Aesthetic Interest, Fiction and the Appreciation of Pornography


Left: Jo Champa, Chelsea Hotel, NYC, Helmut Newton, 1988. Right: Sasha Grey

by Cain Todd

Locating the murky distinction between pornography and erotic art has long exercised minds in many domains, philosophy amongst them. One of the chief ways in which philosophers have sought to draw the distinction is by illuminating the nature of the different types of appreciation specific and appropriate to each. A particularly influential way of doing this appeals to the idea that pornographic works, qua pornographic, cannot, or at least typically do not engage genuine aesthetic interest or contain genuine aesthetic value. It has, for example, been argued that the aesthetic appreciation of representational artworks – the erotic included – necessarily involves an appreciation of the formal features of the artistic medium itself, and not merely of what the image represents. How the image is made is as much an object of interest and value as what it is of. Aesthetic appreciation aims at, and aesthetic value consists in, a perfect marriage of form and content.

Pornography, so this line of argument runs, discourages attention to these formal qualities because such attention distracts from the intrinsic aim of such works: to sexually arouse the viewer in virtue of the appreciation of the content represented. Pornographic images, and the appreciation peculiar to them, are in this way held to be transparent. We look, so to speak, through the formal features in order to get straight to the pornographic content. Indeed, a stronger claim might be maintained, namely that pornography not merely discourages, but by its very nature precludes such interest. As such, it appears to follow that one cannot aesthetically appreciate pornographic works qua pornographic.

In contrast, although erotic art also aims in part to sexually stimulate the viewer, its intrinsic aim is to accomplish this by inviting and repaying attention to the way in which such content is represented. Hence its genuinely aesthetic and artistic credentials.

There is clearly something intuitively right about this line of thought. Manifestations of strong sexual desire do seem to consist, at least in large part, in the subject eschewing everything that might hinder or distract from the primary goal of achieving sexual satisfaction. In this way, it might seem that the appreciation of pornographic representations will best achieve this aim through transparency. After all, sexual arousal can be a fickle beast, easily deflated by any shifts in awareness that deflect attention from the task at hand. Insofar as sexual desire operates like this, requiring a particular kind of unitary, direct, immediate satisfaction, transparency in representation may well be crucial.

Nonetheless, quick reflection on the various forms and content of real sexual arousal and desire shows that such a story offers an overly simplified picture, describing just one aspect of the psychologically complex phenomenon that is human sexual desire.

Ryan Keely and Lexi Belle

There is no space here to make a comprehensive list of the types of pornographic representations and the variegated sexual interests they aim to satisfy. However, in order to demonstrate that pornographic appreciation may involve simultaneous aesthetic appreciation, we can invoke a distinction between what I shall call ‘fictional’ and ‘non-fictional’ pornography.

Roughly, non-fictional pornography simply presents – or is taken to present – real people having sex, and the objects of sexual desire will in such cases often be the real people and scenes therein depicted. In the appreciation of non-fictional pornography, the transparency of our appreciation seems most applicable. The straightforward depiction of real people simply having sex will normally fulfill its aims by eschewing any engagement with the aesthetic features of the image for their own sake. To the extent that we become distracted by them, to that extent our sexual arousal will be hindered and the aim of sexual desire potentially thwarted.

Fictional pornography, on the other hand, presents – or is taken to present – fictional narratives, where actors take on character roles and where fictional actions and events are represented for us to be imaginatively engaged with. Here the object of the sexual desire may be a fictional character or fictional state of affairs. Fictional pornography invites us to imagine that some situation or other is taking place and to view the actors as fictional characters in the drama. Often we remain imaginary voyeurs of such representations, but we may also participate in imagination in the fictional scenes, either as ourselves, or as standing in the shoes (or embroiled in the bedclothes) of the participants we are observing.

I suggest that in the case of fictional pornography there is every reason to think not just that we are generally interested in the formal features of the images for their own sake, nor that this interest merely enables us to enjoy the content, but that such interest may itself constitute (at least in part) the sexually arousing content. Form and content are inextricably intertwined in fictional pornography because appreciation of the way in which the content is presented plays an essential – and not merely instrumental – role in our imaginative engagement with the sexually arousing nature of this content. There is no space to argue fully for the claim here, but fictional pornography, I contend, engages the same type of appreciation as the genuinely aesthetic appreciation of fictional artworks, with the added dimension of sexual stimulation.

Particularly striking examples of such cases occur when one finds the projected point of view of the implied voyeur or narrator itself sexually arousing. It is the precise, erotic way in which our gaze is directed by the camera – and perhaps also by dialogue – at the scene and its participants, and hence the way in which they are presented for us, that we find sexually arousing. In such cases both the perceptual features of the medium and the way in which one’s gaze is directed to them (both really and in imagination) can be appreciated for their own sake in virtue of the sexually arousing content they are employed to convey. In other words, what is simultaneously appreciated is both the form and the content and the particular relationship between them.

Tera Patrick, Virtual Wife

If this is on the right track, the distinction between types of pornographic works and the appreciative attitudes proper to them is, I think, more apt than the erotic/pornographic distinction. We might, indeed, be able to subsume the erotic beneath the fictional-pornographic, but the distinction itself can begin to look like a merely verbal dispute about classification, and hence without much philosophical interest. It is far more important to acknowledge that the way in which we make the distinction between fictional and non-fictional pornography depends profoundly on particular, contingent circumstances involving, amongst other things, an indefinite range of possible imaginative appreciative projects, sexual desires, degrees of attention, and types of pornographic works. In short, the transparency claim looks, at best, contingently true of only a limited class of objects and appreciative projects that are not simply co-extensive with pornography per se.

About the Author:

Cain Todd is Lecturer in Philosophy at Lancaster University. His principal research concerns issues in aesthetics that have connections to issues in ethics, philosophy of mind, and epistemology. He is the author of The Philosophy of Wine: A Case of Truth, Beauty, and Intoxication.