrument in the production of the photographic image. Its closest counterpart in the art of painting is the surface of the painting: the canvas or the paper. The photographer sets the conditions for the production of the photographic image: attending to both camera and subject. When he presses the button of the camera, however, the camera takes the picture without his direct intervention in the process: the light waves travel from subject to film without his assistance. The equivalent of the light waves in the process of painting is pigment, paintbrush, and the artist’s hand: the painted image is produced directly by the artist through the mediation of his own sense of sight. The painter is personally involved in the production of the painted image. This is why the painting sends us ultimately to the painter; in contrast, the photograph sends us directly to the model: the model, in the process by which the photographic image is produced, is the equivalent of the painter; hence, the nature of the photograph as a record of the model.
A second misunderstanding regards the nature of the painting: can not a painting be used as a record and is this not what historians do? A painting can certainly be used as a record, but that does not change what it is: it is a representation. My remarks about how we perceive paintings and photographs refer to what paintings and photographs are respectively. Paintings and photographs may be used for a variety of purposes, but these purposes do not affect what they are and consequently how we perceive them whether as paintings or photographs.
The second subject related to art and pornography is the depiction of erotica. Sometimes the argument is given that realism demands the depiction of erotica, which is, after all, very much a part of human reality. What the argument usually forgets is that part of the reality of human sexual love is intimacy. By “intimacy” I do not mean “an amorously familiar act” or “sexual intercourse,” both meanings given by the dictionary for “intimacy.” I mean rather “privacy”—yet another meaning of “intimacy.” The human being is the only animal that engages in sexual intercourse in private. Intimacy in the sense of privacy is part of the reality of human sexual relations, and so the artist who wishes to depict erotica in the name of realism must include this in his depiction. Is this possible at all? Does not the very nature of depiction, which consists in the public presentation of something, violate intimacy? The problem is not as difficult in literature as it is in the visual arts and is at its most challenging in the theater. We know how some filmmakers try to solve the problem: medium shots limited to head and shoulders of the couple. The special nature of such scenes, however, even with the precautions taken by filmmakers, usually spells the difference in the rating of films.
Let me spend some space on intimacy. “Privacy” merely hints at the deeper meaning of the word. Other meanings are “a close, familiar, and usually affectionate or loving personal relationship with another person or group” and “an act or expression serving as a token of familiarity, affection, or the like.” These meanings are all related—even “privacy,” “an amorously familiar act,” and “sexual intercourse.” I like to think of intimacy as an inner space in each person into which we welcome only people we trust, friends. It is related to the Tagalog kalooban. Only persons have intimacy; animals and things do not. When we say of someone in Tagalog that “nagbukas siya ng kalooban” (“he opened up”), the sense is not so much something private being made public as rather allowing someone entrance into one’s private life. Intimacy is very much related to one’s personhood, to one’s being a person.
The opposite of being a person is being an object. It is a violation of personhood to treat someone like an object.Historically, there have been two ways in which human beings have tended to treat other human beings as objects—as slaves and as prostitutes. We know this is wrong. Feminists rightly complain about women being made into objects. All the preceding discussion of nudity and erotica in film is really about preventing people from being treated like objects. The main difference between a pornographic film and a pornographic novel is that the former uses photographs of real persons, real naked persons: it involves the violation of the personhood of real people, something you don’t have in pornographic literature.
The argument is sometimes given that erotica is allowable in a work of art if its context justifies it, as when it is called for by the plot of a film. In reply, however, we should point out that the negative ethical character of pornography comes precisely from its being the great de-contextualizer. Pornography has the nature of a stimulus working on the imagination through the senses. That stimulus is always presented in a context: the context of a painting or the context of a piece of literature. The person that uses pornography to stimulate his imagination precisely detaches the stimulating image or scene from its context, isolating its erotic charge or investing the image or scene with an erotic value on which the imagination concentrates. De-contextualization is the characteristic of the patron of pornography who detaches sex itself from its proper context in human reality; thus, the placement of an erotic scene in a specific context does not insure it will not be used as a sexual stimulus.
Any dictionary will furnish you a definition of pornography. I would like to consider, however, three different meanings that pornography may have. I call the first the personal meaning of pornography, what it means in the life of a particular individual. The second is the social meaning of pornography, what it means in relation to the life of the people who make up a society, which is viewed as consisting of children, adolescents, and adults. The third is the legal meaning of pornography, which considers the forms of pornography considered pernicious for society as a whole, whether children, adolescents, or adults. These three should not be confused with one another.
The first meaning of pornography is the primary one: what it means to the individual. By this I do not mean to propose a subjectivistic view of pornography, to claim that pornography is what you claim it to be. Enough people agree on the meaning of pornography for it to have a definition in the dictionary. Persons may differ, however, in what actually serves as an effective stimulus to their imagination to provoke sexual pleasure: some may be more affected visually; others by sounds; still others may be affected only by graphic representations; some others, by what most other people would consider innocent pictures. I do not mean to claim that there are wide radical differences between what seduces (in the manner of the harlots being written about) different individuals. Doubtless, most people are seduced by the same sounds, images, or descriptions; otherwise, pornography would not be the multi-billion dollar industry it now is. Nevertheless, individual differences do exist, and these are what the personal meaning of pornography encompasses. It won’t do to say one can look at a photograph one finds stimulating, on the grounds that everyone else is not stimulated by it; the point is you are, and so for you, thatphotograph is in effect pornographic.
The second meaning of pornography is best understood as the understanding parents have of in mind when they educate their children in handling pornography. This meaning differs from the first because now we have the case of someone considering the meaning of pornography not exclusively for himself but also for others. Father or mother are invariably influenced by the personal meaning pornography has for them. Part of the second meaning of pornography is what we may call its conventional meaning—what most people think it is.
The third meaning of pornography is as the law defines it. If the second meaning of pornography is the result of society’s concern for its younger citizens, the third meaning reflects society’s concern to avoid pollution, to avoid having an environment that is not healthy for anyone, be he adult, adolescent, or child.
These three different meanings of pornography should not be confused with one another; otherwise, many problems arise. It would be a mistake for society as a whole or the individuals who make it up to reduce pornography to its legal definition. It would be a mistake for parents to allow the personal meaning pornography has in their lives to dictate how to educate their children in handling pornography.
We should not forget that what ethics demands of the human being is not avoiding pornography, but rather cultivating the virtue of purity or chastity. Avoiding pornography makes sense only if one struggles to cultivate the virtue of purity; otherwise, one cultivates neuroses. Part of the struggle is the education of the eyes to be able to see chastely works of art whose theme is the beauty of the human body. There are certain professions which demand a special education of the senses with regard to the naked human body. Consider the physician, the painter, and the film critic. In their professions, they must develop certain strategies to avoid violating ethical principles, while going about their professional work. To a certain extent the ordinary adult is expected to develop similar habits. That is the meaning of films restricted to adults. Obviously, these will not be films that violate the laws of the country regarding pornography, and yet, because of their delicate subject matter, they are restricted to adults. The assumption here is that the adult has a measure of self-control the adolescent does not have, that he knows how to see without looking and when to do so, that he knows, because he knows himself, when to avert his eyes or when to distract his mind from what he hears. He knows as well when to get up and leave.
More than two thousand years ago Aristotle observed that the best guide in matters ethical is the virtuous man. We recognize that. We do not usually choose for film review boards the most depraved members of the community. When in doubt about our own reaction to a particular film or artwork, our guide should be the virtuous man who may tell us we did right averting our gaze or that we should school ourselves gradually in looking.
This is an original article printed by permission from the author.